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

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.