Eight months hard Labour: a new recruit writes

25 May 2016

A party member in the Progress council bastion of Lambeth argues that victory is possible – and worth fighting for

By Joe Clegg

Summer 2015 was a time of great political excitement for me. Born under Maggie the Milk Snatcher, grown up under Tony the Warmonger, for the first time in my life, there was a political leader of a major party that who shared my values. With the vigour of an over-excited child, I plunged myself in to the Labour Party, pouring in more energy and time then my wife or small daughter would have liked. This is the chance, I told myself, to make a lasting and positive change. This would be the legacy of my generation to my daughter’s; this was our one big opportunity.

Eight months on, I laugh at my own exuberance and naivety. How naive I was to think that the whole of the Labour Party would be as enthused as me about the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the sweeping wave a political consciousness that engulfed the country. Little did I know, that the much of my time, here in Lambeth, would not be spent fighting a not the austerity of a Tory government but in fact serious cuts being carried through by of the hard right of the Labour Party.

Lambeth Labour Party remains on the last bastions of Blairism in the UK. My constituency was one of only 18 to nominate Liz Kendall in last year’s leadership contest. Seven of our current Labour councilors, including 2 who hold Cabinet portfolios, the Chief Whip, our candidate for the GLA and the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee were amongst the self-styled ‘Councilors for Kendall’ who, in an open letter, publicly endorsed a candidate whose answer to brutal Tory attacks on our public services was ‘a little less austerity’ and who failed to oppose some of the worst Tory attacks on our welfare state including the ‘benefit cap’, despite the obvious damage that this would do to thousands across our inner city borough.

I learnt from meeting veterans of the great struggles 1980s and early 1990s that Lambeth Council in its present make-up is a result of major defeats suffered by the Left in that period. The council of that period defied Thatcher and did all it could to build houses and preserve and extend services. Their successors have asset stripped our borough, handed over our libraries to third sector partners a peppercorn rent; gifted highly valuable public spaces to the private Garden Bridge Trust; sold off more Council homes than the any other London borough; colluded with Network Rail in the gentrification of central Brixton, evicting long standing local business to ‘redevelop’ the area, triple the rent and flood our town with multinational coffee shop chains and sushi bars; and sold off twelve plots of prime real estate in order to fund the redevelopment of Lambeth town hall.

The battle for the Labour Party in Lambeth has been a bruising and frustrating experience. At ward meetings, comrades have been shouted down by councilors and ward officers, when we have attempted to speak up for left wing politics, including expletive filled rants about Jeremy Corbyn’s “incompetence” and “unelectability.”


Despite all the difficulties, we have had some encouraging successes. In 2015, Lambeth Council announced a plan to decommission five of the borough’s libraries, handing their buildings over to third sector giant Greenwich Leisure Limited to run as ‘healthy living centres’, or rather gyms with reading rooms. This ‘innovative’ solution was angrily opposed across our community from the outset. Friends of Libraries groups quickly rallied to organise a series of demonstrations, culminating in a march of several thousand – the largest local demonstration since the poll tax; library staff took the incredibly brave step of walking out and then voting for an official strike to oppose job cuts despite significant pressure from regional Unison not to; in the Labour Party, motions were put to wards right across the borough, culminating in Dulwich and West Norwood constituency passing a motion of opposition to the Council.

This pressure, both inside and outside the Party, has forced Lambeth Council to backtrack significantly. One library was saved entirely, another will retain full time, qualified staff instead of having to rely on volunteers, and the campaign to save the other three is still going strong.

The campaign is backed by national and local literary figures including Will Self, our local MP Helen Hayes has made public statements in support, and a local councilor, so appalled by the lack of transparency and accountability, came our publicly in opposition to the plans. This campaign has shown that if we can unite trade unions, community groups and local Labour Party activists together in a common fight we can win victories.

Thus despite the frustrations we need to build on the small victories we have already won. The goal now has to be to win big ones. If we are to achieve that though, there is much work to be done. We need to reconnect with all of those people who were energised by Corbyn’s leadership campaign. We need this critical mass to realise that paying your £3 is not enough to facilitate the change we all want to see.

We need more political activists, we need people on the streets fight for causes, connecting with the general public, we need party activists, ready to come to ward and CLP meetings, to demand that our voices are heard and that our elected representatives are accountable to both the party membership and the community they represent.

We need to smash the culture that sees being a councilor in Lambeth as just another step on the ladder to a well-paid, well-connected job in Westminster. We need politicians who fight for the people they represent. We need a Labour Party that is ready to fight the Tories, not pass the burden of their cuts onto the people who rely on the party the most.

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