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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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