Cllr Tim Briggs is the sole Conservative councillor on Lambeth Council, and a London Assembly List Candidate for 2021
A recent survey suggested that Labour party members are now 70 per cent upper middle class and from London. The Labour party is losing touch with its roots: working-class people.
Former fire brigade union official, Paul Embery, has written that the Labour party now has ‘contrasting interests and priorities to millions of working-class people living in the more disadvantaged parts of our nation’. He complains that the Labour party is now ‘a movement almost exclusively for the managerial and professional classes, graduates, social activists and urban liberals’, with ‘no room on the modern Left for the small ‘c’ conservatism of the traditional working class, with its love of community and nation and its desire for social solidarity and belonging.’ Paul Embery’s observations tally with how Labour policies have affected working-class residents in boroughs like Lambeth.
First, Labour councillors are allowing big property developers to move in and demolish the estates of the same working-class people that they used to rely on for support. A Lambeth once known as ‘Loony Lambeth’ under ‘Red’ Ted Knight has swapped a culture of class warfare and revolution for a culture of property development, pushing out working-class residents and attracting wealthy middle-class Labour supporters – the professional classes, graduates, and urban liberals, described so precisely by Paul Embery. Communities near the South Bank of the river have seen their areas transformed by huge developments to become the largest building site in Europe. The building work continues around Vauxhall Station and the new Nine Elms underground station today.
Much of the new development is out of scale, and diminishes the sense of community and identity held by working-class communities. For example, Labour and Green councillors have approved the Hondo Building, an enormous tower block development in central Brixton, an area previously characterised by a horizontal cityscape. These developments have provided Labour councillors with money from developers under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, that pay for spending on pet projects elsewhere in the borough to ensure continued Labour support at election time.
The culture of property development runs deep in Lambeth. The Labour Leader of the Council himself is a director of a property developer firm. In fact, Labour councillors are so keen to get in on the property development bandwagon that they are using the Council as a means to do so. Labour councillors have set up a private property company, ‘Homes for Lambeth’, owned by the Council, and are transferring public land and assets into the company. Labour councillors with no experience of private business talk gleefully about their plan to use land entrusted to the Council as security for loans from the financial markets to build more housing. They have, in effect, entitled themselves to long-held communal assets to become property developers, with all of the excitement but none of the personal risk.
The same Labour councillors seem determined to drive towards a cliff edge of debt, despite the law changing to make it easy for local authorities to borrow cheaply from Government to build council homes, despite a motion being passed by their own local Labour party members in Dulwich and West Norwood to stop transferring community-held land and assets into a private company, and despite next-door Labour-run Croydon going bankrupt after the collapse of its Homes for Lambeth-style property development company ‘Brick by Brick’. Nor can any finance officer at Lambeth Council say with any certainty when they expect any profits from the company. Most of the council officers who suggested borrowing huge amounts of money to set up a private property company have moved on to jobs in other local authorities.
The Lambeth approach to developing property tenanted by working-class residents differs from next door Wandsworth. In Wandsworth, estates are managed carefully as communal assets, maintained annually, not left to fall apart until repairs are needed. Residents of Lambeth with family or friends living on estates in Wandsworth are scornful of the quality of the repairs done by Lambeth Council. In Wandsworth, residents living on estates that are earmarked for demolition, like the Winstanley and York Road Estates, are consulted as much as possible to try to keep them onside. Whilst some residents from these estates have understandably found it hard having to move, none have lost their tenancies or property rights, and all have been offered generous terms to move, or have been given new properties to live in. Unused pieces of land on council estates have also been built on as part of Wandsworth’s ‘Hidden Homes’ scheme to build 1,000 completely new, additional homes. New flats get good approvals from residents, all have superfast broadband built into their structure, and they are built to last. Cabinet Member for Housing at Wandsworth Council, Cllr Kim Caddy, explains the Wandsworth Council approach as not being about property development, but building homes: prudent borrowing, lowering risks, and retaining council officers with the required skills and knowledge.
Contrast that with the ongoing conflict in Lambeth between the Labour council and working-class residents on Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill Estates. The line spun was to build “a 1,000 new homes at council rent” – but without Labour councillors admitting they had to demolish people’s existing council homes to do this. In other words, Labour council propaganda deliberately conflated regeneration and building council homes as the same thing, to imply that the only way to get new council homes built was by demolishing estates. These were many of the same council estates that the Labour administration had neglected to repair properly for decades.
