Owen Jones’ call to councillors to ‘resist the cuts’ earlier this week (Come on you local councillors. Resist these cuts!) will sound attractive to many. He’s right that people didn’t become Labour councillors to cut services. They became Labour councilors to make a difference in their communities, to help the most vulnerable and to protect public services. But his call for councillors to simply to ignore the fact they have less money to spend won’t work. And you don’t need to take my word for it – it’s been tried before, so let’s learn from our own history.
In the 1980s Ted Knight led Lambeth Council to catastrophe when he refused to implement government cuts. He tried to spend millions of pounds more than he had available. The debts he ran up were so vast we’re still paying them off today – at a cost of over £20 million pounds a year. That’s all money we would be spending to protect public services if Ted Knight hadn’t bankrupted the council all those years ago.
In the end services were cut much harder than they needed to be thanks to Knight’s debts. But it wasn’t Knight and his colleagues who suffered, it was the people who relied on those services – frail older people, children in care, the disabled. Knight’s irresponsibility led not only to mountains of debt, but to fraud, service failure and incompetence on a breath-taking scale. Knight turned himself into a cuts martyr by martyring the people he claimed to be defending. Labour must never make that mistake again.
Labour councillors oppose the Government’s unfair cuts because they fall hardest on the poorest. We have protested against the cuts. Last year we ran a campaign to highlight the damage that Tory cuts are having on the people we serve in Lambeth. And I believe we must continue to highlight examples of the misery the Tories are causing. That’s why I’m leading a London-wide campaign for more school places for the capital’s children. Our research has shown that by 2016, without adequate Government investment, one in ten primary-age children in London will not have a permanent school place. We’ll be highlighting the damaging decisions which Michael Gove and George Osborne have made which threaten the life chances of thousands of thousands of young Londoners. And we’ll be campaigning for the investment in education that London desperately needs.
But we must also find practical ways to limit the pain by protecting the most vulnerable and finding different ways to maintain support for the people who need it most.
Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to the people who elected us to defend them in the face of a feckless government that would love, more than anything else, for us to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s so they could use Labour’s failures locally to beat Labour nationally.
We’ve taken the responsible course in Lambeth, working to protect public services and create new jobs. I’m co-chair of the country’s biggest regeneration zone in Vauxhall. The project will create 32,000 new jobs and 2500 new affordable homes, the single biggest generator of new jobs and homes in the country.
And despite the government’s appalling decision to cut a third of Lambeth’s total available budget since 2010, we’ve protected all 10 libraries in the borough from closure and on 4th July 2012 we opened a brand new state-of-the-art library in Clapham alongside a new leisure centre and swimming pool. We’ve also frozen council tax for 4 years with no increase at all since 2008.
In the end, what Jones is recommending would simply prolong the life of this wretched coalition government and the misery they are causing. Labour councils up and down the country must demonstrate to people how Labour can govern responsibly and fairly. If Labour can’t be trusted in local government, people won’t trust it to run the country.
Steve Reed is the leader of Lambeth Council