How student protests inspire

A few thoughts:

One of the teetering Right’s favoured anti anti-cuts tactics is to dismiss UKuncut’s movers and shakers as unrepresentative gremlins.

“I do not see any blacks protesting – wonder why,” one charmer observed under a video I posted of last week’s anti-cuts demonstration at Lewisham council.

The point of that and similar comments is, of course, that the Lewisham protestors were neither local, nor representative, and that actions like the Lewisham one could comfortably be written off as the deviant recreations of a small posse of middle-class Goldsmiths Trots.

Which was wrong.

The videos below are short clips of some of the people who spoke at Lewisham just before the crowd charged the hall. The first was a teacher from John Roan school. The second spoke on behalf of the now rather ironically-named Open Doors. Open Doors is/was a popular, help-to-employment service that will shut its doors in February – a casualty of the cuts programme that Steve Bullock’s council signed off last Monday. The third was a speaker from the local pensioners’ forum.

You’ll note from the clips that there was a range of genders, political viewpoints and ethnic groups at Lewisham. People had a good few things in common, though: extraordinary gratitude to the student movement, fury at public-sector cuts, and a willingness to rush the hall. The Right can shout those things down, I suppose, but that doesn’t quite change the fact of them:

Lewisham protests

All on tonight at a Lewisham council meeting where councillors gathered to vote on a nasty and very controversial programme of cuts in this most deprived of boroughs.

Locals have long been furious at Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock’s perceived willingness to offer local services to Osborne’s scythe.

“It would be easy to declare our opposition to the cuts the coalition is proposing,’ Sir Steve told us at the council’s AGM way back in June.

It’s even easier, it seems, to put up no opposition at all. Locals have gone mad at Bullock’s proposals to cut libraries, refuse services and staff (especially in a borough that depends on council for employment to the extent this one does). As early as June, Lewisham had bullocked ahead and forecast a budget gap of up to £60m for 2011 to 2014 (although though it was still in the dark about government plans for key grants). People expect (for reasons that will forever escape me) a little more from Labour. It has been clear for a while that Sir Steve ought to keep an eye on the tide.

This evening, he tried to ignore it. Several hundred people turned up to protest at the early-evening council meeting. All went well, until they heard the public gallery would be restricted to 40. Then, someone said 28. Then, people decided they’d head in regardless. Why didn’t Bullock hold this meeting in a large hall somewhere and have it out?

Here are a few videos I shot during the rush.

Mark Elms, Labour and other targets

We puddle now through the rain to Lewisham Town Hall, where local Labour centrist legend Sir Steve Bullock is due to hold a cabinet meeting on service cuts.

Sir Steve’s cabinet is positioning the ax (with a perverse enthusiasm, some say) over services the council could cut to fund its £3m share of the government’s in-year demand for £1.16bn local government savings.

But that, alas, is not all. Weirdly keen to shine in this first leg of the coalition’s local government service-slaughter challenge, Lewisham council has bullocked ahead and forecast a budget gap of up to £60m for 2011 to 2014 (although it’s still in the dark about government plans for key grants). It has already instructed officers to identify services to push up front for this second phase of the massacre. There’s little evidence the council is fighting for alternatives to keep the poor in this deprived borough afloat – moderate council tax increases in the top bands next year (the council is not compelled to accept Osborne’s incentives to keep increases down) or halts to the capital and PFI programme.

‘It would be easy to declare our opposition to the cuts the coalition is proposing,’ Bullock said in his May AGM address, as he piddled on any notion of combat with the government.

It is easiest of all to embrace the cuts ethos wholeheartedly. Lewisham cuts targets include a mass of jobs in the children and young people’s service, adult social care jobs and care packages, and daycare support for people with learning disabilities. Increased charges are proposed for services like meals on wheels and non-residential care (the complete hitlist is here).

It’s all very Hammersmith and Fulham when you get down to it. H&F Tories partly financed their much-celebrated lowered council tax by charging elderly and disabled people more for services like meals on wheels and homecare – the council ‘sacrificed free home care on the altar of a council tax reduction for which there was no legal requirement,’ Lord Justice Sedley said when three local people sought a judicial review of the Hammersmith charging decision.

The three didn’t win their review, but they drew attention to the truth of Hammersmith’s low council tax. I know that Labour readers will thrash me for comparing one of their councils with H&F’s Tory basketcases, but I’ll do it anyway, and will welcome a proper discussion when everyone calms down. Alternatives to cuts on the Lewishams scale must be found. After all, we’re supposed to be in this together. We’re not if local solutions are about piling costs on the poor.

I digress. Back to Lewisham town hall, where the NUT fronts a healthy-sized rally as the cabinet prepares to meet:

Lewisham cuts protesters

More photos from the event

I dip a toe in the rally, where I find that it is indeed Bullock and Lewisham Labour that people want to scrag. The coalition government gets a pass to quite an extent. The PCS is here, as well as the NUT and NASUWT, which means it’s just like the good old days, before the Tories got in – leftwing unions outside a town hall, screaming bloody death at the local Labour in-crowd. I waft round in an odd wave of nostalgia.

