Last night Lambeth’s Labour cabinet agreed a draft budget for the coming year. The proposals will now go forward to a full council meeting in February where the final decision will be taken. The Tory-led Government, backed up by Liberal Democrats, is unfairly cutting Lambeth’s funding by one third over the next four years, with £37m cuts raining down in the coming year alone. These are the deepest cuts in public spending since the Second World War, and they are only happening because the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, spectacularly broke his election promise that there would be no cuts this year if his party was in power.
The draft budget does the best we can in this dreadful situation. The £37m funding reduction only affects £13m frontline services because our Labour councillors worked long and hard to cut costs before cutting services. That’s bad enough of course, but it means £24m frontline services have been spared.
At the cabinet meeting held in the town hall a large crowd of protesters turned up. Most of them were people worried about their jobs and services, ordinary Lambeth residents and employees who every Labour councillor sympathises with. They spoke movingly and with compassion about their fears over the Government’s funding cuts. But among them was a core of the hard-left and at their head was Ted Knight. It was Knight who led Lambeth into disaster in the 1980s when his council set an illegal budget in response to that decade’s wave of Tory cuts. Knight’s policy left the council millions of pounds in debt, made Labour unelectable in much of Lambeth for over a decade, but worst of all bought our council to its knees as it eventually resulted in even worse service cuts that hit the poorest, the weakest and most vulnerable hardest of all. The policy was an unmitigated disaster. But Ted Knight and his hard-left acolytes were back in the town hall last night demanding a re-run of their 1980s horror show.
Today’s Labour councillors will never take Lambeth back to the dark days when people like Ted Knight ruined local services. The corruption, mismanagement and abuse of people that happened under their regime remains legendary. Local people are still paying off the multi-million pound debts from their chaotic exercise in self-indulgent extremism. Real people in Lambeth are facing real problems and they need more than gesture politics. The vast and sensible majority in Lambeth know that pushing our council into bankruptcy with an illegal budget, which Knight and others again demanded, would lead to disaster just like it did last time. It would also play right into the Tories’ hands because they are achingly desperate for a Labour council to run up the white flag and let Government-imposed administrators take over. In a strange way these hard-left extremists are the natural companions of hard-right extremists in Government like Eric Pickles. When you get one you get the other, and our job, caught in the middle, is to prevent either side wreaking the havoc of which they are capable.
The budget Labour put forward is not one we wanted because we believe the Tories and Lib Dems are wrong to target poorer areas like ours with the biggest share of cuts. But since we cannot spend money we no longer have, the budget prioritises services for the most vulnerable including the most needy older and disabled people, it puts more police on the streets to keep people safe, it invests money to build better homes, new schools, and help unemployed people back to work. There is pain as some hard-working employees will lose their jobs and some treasured services will close. We share local people’s anger over this, but it is the inevitable result of Nick Clegg’s decision to make a bonfire of his promises to prop up a Tory Government. We serve Lambeth’s residents best by standing up for them within the law, protecting the services that matter most to them, working to defeat the Lib Dem-Tories at the ballot box, and by refusing to retread the path that Ted Knight led this borough down all those years ago – a path that led over the edge of a cliff and into ruin.