Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Lambeth library occupiers are renewing the anti-cuts struggle

Simon Hardy looks at what led community campaigners to occupy their local library in south London – and says others should follow their example

April 7, 2016
6 min read

carnegie-libraryPhotos: Library campaign

An occupation of the historic Carnegie Library in Lambeth, south London is about to enter its second week, as half the libraries in the borough face closure.

The dozens of protesters – including many children – have the support of 220 authors in their fight to keep the libraries open and their fight has made waves in the national media. The occupation began on 31 March, the day the library was scheduled to close, when a farewell party planned by the Friends of Carnegie Library refused to leave the building.

The council’s plan to turn Minet, Carnegie and Tate South Lambeth libraries into ‘Healthy Living Centres’ – that is, gyms – has no community support, despite a ludicrous pledge to put bookshelves in the gyms. This was actually the least popular option on the table during a shambolic consultation.

‘We keep going because we can see how many people come to the front gates of the library to support us,’ said Dorothea, one of the occupiers. ‘They bring food, blankets and hot water bottles because they want to be part of this. They are angry about this silly decision… All they want is to keep their library – nobody wants a gym!’

Thanks to the brilliant news coverage of the occupation, the Lambeth Council spin machine has been forced to go into overdrive. They are calling the occupiers misguided because, they claim, the ‘libraries will re-open in 2017’. But unions and the community are clear – ‘libraries’ in gyms, without librarians, are not libraries. As one campaigner put it: ‘I have a bookshelf on my mantelpiece – that doesn’t make my living room a library.’

The council cannot even confirm if children can use these ‘bookish gyms’, because of the presence of gym equipment. These ridiculous plans expose a council that don’t use libraries or understand what they provide for the community. When we lose our libraries we also lose the chess groups, the reading groups, dementia club, English conversation groups and many others.

Johanna, 13, and Sarah, 12, describe how the library ‘beams… with students revising, children reading and toddlers playing and taking part in activities’. ‘Every Saturday there is a free chess club for all ages,’ they wrote – and that continued even as the council tightened security around the occupation. ‘Today chess club was being played through the bars on the steps.’

carnegie-library-2

Continuing fight

The occupation is the latest phase of a continuing struggle by unions and the local community to defend local library provision. Strikes by the Unison union received widespread community support – despite one councillor calling them a ‘disgrace’ – and moves towards a council-wide ballot against job cuts have been supported by 85 per cent of union members at Lambeth council.

There are a growing number of campaigns, protests, petitions and meetings in Lambeth, on a range of issues including gentrification and the tearing down of housing estates, the forcing out of local businesses in the railway arches, the new Garden Bridge vanity project and all the destructive and vindictive cuts coming from central government.

Yet our council remains thoroughly Blairite, once described by Blair himself as ‘more New Labour than New Labour’. Liz Kendall even came down to Brixton to launch her failed Labour leadership campaign – the only political meeting I’ve ever been to where someone in the audience wore Google Glasses.

The library campaign has scored some notable successes: we saved Tate South Lambeth library, and Jane Edbrooke – the cabinet member responsible for this debacle – has been reshuffled out of her post. It has also bought to light many of the problems around Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL), the firm that would be running the gyms.

GLL is a ‘social enterprise’ set up by former Labour councillors in Greenwich to take advantage of the privatisation of libraries and council leisure centres. Despite its alleged ethical basis, GLL extensively uses zero-hours contracts, has a two tier workforce and even planned strike-breaking in Greenwich when Unite members took strike action earlier this year against the closure of the mobile library service.

Many local people feel that the library cuts are politically motivated. The libraries are the best-organised section of the union, and have fought off repeated restructuring attempts over the last few years.

carnegie-library-3

No need for closure

An alternative proposal was put to the council by Susanna Barnes, head of the library service, back in early 2015, to spin the libraries off into a staff and community mutual which would keep all the jobs and all the libraries open. The council sat on it and delayed a response, before finally rejecting it last month because ‘it wouldn’t make the necessary savings’. The details of what revenue savings will be made through the GLL deal, however, are not public.

The truth is many councillors seem to see this crisis as an opportunity to get their feet under the table with their own Community Trust for Carnegie. A shadowy cabal of former and current councillors are proposing to take over most of the Carnegie building – with GLL in a refurbished basement at the cost of £2 million. In the last weeks of Carnegie being officially open, librarians reported Labour councillors coming in and gloating that ‘this [building] will be ours soon’. It appears the Blairite Third Way limps on in Lambeth.

carnegie-supportTo help the campaign to save Lambeth libraries, you can join us outside Carnegie Library this Saturday (9 April) at 11.30am to march to Brixton, past Minet Library. Please tweet Jack Hopkins, the new head of neighbourhoods, @JackHopkins_Lab or email him on jhopkins@lambeth.gov.uk

And beyond Lambeth, make use of our experiences: the united fight between the unions and the community, the strikes and occupations, the protests at every council and cabinet meeting, the linking of campaigns around housing and gentrification with local service provision. Lambeth’s libraries don’t have to be unique: occupations like these could be repeated across the country and help kick start a new anti-austerity movement that helps bring an end to the Tory nightmare. It can be done – it must be done.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death