Power to the people: Lewisham leftists offer new alternative

Posted on June 7, 2010

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Left alternatives: Ian Page (right) and Chris Flood (pic: Socialist Party)

“What there will be at some point, absolutely inevitably, is a fightback.”

Ian Page sounds like he has never been more certain of anything in his life.

“From the trade unions, from the communities. Because up to now, figures are just figures, and they’re bandied around by politicians. But when those massive cuts become reality, in the end people will have no option but to struggle.”

Page, until last month a Socialist Party councillor in Lewisham, knows all about struggle. In 1995 his opposition to cuts in local services led to him being expelled from the Labour Party. Now, in Lewisham, he seems to have found a battleground on which to fight against spending cuts and privatisation.

Elected as a Labour councillor in 1990, probation officer Page has been a constant presence on the Lewisham political landscape ever since, fighting grassroots campaigns and voicing people’s concerns in the council chamber. Successful campaigns over the last few years include those to keep Deptford job centre open and prevent the demolition of Ladywell Leisure Centre, while Page has spent years resisting council housing privatisation plans. Though both he and fellow Socialist councillor Chris Flood were squeezed out by Labour at the election, both of them gained more votes than ever before, and Page sees plenty of positives for the future.

Left-wing coalition

Left alternatives: Ian Page (right) and Chris Flood (Pic: Socialist Party)

Later this month representatives from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a recently-formed coalition of leftists and trade union officials under whose banner Page ran as a parliamentary candidate in Lewisham Deptford, will meet to discuss future plans for the coalition, which formed in order to field left-wing candidates at the election and challenge Labour’s grasp on the trade unions.

“We’re looking to build an alternative to Labour, which we don’t feel is the party for ordinary people anymore,” says Page. “We believe that we have to build a new party that will represent not just working class people, not just middle class people, but ordinary people, and part of that is the TUSC initiative.”

Lewisham has been a Labour stronghold for many years, but Page considers the party to be guilty of abandoning its core principles, primarily the commitment to public ownership enshrined in Clause Four of its constitution until Tony Blair’s reform of the party in the mid-nineties. He deems Labour to have “sold its soul”, an irreversible move that has made the need for a new left-wing alternative all the more crucial in his eyes.

“It’s not going to be easy but the point is we believe there isn’t another answer. The Labour Party has changed so much that you can’t unmake the Labour Party from what it’s become.”

None of the 41 TUSC candidates at the general election made it to Westminster. Their best results saw David Nellist get 1592 votes in Coventry North East, Jenny Sutton 1057 in Tottenham and Tommy Sheridan 931 in Glasgow South West. Page got 645 votes in Lewisham. He dismisses the number of votes as irrelevant, however: “It was about putting a marker down.”

He was disappointed, however, with the results of the council elections. Yet though both Page and colleague Chris Flood lost their seats and saw their percentage share of the vote fall, they received their highest number of votes ever, suggesting that there is plenty of goodwill towards the pair and a willingness amongst voters in Lewisham to consider less mainstream alternatives to the Labour Party.

National factors

Page in part attributes their defeat to the fact that local elections were held on the same day as the national vote, suggesting the Labour vote was higher as people did all they could to keep the Conservatives out of power. The higher turnout, with those unaware of local issues simply transferring their vote from one ballot paper to another, also counted against them, a phenomenon that that regularly occurs when national and local elections coincide.

“Turnout was three times bigger than normal for local elections,” he says, “with many that don’t look at local issues, and many in this area that came out with a very strong anti-Conservative vote for Labour, holding their noses as it were. We just couldn’t turn that around.

“All the small parties suffered. The Greens lost five out of six seats. Even the Lib Dems, who might have expected to be the biggest party on Lewisham Council, they lost seats as well. So the general election turned local politics upside-down.”

Darren Johnson, the Green councillor for Brockley, agrees with Page on this.

“The whole flavour of the general election was as a presidential contest for prime minister,” he says, “and the focus on the three leaders at the debates made it extremely difficult to get any awareness that there were local council elections on the same day. People probably just turned up to the polling station, found they had an extra ballot paper and voted the same way in the council elections as they did in the general election.”

Battles against cuts

In spite of his defeat, Page is determined to run again, and feels that in more normal circumstances Socialist Party councillors will be re-elected in Lewisham. In the meantime, the painful spending cuts planned by the new coalition government will give the 52-year-old something to fight against.

People in Lewisham, and the Telegraph Hill ward that Page represented for so long, certainly seem more willing to take to the streets than most.

“There’s a whole range of different communities that have campaigned against the council and against the government,” he says, “from tenants on the estates against privatisation to community groups who have fought to defend their local services against cuts.

“That sort of opposition is building across the borough and we’ve been at the forefront of it and we’ve been pushing it, not just in Telegraph Hill ward. In this whole area there have been lots of attacks by the Labour council, from housing privatisation to selling off local buildings. We’ve worked with people, we’ve campaigned and we’ve shown them that you can use councils.”

Johnson has been critical of Page and Flood for what he sees as their unrealistic approach to politics within the council chamber.

“They were effective at ward level in picking up local concerns. Where they fell down, unless something was absolutely perfect their default position was just to say “no” and oppose it. You’re never going to achieve anything in politics if you have such an absolutist approach and you’re not prepared to negotiate and recognise incremental steps in the right direction.”

Page, though, thinks campaigning outside the council chamber is a valid way of getting things done for the local community.

“Whereas we may not always win the vote in the town hall, we’ve quite often won campaigns due to the pressure and the local support we’ve managed to build up.”

One such example was the campaign at the end of last year to prevent the Deptford job centre building from being sold off, a move which would have seen the only job centre in the area close permanently. Employees, union representatives and local residents were outraged and invited the Socialist Party councillors to help with their cause. The campaign was ultimately successful, and Page points to it as clear evidence of what can be done when a local community comes together to challenge the council.

“We got involved, put pressure on, which put pressure on the MP Joan Ruddock, who felt she needed to get involved,” he says. “And it was that whole thing of having an opposition and a socialist opposition which forced pressure, and that worked its way through. They were able to secure a deal. It was because of that publicity and that pressure from all the different sections.”

People before profit

The socialists are not the only group organising grassroots campaigns in Lewisham. People Before Profit, officially founded in September 2008 but active for seven years prior to that, have joined forces with Page and Flood on several occasions, as well as fighting campaigns of their own.

Last month, candidates stood for election under the People Before Profit banner for the first time, with 22 candidates at local level and one in the national contest, in Lewisham East. People Before Profit candidate John Hamilton gained almost 6000 votes in Lewisham’s mayoral contest. The group’s major emphasis remains on grassroots campaigns, however, under the slogan “Community need over corporate greed”.

“Our strength is the campaigns that we run,” says Hamilton, a self-declared communist without any party affiliation. “We would be nothing without campaigns.”

It was from one such campaign that People Before Profit originally emerged in 2001. Residents, parents and teachers opposing the council’s plan to demolish Lewisham Bridge Primary School and replace it with a secondary school protested and circulated petitions, eventually persuading English Heritage to list the old school building, which took place in April 2009. Campaigners then occupied the roof to prevent the demolition of the rest of the school. The campaign was a success, and others have followed. Though the group remains unaffiliated to any political party, Ian Page and Chris Flood have become heavily involved in its activities.

Campaigning community

Page, Flood and Hamilton have achieved notable political success in Lewisham feeding off a solid streak of political activism that is not restricted to the working class. Though there are a number of council estates within the Telegraph Hill ward, and unemployment is higher than the national average at 7.6%, but the ward is also home to a large number of young professionals. Almost half of the population are aged between 20 and 44. Each March residents put on their own arts festival, fully funded by the community, suggesting a young and vibrant community capable of organising itself.

“In the past we’ve had big support from the council estates,” says Page. “But we actually got quite a lot of support from the more middle-class areas because there have been a lot of campaigns recently to defend facilities in that part of the ward which we’ve supported.”

Hamilton agrees.  “There are lots of interesting people who want to put things into the community,” he says. “People are willing to think differently, and they’re angry at these cuts to their services.”

It is for just that reason that Page is so committed to making sure that TUSC emerges from its post-election discussions with a renewed commitment to building an inclusive party that can offer a genuine alternative to Labour and challenge the coalition, which he feels has no real legitimacy.

“It has to progress,” he says. “We’re going to have the situation of a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition making billions of pounds of cuts, and Labour councils carrying out billions of pounds of cuts, and that whole question of political representation will come up, for no other reason than that.”

Uniting the left

There are major obstacles, though. The left has been traditionally divided and, with some exceptions, the majority of trade unions continue to pay their dues to the Labour Party. Page admits to such divisions but plays down their importance, blaming the union leadership for being “wedded to their big salaries” rather than loyal to their members.

“The left as a whole is divided but that’s because there are some quite genuine divisions,” he says. “But that’s not through some sort of Monty Python-type thing. We want to pull all those community activists in, all those trade unionists in, to build a party. And we would argue within it for socialist policy.

“We recruited some new young people just on this election campaign. It’s hard to be politically active when you see a Conservative government come in, but there are whole layers of people that are just looking for an alternative”.

He also feels that pressure from within the unions will eventually lead to a change in policy, and as recently as October last year postal workers in London used a consultative ballot to vote overwhelmingly for disaffiliation from Labour. Several branches of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as well as General Secretary Bob Crow, are already lending their support to the coalition.

“The support we got from RMT branches that supported us is vital,” he says. “It’s more important than us getting a bunch of lefties together and getting out some really smart material. It’s the fact that workers and shop stewards have said yes, we want to endorse you. Our members in trade unions actively campaign for disaffiliation from the Labour party and to sponsor candidates in elections that stand up for the trade unions and for socialist policy.”

With massive spending cuts on the agenda, one thing that Page, Hamilton and their comrades are certain of is that in Lewisham, and perhaps the rest of the country, there will be considerable anger, and this anger will make its way onto the streets. And Hamilton believes it will be them that take the lead.

“It’s up to us to try and direct that anger at the right people.”

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