The Lewisham protests were just the beginning

The violent scenes in south-east London last night could become the norm as the cuts begin to bite.

Lewisham

Credit: Jess Edwards and Socialist Worker.

Lewisham Town Hall is not often the scene of violent uprisings, but last night the usually sleepy municipal centre was stormed by a crowd of placard-waving protesters intent on preventing the Labour council from passing millions of pounds worth of cuts. Police moved quickly to cordon off the area and a dozen police vans were soon on the scene; so were mounted officers. Scuffles broke out as the crowd forced their way into the building and at one point a flare was even let off from within.

And yet, after the police finally managed to regain control, the cuts were voted through, with both the local Conservative and the Liberal Democrat groups refusing to support them. For two parties so apparently committed to the austerity agenda, it was a fantastic piece of political opportunism, but one that will no doubt be repeated in town halls of all colours right across the country.

By giving local authorities new powers over spending but far less money to spend, the government hopes to localise the pain while decentralising the blame. So, in the same way as Cameron and the Conservatives have used Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as a human riot shield, so, too, local authorities will feel the brunt of public outrage still to come.

But if the violent scenes outside Lewisham Town Hall are repeated up and down the country, can David Cameron really hope to deflect that public anger for long? So far his strategy appears to be working, with many still willing to blame the Labour government, the banks and global recession for the cuts. Labour is also struggling to benefit from public anger, with its opponents quick to point out that Labour, too, would have implemented vast cuts to public spending had it been re-elected.

These conflicts can be seen most clearly in London, where Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are competing to be seen as the foremost defender of the capital's budget. Boris has posed as an outspoken critic of government action while claiming to have won a far better deal for London than was due. In reality, City Hall's budget settlement was broadly in line with the rest of the country, with the mayor's development agency and a wide range of his other flagship programmes now facing the axe.

Ken Livingstone has also sought to capitalise on the cuts, though even he could face difficulties.

After the cordon was lifted last night, I wandered up to the police line outside Lewisham Town Hall. Right next to the pile of discarded placards was a noticeboard listing candidates in a recent by-election.

The election was closely fought between Labour and the Green Party, Livingstone stepping in to walk the streets for Labour's candidate. In the event, Labour won handily and last night went on to implement the very cuts that Livingstone had previously pledged to fight so strongly against. It is these kinds of conflicts that look set to shape the direction of British politics in years to come, all sides desperately trying to load a bigger share of the blame on to their opponents than their opponents manage to load on to them.

It remains to be seen who will succeed, but if the protests we saw in Lewisham last night become the norm, then it could take more than political gamesmanship for all sides to shield themselves from public anger.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.