The consultation process has shown up a Labour administration unable to engage or understand working-class residents, with the detail left to council officers unused to being directly accountable, or to having their ideas challenged, with skewed consultations, property rights taken away, late payments, and millions spent on public relations companies to try to placate mistakes. By way of example, one survey for the Central Hill Estate I read said something along the lines of: ‘Would you like to live in a new home?’ A box ticked ‘yes’ was taken to mean that the resident consented to having their home demolished.
Yet the pain for working-class communities under Labour is not limited to the way they are being ‘built out’ of London and displaced from their communities. Having been lobbied by a very articulate and organised cycling lobby armed with questionable data, Labour councillors in Lambeth, like many other Labour-run councils across London, have chosen to close roads and create so-called ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ that displace traffic and pollution, often onto larger roads and areas more likely to be inhabited by working-class people on lower incomes. These road and bridge closures disconnect local residents from families, local services and their communities, and from emergency services, all of which disproportionately affects vulnerable residents and working-class residents on lower incomes, who do not have the privilege of being able to avoid driving, or to avoid using gridlocked buses and public transport on nearby roads. The road closures have been devastating for local businesses already suffering as a result of the lockdown.
Labour councillors also use race issues and identity politics in their council propaganda to divide working-class communities, judging people by their skin colour rather than by the content of their character. At the same time they have allowed Lambeth to become the worst borough in London for knife-crime which disproportionately affects young black men, devastating families already hemmed in by road closures, other crime, and poor housing. Labour has kept council tax high and social mobility low, whilst Conservative-run Wandsworth is the fourth best borough in the whole of the country for children from lower-income, working-class families to grow up and do well in life. In Lambeth, community groups are dependent on council hand-outs to ensure that they remain Labour’s ‘chosen victims’, held back from excelling in the jobs and opportunities provided by the low-tax environment created by central Government to pursue their own interests freely, and live more prosperously.
Perhaps most of all, it is the failure of local democracy in Lambeth that irritates working-class residents. Until 2018 there were many “Call Ins” – two to three hour commissions held in public, set up to explore issues raised mostly by opposition councillors: Homes for Lambeth, closed roads, the demolition of working-class estates. The outcomes were never in question, as well-drilled Labour councillors always had a majority of seats on the panel, but at least there was an outlet for residents to express their views. Yet from 2018 Labour councillors changed the Constitution to ensure that it was almost impossible for an opposition councillor to ‘call in’ a problem. At the same time, Leaseholder and Tenants Councils were abolished after years of criticism and frustration. Even in council meetings there is a limited right of reply, so no issue can be properly debated. Opposition Green councillors in Lambeth agree with Labour councillors on most issues, although taking a more extreme and impractical Left-wing view wherever possible. Inevitably, for the majority of Labour councillors who get to do the majority of talking, arguments from authority often replace detailed challenges or evidence-based arguments, and the truth or relevance of a statement made by officers or councillors is regarded as authoritative because no-one is there to say otherwise.
Moreover, across London as a whole, Sadiq Khan has failed on issues that disproportionately affect working-class people. He has failed to end gridlock across London caused by his road-narrowing and his road and bridge closures, despite the lockdown reducing traffic. He has failed to deal with knife crime and fund the police properly, which impacts most of all on working-class communities. Working-class people on lower incomes and disabled people are also disproportionately reliant on public transport, yet Khan managed to bankrupt Transport for London before the Coronavirus pandemic even started, and main roads are gridlocked. Accusations of cronyism are beginning to emerge around his awarding of contracts to chosen groups outside the usual tender process, which plays poorly for a Left-wing political elite that relies on convincing working-class people that their interests are its primary concern. Even Labour councillors are exasperated by the hypocrisy of a Labour Mayor keeping public parking spaces available for his two chauffeur-driven cars, despite making less spaces available for disabled people.
Labour councils in London like Lambeth and Khan do not consider their historic responsibility to working-class people, and their needs. These needs include a growing post-Brexit national economy providing more opportunities, an end to the gridlock created by traffic displaced by misguided road closures instead of encouraging walking and cycling, an end to divisiveness based on racial differences, proper consultations with residents on estates threatened with demolition acknowledging how working-class communities want to live, and an end to the aggressive property developer culture in Lambeth pushed by Labour. Diverse working-class Lambeth residents believe in our amazing country, want good schools, good homes, and they believe in their ability to work together freely and independently to achieve their dreams, with social solidarity and belonging, for themselves and for their children, and for generations to come. Let’s help them.