I speak to Kathy Duggan, a local primary school teacher, and NASUWT’s Lewisham secretary. She talks about the council’s response to the cuts agenda, and Gove’s plans for schools and academies, as you’ll see. She’s also furious about Mark Elms and his £200,000+ salary – boy, the unions came down hard on that one:

I also speak to Karen Jonason – a soon-to-retire deputy headteacher at Lewisham’s Pendragon school for children with learning disabilities. She’s circulating a petition to keep Crofton Park library open (Sydenham, Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park and New Cross libraries are tagged for closure on Bullock’s list). She’s also a longtime Labour party member. She makes no excuse for this, even though I ask her to. ‘You fight from within.’

She thinks targeting Crofton Park library is ridiculous – ‘it’s always full of people, with kids always on the computers.’ Elderly people are regular library visitors, which Jonason believes saves the council money – ‘there’s a direct relationship between people staying active in the community and being able to live independently and look after themselves.’ The council believes that its libraries proposal would save about £750k – an amount Jonason feels is small beer.

Jonason’s argument is with council priorities – if money must be found, building and refurbishment work should be postponed ahead of cutting ‘small services’ like neighbourhood libraries.

I couldn’t agree more. There’s big money in these parts, but you need to know where to look for it. The council’s dreadful, and dreadfully expensive, PFI contracting process to date would be an excellent place to start – the National Audit Office has just rapped Lewisham’s knuckles for allowing its Brockley Housing project costs to increase from £44.6m to an extraordinary £115.91 million. Osborne’s spending review will assess PFIs, and the NAO is keen to hear more about their value:

As part of planned assessment of PFI housing through the 2010 comprehensive spending review and in view of a period of restraint and efficiencies in public sector spending, the department (for communities and local government) should consider PFI in the context of its other housing investment programmes, assess the different types of project used and ensure that value for money is a primary focus in terms of the selection of PFI as an investment option.

That’s where the real money is. Jonason knows, and I know, and we all know that these immediate service-slashing economies are false economies. Bullock’s huge list targets people we (literally) can’t afford to target. Makes you wonder what will happen when we really need to save.

An amusing little update: in another Gillian Duffy moment (time Labour politicians were shown the off-switches on their microphones) Sir Steve calls his concerned constituents fucking idiots. And me paying Lewisham well over £100 a month in council tax, too. How rude.

Lord Justice Sedley continued:

‘The object of this exercise was the sacrifice of free home care on the altar of a council tax reduction for which there was no legal requirement.

Poor people: too declasse to save?


During the recent election campaign, I attended a packed parliamentary candidates’ hustings meeting in Lewisham-Deptford, my home manor. I bring it to you now as evidence that anyone relying on the political class to fight for public services should head out now to lie down on the M4 (the middle class does seem prepared to sacrifice the poor).

The meeting was just so appallingly civilised.

Five prospective MPs sat before the voting public in the middle of a recession, an expenses scandal, a public services funding crisis and – lest we forget – a war, and people just sat there and politely heard all five out. I found it hard to credit.

Perhaps we were looking at a crisis of representation. The audience was overwhelmingly white (which Lewisham-Deptford is not), apparently well-appointed, and inclined to kowtow, as the middle class seems fated to when presented with a lineup of wannabe service-cutting zealots. Well-mannered people asked civilised questions about MPs’ expenses, and touched on the recession and topup fees. Their prospective overlords gave answer in turn. I can say for a fact that I’ve been to less cuddly key parties. Middle class foment was as wedded to the horizon as it ever has been.

Things almost picked up about 20 minutes in when a commotion kicked off down the back, but alas – nothing useful was allowed to come of it. A young, local black man made his way into the meeting. His name was Tony Hambolu and he told us that lived on Deptford’s Tanners Hill estate. Straightaway, he got stuck into incumbent and prospective candidates about his cramped living conditions, and unemployment, benefits and social problems on Tanners Hill. He had to shout to make himself heard over a suddenly-ranting, one-issue long-hair – a bloke who had the face to tell Hambolu to shut up and stick to relevant topics, as you’ll see in the video below – but he stuck with it for as long as he could.

Hambolu saw the problem with the meeting – and indeed with millennium politics – immediately.

‘When they’re sitting in your face, you don’t want to tell them the truth!” he yelled at his fellow audience members while pointing at the candidates. ‘There are people in council flats that have got six children, living in a three bedroom flat, living on benefits every two weeks. What do you want to do about it? Please tell me. How are you going to help people? How are you going to help people?’

‘Let’s stick to the issue,’ the ranting socialist said. ‘Let’s stick to the real issue, which is environment and technology.’

