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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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