The meeting started with Lambeth’s representative on the London Assembly, Val Shawcross, outlining Boris Johnson’s cuts in frontline policing and public transport fare hikes. It was my turn next, and I outlined the impact of the Government’s funding cuts on local services. Lambeth is set to lose £90m out of a total budget of £310m over four years, with half that amount going by next April. Cuts on such a drastic scale mean huge damage to vital services like youth activities, school support, care for older and disabled people, street cleaning and libraries, to name just a few.
At the same time, the Tories and Lib Dems in Government are waging an all-out attack on the poor. Their benefit cuts will force poorer families out of central London, while the unemployed face a double-whammy of cuts in training that could give them the skills they need to get a job and then cutting their benefits because they remain unemployed. Some social rents in Lambeth are set to treble, while funding to improve schools and repair sub-standard housing has been cut in half.
I’ve written in earlier posts how the Coalition’s cuts will hit women particularly hard. The majority of public sector workers are women and so they will bear the brunt of massive job losses, and at the same time face the pressure of less funding to care for young children and ageing relatives.
The Tory-Lib Dem Government plan to avoid the blame for what they are doing. They want to localise the blame for their cuts by cutting local services hardest in the expectation that local councils will get the blame. There are some who argue that Labour councils should simply refuse to make any cuts at all. That is a self-defeating strategy. The Government is cutting Lambeth’s funding by £90 million. Most of that money goes on paying the wages of people such as teachers, carers, street cleaners and social workers. With the money gone, there’s no way the council can pay their wages. They’d have to work for nothing. The alternative – borrowing more and more from the banks and building up massive debts – was tried and failed in the 1980s. It would bankrupt the Council, as it did then, leading to even greater pain for our most vulnerable residents in future.
A couple of supporters of hard-left fringe groups tried to disrupt proceedings to demand a repeat of ‘Red Ted’ Knight’s ruinous illegal budgets of the 1980s, but the loud applause that greeted the chair’s polite request for them to be quiet saw them scurry out, tails firmly between their legs.
The meeting continued positively with a panel of council cabinet members answering questions, then broke up into smaller groups for members to discuss how best to protect services including education, housing, care services and community safety. The discussions generated new ideas to make services work better for local people and there was broad support for Lambeth’s ‘cooperative council’ approach that aims to harness the energy and ideas of local people in helping protect services. That model of transforming services, rather than just cutting them, is how our Labour council will differentiate itself from Tory and Lib Dem councils that seem eager to close down public services. But there was understanding that even Labour councils cannot protect our local residents from the savagery of a Tory-Lib Dem Government that has chosen make the poorest and most vulnerable pay back the cost of bailing out the banks.
The speed and depth of the coalition’s spending cuts have a political purpose. They aim to finish the job that Thatcher failed to complete by destroying public services so that wholesale privatisation can take their place. The way to defeat that is not to resort to the illegal and failed antics of the loony left in the past, it is to stand foursquare alongside local residents, do what we can to protect services for ordinary households, then defeat the coalition parties through the ballot box.