As former Lambeth council leader Steve Reed makes his foray into national politics, following his Croydon North by-election win for Labour, it is a good time to look at the flagship project on which he launched his rise to parliament. Lambeth Council declared itself a ‘co-operative council’ under his leadership back in 2010, claiming to revolutionise the way public services are delivered. This new model of governance, Labour claimed, would empower communities by allowing them to make decisions about how their services are run.
This rhetoric of shifting power to the people has proven popular, with more than 20 Labour councils piloting approaches in co-operative public services through the Co-operative Councils Network founded by Reed. Other fans include the Guardian’s Zoe Williams, who has written about the ‘constructive changes’ by Lambeth and other councils as ‘heartening’. Reed has declared that his project ‘offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally’. But what has been the residents’ experience in Lambeth?
One o’clock clubs – open access play centres for under-fives – were declared to be an ‘early adopter’ of the ‘co-operative model’ by Lambeth Council in 2011. The council’s plan was for the clubs to be run by ‘new co-operative entities’ by April 2012. This transfer of management has come under great criticism by users, who highlight the undemocratic nature of the process.
Fenton Forsyth, who takes his son to his local one o’clock club, declares his ‘disillusionment’ with the entire process: ‘There’s a feeling of helplessness amongst people that it’s not done properly, they don’t have their say. People are anxious about what’s been done and how it’s done.’ He describes a consultation meeting he attended. After hearing bids from organisations looking to run the service, ballot papers were distributed to the attendees. When Forsyth asked if he could have one for his wife, who was at work, he was told that only the people present could vote. He dismisses this as ‘snapshot democracy’, when the decision should involve the whole community. In any case, he adds that only 30 per cent of votes went to the club users, so that the council could override whatever they voted for regardless.
Lambeth’s libraries were another service that the council decided to restructure along supposedly ‘co-operative’ principles. A libraries consultation was set up encouraging residents to ‘have your say’. But as with the one o’clock clubs, users felt frustrated and ignored by the process and the outcome.
Lisa Sheldon is a student who grew up using Lambeth libraries. ‘We didn’t have much money, so the library was a really important resource. I did the summer reading trails as a child and used the computers and books for my homework.’ She took part in the consultation process but has little faith that Lambeth took her views into account. ‘The documents we were supposed to fill out were huge. It took me two hours to plough through, and even then it was clear from the wording of the questions that the council had already made up their mind as to what would happen.’
She says the results of the consultation revealed that a majority did not want or were undecided about the ‘co-operative library’ proposals, but the council went ahead anyway. ‘When Lambeth talk about shifting power to local people, it is obviously disingenuous. Handing people reduced library budgets and making them decide between books and staff is not empowering – to tell people to enforce their own cuts on their library service is unforgivable.’
‘The consultation spoke of creating “community hubs” in libraries,’ Sheldon continues. ‘But as anyone who has visited a Lambeth library knows, these places already serve the function of a community hub where all members of the community visit to access the great range of services provided. Lambeth council’s plans are so far away from the true meaning and practice of the word co-operative they are bringing the term into disrepute.’
A further aspect of current council policy, the sale of co-operative housing and the removal of residents who have occupied it for more than 30 years, was covered in the previous issue of Red Pepper (‘Short-life sell off’, RP Dec-Jan 2013). Along with the changes to libraries and children’s services, it demonstrates how Steve Reed’s ‘co-operative council’ has failed to live up to its rhetoric. Instead, a top-down power structure continues to drive forward the outsourcing, privatisation and sell-off of public resources in the name of empowerment.
A comment by Lambeth councillor Florence Nosegbe is revealing: ‘The key driving force behind [the co-operative council] is to get more local people involved in the vision that we as councillors are making.’ The vision is very much of the councillors’ making with local people’s participation limited to flawed consultations. As Lisa Sheldon puts it, ‘The only co-operation going on here is with the national government’s cuts.’
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry