Tag Archives: Lambeth Labour

“Citizens'” Commission…

…is in fact made up of Cllr Steve Reed (Lambeth Council Leader), Cllr Paul McGlone and Cllr Jackie Meldrum (Deputy Leader of the Council). All Labour. All already advocates of the Lambeth co-operative council model. They met as the ‘Citizens’ Commission’ to consider the proposals last week. Not exactly your average ‘citizen’. This is what Lambeth Council posted on the Co-op Council Facebook page on Friday in response to a question about who sits on the Commission:

“Thanks for your query. To confirm, the commission members who met on Wednesday were Councillor Steve Reed, Councillor Paul McGlone and Councillor Jackie Meldrum. Future commission sessions will be attended by these three councillors and a range of other local and national stakeholders. We’ll update this facebook page, we will be tweeting and Councillor Reed will be updating his blog with more details of who will be attending as future commission sessions take place.”

Lord knows who ‘local and national stakeholders’ are – residents? businesses? more council members?  Will local residents be able to apply to take part in the next meeting? Can we see the minutes of the last meeting? … This is not a very promising start to the new ‘open’, co-operative council, is it?


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Lambeth Co-operative Council

Now the election’s over and the dust is settling, we can get into the swing of things. So look out next week for the publication of Lambeth’s proposals for a co-operative council on Wednesday 26 May. Apparently it will challenge Cameron’s ‘Big Society’…Steve Reed’s description of how they differ isn’t very enlightening though:

Our model differs from the Tories’ Big Society because while they want to roll back state, we want to change the role of the state, creating a new settlement between the citizen and public services with more power and control handed to local people.  Our model empowers people to get on and make the changes they want to see in their local area, building better services and a stronger civic society at the same time.”

Am I being stupid in not being able to recognise the clear differences yet? This is how ‘The Guardian’ explains the Con-Lib ‘Big Society:

The new Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition today unveiled a “big society” programme intended to “take power away from politicians and give it to the people”

[…] The plans include introducing a national citizen service programme for 16-year-olds, reforms to the planning system to give communities more control over developments, letting public sector workers form cooperatives and giving the public access to government data.”

And who will be in the new ‘Citizens’ Commission’? It will be set up this Wednesday to consult local people on the proposals already chosen by the council.  Steve Reed’s homepage announced earlier this year  that the Commission was to be set up way back in March “and give a final report no later than June”, but that deadline is unlikely to be met now.

Here’s hoping for some more detail on Wednesday, but I think this is going to be a matter of ‘wait and see’ over the much longer term.

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Interview: Steve Reed, Leader of Lambeth Council

Steve Reed

Don’t be surprised if you read through the reports on Conservative manifesto policies and get a sudden sense of deja-vu. ‘Mutualism? Public sector co-ops? Collective strength? Where have I heard it all before?’, you might think. Well, that would be almost exactly one month ago, when Lambeth Labour launched its plans for the ‘John Lewis’ council amid much publicity. The Tories and Labour seem to be swapping policies around like FA Cup player stickers at the moment. ‘Mutualism’ might just become one of the buzzwords of the election and Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth Council, is the man fronting the Labour brand.

Reed has one hell of a job. Lambeth is the second largest inner London borough and the 19th most deprived borough in England. But he is experienced – he has been a councillor of Brixton Hill for twelve years – and he is confident about his plans to improve the area. Let’s start with the John Lewis council, or the ‘cooperative council’, as he prefers to term it.  This was launched as a creative solution to the inevitable cuts to all council funding after the election. “Councils are generally working on the assumption that it will be about 15-20%, which is a lot of money. When you’re facing cuts like that, there is only a limited number of things you can do.” The Tories have gone for the ‘easy Council’ in Barnet, with bogstandard services to all and the possiblity to top-up if you have the money. That doesn’t seem fair on those who are most needy and yet most unable to pay.

Reed believes he has found a better way: involving people in the running of their services with the possibility of financial recompense later on. He cites some co-operative schemes already running in Lambeth – the Lilian Baylis community centre and Freshview, which provides resources to clear derelict land and has allowed residents in Josephine Avenue to set up their own community garden.  “It works really well. People have a real sense of ownership and people sometimes for the first time know the names of their neighbours. All of that for a lower cost than if the council had come in and done it itself without those other benefits.” Reed believes that if the same values are applied more widely across the borough, there will also be better services  and “more community empowerment” costing less money. His future plans include community trust schools, “where the community has an ongoing relationship with the school as an alternative to the academy model.”

Co-operative intentions haven’t always worked in Lambeth, as the Lambeth Living experience has proved. I put to him that it could become a way of passing on accountability; “It’s not passing the buck at all”, Reed insists. “It’s not the case that people have not wanted this. We could do a Freshview every week there is so much demand.” What happens if the co-operative services start to fail? At what point does the council step in? “What we must never do is de-professionalise services. If for instance any school under whatever form of ownership sinks below a minimum standard then it will remain the right of the local authority to step in. That’s very important, because you can’t allow people to have a sub-standard education.”

The John Lewis council still has a way to go in a very short space of time. First, a commission of experts and users will publish a white paper and identify areas to pilot the model. Part of that will be a public consultation, although Reed is cagey on exactly when it will take place – @Jason_Cobb blogged today that it will be after the election, which means that voters won’t know exactly what they’re voting for in May. “We’d want the commission to come back with the first set of proposals by July so that we can roll them out from September. We’ll learn from the pilots and be able to apply them more widely to other areas.”

Funnily enough, the area where Reed admits to the most problems during his Lambeth tenure is where an ALMO – a semi-cooperative model – is in charge: housing.  He doesn’t blame the cooperative model for the problems and, of course, he does his best to take the blame off Labour.”There were already deep-rooted problems to do with the management of the housing service that go back years. Then the new IT system for Lambeth Living was implemented badly, so a lot of the data about leaseholders, vacant homes and repairs suddenly were no longer on the data systems. The work for that data system was done under the Liberal Democrats. The IT system has now been sorted out.”

Reed admits it’s a big challenge to improve housing even with the IT problem fixed, but is confident enough to say it will be sorted within 18-24 months: “At the moment 10,000 of the ca. 30,000 council homes don’t meet minimum government standards. We’re due a quarter of a billion pounds from the government to bring it all up to minimum standards. Then there’s the other side of the challenge, which is giving tenants a better day-to-day service. That means better repairs, re-letting vacant homes faster, and issuing bills to leaseholders accurately and on time.” An admission that Lambeth Living hasn’t gone quite as planned is implicit in the Lambeth Labour manifesto, giving the ALMO 12 months to improve or else.

It is difficult to interview any politician in the run-up to the election. Reed was certainly in campaign mode – the implication was often that Labour can do no wrong and it’s all the fault of the Lib Dems. Having said that, he is articulate and sure of his argument.  The debate about to be unleashed on co-operative government could change the way we engage in local government. It doesn’t seem quite right that we are unlikely to have any idea what it will really look like until after the election, but who knows, Lambeth could be at the start of something exciting.

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Interview: Chris Nicholson

Chris Nicholson with Sarah Ludford MEP and a market trader (from right)

Chris Nicholson doesn’t live up to expectations. Or mine at least. The day before we meet, The Independent published accusations from Keith Hill that Nicholson, who is a partner at KPMG, had ‘bought his seat’. I had also heard a fantastic story put about by Labour about him mistakenly buying his house in Wandsworth instead of Streatham. Turns out it wasn’t so much a fantastic story as a fantasy. Instead of the business-like and rather clueless fat-cat I had expected, I got a softly spoken and articulate candidate sitting in a shabby suit and a messy campaign office. Serves me right.

Chris Nicholson is leading the Liberal Democrat bid to steal the Streatham seat from Labour.  This a Lib-Lab race. In the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats managed to almost halve the Labour lead from 14,270 to just 7,466 votes.  Nicholson thinks it will come down to a thousand votes either way this time around. “We need less of a swing to take the seat than we got last time and we’ve been working very hard! It is eminently achievable.”

It is certainly true that Nicholson has been working hard. He may not be a lifelong resident like Chuka Umunna, but he speaks with clarity on local issues. “I grew up in Moss Side, Manchester, which was a similar sort of area to this. In that sense, this area feels like coming home.” He also feels that his life experience has enriched the way he approaches politics in the area. He was Head of Public Policy at KPMG and, long before that in the 1980s,  Liberal Democrat council leader in Kingston.  “People are cynical of the concept of a career politician. My experience outside of politics and of bringing up a family is something that we’re finding people respond to.”

Nicholson’s biggest bug bear is the way that Lambeth Labour have dealt with housing, especially the transfer of power to the outside organisation Lambeth Living. “The vote on Lambeth Living was something like 42% in favour and 41% against, yet that was taken as being a mandate for change. The new body didn’t have democratic accountability. Senior management had also taken their eye off the ball while trying to get tenants to vote in favour, so there were more empty properties. Rental income dropped and that meant that rents went up and there has been less money for repairs.” Nicholson is especially critical of the fact that Keith Hill MP is now chair of Lambeth Living, despite promises that it would be chaired by a tenant or leaseholder.

So what would the Lib Dems do differently? Nicholson cops out of a straight answer at first. “I know it’s easy to say we wouldn’t have got in that position to start with, but we genuinly wouldn’t have done.” That is easy to say. He goes on, however, to point to the success of resident management groups in Blenheim Gardens Estate and Roupell Park. Later, he emphasises that “as a Non-Conformist, I very much believe in bottom-up politics”. In his view, the Labour Party is inherently “very top-down, centralising and fairly authoritarian.” He applies the criticism to point out, correctly I believe, potential weaknesses in the John Lewis Council.  “In principle, it’s very good. However, the principle and the practice, particularly in Lambeth, would be rather different.  There’s a real problem that democractic accountability is just not seen as important.”

