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Questions of Unity: Why Labour Activists Can't Stop Council Homes Being Blown Up

Has Jeremy Corbyn struck a Faustian pact with Labour's gentrification-happy local councillors?

by Simon Childs
19 October 2016, 11:05pm

Residents in Lambeth resisting eviction in 2015 (Photo by Chris Bethell)

It has been estimated that 400,000 Londoners could be thrown out of their homes as council estates become targets for redevelopment – AKA demolition and replacement by swanky flats. Already, estate regeneration schemes will see the loss of 7,326 council homes and 1,389 affordable homes in London.

The 300 homes of Cressingham Gardens in the London Borough of Lambeth are a case in point. The council has been trying to demolish the estate since 2012, when a consultation was launched, but quickly all the refurbishment options were removed, leaving residents to choose the extent to which they wanted their homes blown up. The residents won a High Court battle when a judge ruled that the removal of those options was unlawful. They have recently had a second judicial review granted over the legality of the demolition.

Gerlinde Gniewosz is one such resident. She's due to have her first child in November, but she faces the prospect of homelessness if Cressingham Gardens is not saved.

"A lot of our residents are very, very elderly. They will essentially die as a consequence because they won't have their support networks any more. How is this solving the housing crisis?" she asks.

It's this kind of lurid picture of a bureaucratised cruelty that powers the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn. The enthusiasm for Corbyn's "new kind of politics" has turned Labour into the biggest political party in Europe. His vision of a fairer world has attracted hundreds of thousands, with party membership higher than Tony Blair's 1997 peak. Somewhere on his big list titled "Nice Things I'd Like to Do" is to sort out the housing crisis. Under him, Labour would build one million new homes – half of them council houses – and he has pledged to end the "social cleansing" caused by housing sell offs.

Unfortunately, a lot of this social cleansing is being carried out by Labour councils. To take one example, Lambeth council, which wants to kick Gerlinde out of her home, is run by the Labour party.

In fairness, this isn't exactly JC's fault. The Labour councillors of Lambeth are a perfect example of the kind of dead eyed pragmatists to which Corbyn is cast as an antidote, and they've been throwing vulnerable people out of their houses in order to sell them to the private sector to carry out gentrifying redevelopment for years. To give you an idea of their position, Lambeth Labour's Jack Hopkins once said, "Regeneration is often seen through the eyes of cynics who are quick to criticise 'gentrification' but ignore the benefits." Many Lambeth councillors are members of Progress, the organisation on the party's right wing that is happy to make its hatred of the leader pretty public. They're not exactly Corbynistas.

But has Jeremy Corbyn struck a Faustian pact with them? In his conference speech in Liverpool, the Labour leader railed against the housing crisis. "Look what's happening to housing under the Tories... council homes are sold off without being replaced," he said. But weirdly, he didn't find time in his speech to criticise Labour councils such as Lambeth, Hackney and Southwark for doing just that.

Quite the opposite. In a gambit aimed at stopping his party's desperate civil war, he said: "Across the country, Labour councils are putting Labour values into action, in a way that makes a real difference to millions of people, despite cynical government funding cuts that have hit Labour councils five times as hard as Tory-run areas. It is a proud Labour record, and each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do."

Karen Bennett is a resident of the Central Hill estate in Lambeth, and she is on tenterhooks waiting to find out if the council will demolish her home. The decision, she says, will be made "just before Christmas".

A Labour member, she organised a protest called "Stand Up to Lambeth" along with Lambeth's other TNT-bound estates, libraries up for the chop and the traders at Brixton's doomed railway arches, among others. "We're just trying to save our homes. That's all we're trying to do. We're just ordinary people," she said.

Lambeth Momentum supported the Stand Up to Lambeth campaign, and their name appeared on a leaflet calling for the resignation of Lambeth's cabinet. But when challenged, they withdrew their support for the cabinet's resignation, denying they had ever actually done so. I spoke to Jim Clegg from Lambeth Momentum about their efforts to defeat the council. "I don't see it as campaigning against a Labour council," he said, despite his organisation's support for something called "Stand Up to Lambeth".

He agreed that the council had "totally failed" in their consultation efforts, "as a result you have this 'us and them' situation, which is perhaps somewhere Momentum can come in – we can maybe be that liaison between the two". He hastily added: "I'm not saying we're going to try and sell Lambeth council's plans to the people of Cressingham Gardens. What I would hope we would be able to do is, even in these difficult circumstances, come up with solutions that both council and residents can unite around to some extent. That simply hasn't happened and that's the big shame, I think."

It seemed an unrealistic answer borne out of divided loyalties. This is a council that has acted illegally in its efforts to remove its tenants – how could they see eye to eye? Not to mention the fact that the Labour group suspended their own councillor for questioning council policy.

A spokesperson for Lambeth said, "The council is, has and will continue to talk to residents about the future of their estates and homes. It is clear the key messages are still not getting through though – so we must work even harder to demonstrate that in the face of London's massive housing crisis we are doing all we can."

It seems they have their work cut out in that regard. The spokesperson told a story that was wildly at odds with that of the residents I spoke to: "We are not kicking people out of their homes or 'social cleansing'. In reality we're working incredibly hard to rebuild run down council estates, to build more council flats and to create extra homes that can be sold on the private market to help pay for it."

I asked Jim if he would recommend that someone standing to lose their home should join Labour. "Absolutely, yeah," he said. "I would strongly encourage you to join both Labour and Momentum and to help us try to change the direction of the Labour Party both locally and nationally." I couldn't help but think it was a difficult position to ask people to put themselves in.

In fact, it's the one Karen Bennett finds herself in. She said she would like to see the Labour Party do more for people like her. "Support Corbyn? Absolutely. Disappointed in his lack of involvement? Yes," she said. "I would like to very much see Corbyn stand up with us against the injustices within Labour councils."

She was understanding about the predicament of her local Momentum group: "I think they're caught between a rock and a hard place. It's very, very difficult for them. I respect the decision they've made. I'm disappointed that they haven't been able to raise their head over the parapet."

I asked Momentum about that contradiction and a spokesperson told me: "David Cameron questioned the cuts in his local council while continuing to lead his party. Likewise, Momentum members, who are entirely made up of Labour members, affiliates and supporters, can oppose specific policies and be involved in community campaigns while fully supporting the Labour Party."

Simon Elmer from Architects for Social Housing, which has been working with some of the at-risk estates, was more sceptical. "Momentum haven't done anything to help estate demolition [campaigns], precisely because it would draw attention to the role of Labour councils in doing this, and also Labour Party policy."

Plenty of questions have been asked about Labour's ability to act as a party of government when Corbyn seems at times to be more interested in waving a "Don't Attack Iraq" placard than putting in a decent shift at PMQs. But with Labour looking unlikely to be in power any time soon, it's worth asking if Labour is the best vehicle for popular protest? The Corbyn movement has defined itself against austerity. Whether or not it was their idea, local councils are at the heart of enforcing that agenda, having taken a massive central government funding cut. That means Labour councils are often the reluctant butchers of various council services. Maybe their hands are tied, but is that something Labour activists can and should get behind? How long can you hold your nose for party unity? Until it's your house being knocked over?

For Gerlinde, deferring to the wonderful things Labour will do when next in power doesn't really work. For her, the problem is that they are in power locally, and knocking on her door. "The only way you've got is to wait four years to vote them out," she said. "Within four years they could make me and my baby homeless. I could lose my home before I can vote them out."

This article has been updated to include the comments of a Lambeth Council spokesperson.

@SimonChilds13

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