Hambolu didn’t think environment and technology was the real issue, particularly. The yelling went on for a while. ‘You’re all full of shit, man,’ the kid said in the end. He stomped out. That, unfortunately, was that. Nobody on the platform, or in the audience, asked him to stay, or went outside to call him back in, or insisted that the candidates dealt with the points that he raised.

A commentator on a Deptford blog later put it this way:

“Tony had a point, but talked over everyone, lost his temper and ended up effing and blinding. His emotions got the better of him – a real shame because he really had something to say.”

There was an uncomfortable truth in there somewhere: that people may participate in democracy, but they must toe arse-tight etiquette lines while at it. Raise a difficult point in a loud, angry voice, and you’ll be abandoned on the grounds of taste.

I had a camera, so followed Hambolu out of the meeting and asked him to expand on his views.

‘They’re putting money in irrelevant things,’ he said. ‘You’re characterising the wrong things. Housing, benefits issues, work, lots of people are out of work. The safety of our children…they are not tackling those problems, and they expect us to vote for them. All these MPs, they don’t look for the real people, the real voice, the people that actually have problems. All these people work. They don’t know about the real issues going on in society.’

PS – please excuse the ghastly standard of the second part of the vid. Have improved since then.

The Labour people need

Never one to pass up on local democracy’s offerings, yours truly recently attended the new Lewisham council’s inaugural AGM.

I went partly because I pay council tax in Lewisham and like to clap eyes on the hapless schmucks in charge of it at the dawn of each municipal term’s disasters. There was another draw, though. It struck me that as one of Labour’s outright London wins at the recent elections, Lewisham had real potential as a pain in Cameron and Clegg’s mingled butt, particularly in the fight for local public services. Lewisham is a place where Labour could round on the coalition’s cuts programme, and begin to restore the ‘tacit covenant’ that Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford believe Labour must have with constituents – ‘a covenant about housing, work and security, a sense of neighbourliness and community.’

So it was that I arrived at Lewisham’s AGM with my tongue hanging out. Would third-term mayor Sir Steve Bullock be my kind of Labour? A frothing, Ted Knight-esque commie threatening sabotage and overspend to defend services seemed a bit much to hope for, but I thought Sir Steve might say a few fighting words about wrangling extra funds out of government for Lewisham’s poor. At the very least, he might pretend resistance.

Sir Steve and I began to go our separate ways in the ideological sense about a minute into his AGM address. It occurred to me that his speech sounded less like a warning to the Cameron-Clegg coalition than a job interview for it. Certainly, he evidenced distaste for a Labour rebellion against the coalition threat.

‘It would be easy to declare our opposition to the cuts the coalition is proposing,’ he began. ‘I intend to invite the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups to meet to discuss Lewisham’s relations with the government.’ Sir Steve hoped good relations with central government would ensue.

So far, so hopelessly civilised.

Like so many of today’s political visionaries, Sir Steve was eager to retail the notion that massive public spending cuts were crucial to the restoration of the national economy. ‘Whatever the outcome of the general election, severe cuts would have been made to public expenditure… unless we transform the way public services are delivered, the impact on our community could be devastating.’

The specifics of this transformation weren’t available at the AGM, so I got Sir Steve on the phone after it. I’ve covered local government for a long time now, and know all too well that the phrase ‘transforming the way our public services are delivered’ tends to present in real-life as abortive outsourcing initiatives, failed public-private partnerships, and/or replacing staff with useless web applications.

We had a nice chat, but didn’t get far with it. ‘It’s early days,’ Sir Steve pointed out. He assured me he was not an outsourcing zealot – ‘I’m not going to follow a privatisation agenda for the sake of it’ – but he’ll work with the private sector when there’s advantage in it. We’ll wait and see if any other ideas are in the ether. What we can say now is that cutting jobs, or sending them out of the borough would be disastrous. The council is the biggest employer in Lewisham.

Regarding local Labour’s relationship with the Cameron-Clegg coalition: Sir Steve expected respect. ‘One of the lessons of the past is that you consult local government [before implementing change], rather than implementing change and seeing what happens.’

I asked Sir Steve if the coalition had indicated it would consult. He said it hadn’t indicated that it wouldn’t. I told him tales of Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council, which keeps council tax down by charging the poor for homecare and meals. I’ve seen the H&F cabinet’s consultation process in action, too, at protest meetings: it largely involved running for it when furious meeting attendees went postal.

Sir Steve said he drew strength from a recent gathering of local government worthies, where new communities secretary Eric Pickles flashed a powerpoint slide that read ‘localism, localism, localism.’ Indeed. Tony Blair once had a slide that read ‘education, education, education.’ Powerpoint isn’t always a genuine read.

That’s it for now: post-election local Labour rhetoric as the party begins its fightback on behalf of – well, itself, mostly, on this early evidence, but hopefully others. Suffice to say for now that Lewisham needs local public services. It has high child poverty rates, high unemployment and problems with youth crime. Cruddas is right – a tacit covenant would be good. An explicit one would be better. I’ll hang out for either.