Of course, the Lib Dems when they led Lambeth council didn’t exactly have a good reputation either. They have been accused by many of being inexperienced and difficult to work with. As a parliamentary candidate in 2010, Nicholson can’t be held fully accountable for the Lib Dems’ actions as council leaders in 2006, when council tax rose by 40%, but he defends his colleagues. “There were clearly some things which didn’t go well. What we succeeded in doing was getting three departments out of special measures, getting Lambeth up to being a two star authority.”

For now, however, it is more constructive to focus on the future – if still with half an eye in the back of our heads to remind us of the past. The Lib Dems have launched their ‘four steps to fairness’. They would raise the personal tax allowance to £10,000 “removing four million people out of tax”; put more money into early years education and scrap tuition fees; support green jobs; and create a fairer voting system with an elected House of Lords.  All of this needs money, of which there will be little after the election. Nicholson’s approach to public spending cuts is half-good, half-unrealistic. When it comes to Streatham, he claims that no cuts should be made. We’d be fools to believe they won’t be. But Nicholson prefers to focus on cuts to national schemes – ID cards,  the Trident Nuclear Missiles system, Eurofighters, and Child Trust Funds.

If we strip away their party affiliations, it is difficult to find much of a difference between Chuka and Chris. Nationally, they are both for scrapping Trident, stopping tuition fees, and focusing on early years education. Locally, both promise a regeneration of Streatham High Rd, improved public transport links in Streatham and better leisure centres (arf arf).   “Chuka expresses a lot of views which are Liberal Democrat views, but I am in a party which supports those views and he is in a party which doesn’t.  He also says that he would vote for party policy and what was in the manifesto. To me, that must mean that he’s going to vote for some of those things which he disagrees with.” It is true that Chuka and the Compass group are not a majority voice in their party, although Umunna was adament when I interviewed him about his belief that MPs should not always toe the party line.  It is also true that the Lib Dems are much freer to talk about what they truly believe in as long as they remain the third party in Britain.

Perhaps it is because the election is so close between Umunna and Nicholson that the rumour mill has been racked up a notch. The house-buying story was published by the website Lambeth Liberal Democrat Watch – which I will not link to here – in 2008, but it is still in circulation now. It is, says Nicholson, a “complete fabrication”. “It was my partner’s house, which she’d bought years before, and I lived there for some time before we bought a house together in the constiuency. Of course I knew it was in Wandsworth and not Streatham, but it was where Trisha lived!”

The funding question is rather more complicated. Last week, Keith Hill stood up in parliament and accused Nicholson of buying his seat, because he has donated almost £300,000 to the party in the last three years, much of which has gone directly to his own campaign in Streatham. The figures are all correct – they have been declared in line with the law and are published on the Electoral Commission website. That does not, however, necessarily mean that he has ‘bought his seat’.  Nicholson denies that vehemently.  “It is outrageous that Hill sheltered behind parliamentary privilege to make those accusations. I’m sure that was done quite deliberately, because there were things in what he said which are completely untrue. The figures about my donations are correct, but he then also quoted what had been spent by our Streatham local party, implying that it was all on electioneering and comparing it with his communications allowance. In fact, a lot of the money spent by the Streatham party goes on premises and staff. If you compare how much the Streatham local party spent compared to how much Keith Hill spent, using public and union funds, we spent less. On top of that, the Council produces Lambeth Life every fortnight at huge cost. Chuka has until recently had office accomodation provided by the union UCATT. In fact, we are outspent by some margin by the Labor party.”

It is undoubtedly hard to square the huge amounts of money Nicholson has donated with his views on “bottom-up politics” and desire to reform the political system. Yet he readily gives his support for capping funding. “I would be the first to vote for changes in party funding rules. But we need to have a level playing field and the fact is that at the moment we don’t.” There is a strong, and I don’t think naive, case for arguing that Nicholson, as a rich man and in the knowledge that his party has much less money than its two competitors, has donated to a cause he believes in deeply.  It seems immensely hypocritical of Keith Hill, whose party received £4,962,886 in donations last quarter compared to the Lib Dem £1,055, 717. It is also another example of the unpleasant negative campaigning we have seen of late from Lambeth Labour, a tactic the Liberal Democrats do not seem to have engaged in to the same level.

In the media-obsessed world in which we live, it is hard to avoid the fact that Nicholson doesn’t have the cache or youth of Chuka Umunna. It might too have made the election excitingly scandalous if Nicholson really had been a fat cat parachuted into the constituency, but superficialities aside, we are lucky in this consituency to have two such strong candidates and the neck-and-neck race that will result from that is going to be just as intriguing.


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Labour’s anti-Lib Dem video

There’s something pretty sickening about this new Lambeth Labour video. It’s like a poor man’s attempt at an American-style smear campaign. I’d rather hear about Labour’s own positive plans for the future of the area, thanks.

UPDATE:  The video has been removed from You Tube after a “copyright issue” over an image of Lambeth Lib Dem leader Ashley Lumsden.  @Jason_Cobb gives some good analysis

UPDATE #2 Mar 14: The video has now been re-uploaded onto You Tube, with a new insulting introductory message and a cartoon image of Ashley Lumsden (instead of the original copyrighted image) . I mean, really, how childish can you get?


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