The Labour Party in Lambeth, South London, is in crisis after being caught off guard by the scale and determination of opposition to its council's library cuts. Councillors face strikes, protests and an occupation – while big chunks of their own party's membership are also attacking them.
Up to 70 people turned up at Herne Hill station this morning to "greet" councillor Jim Dickson who was set to be canvassing for the upcoming London elections. But Dickson seemed to be in hiding.
An occupation of Carnegie Library that began on Thursday evening is ongoing--and going strong three days in.
The council wants to close three of the borough's ten libraries and make cuts to the rest. Two of the closed libraries would reopen as gyms run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd in what even local Labour MP Kate Hoey calls a “grubby deal”.
Hoey said, “Those benefactors who bequeathed a library for the community would be turning in their grave if they knew what was happening.”
Dulwich and West Norwood Constituency Labour Party has spoken out saying it “stands with librarians and Friend's Groups opposing Lambeth Council's plan for the library service”.
Councillors would like to create the impression of hardened militants inside. The reality of the sit-in is the people who run readers’ groups, the chess club, parents and their children.
“I’ve been coming here for 40 years,” 63 year old library user Faith told Socialist Worker, adding, “It’s been an important place to my life.” She described how during periods of bereavement that the library, its books and staff helped her move on.
Other occupiers tell different stories, from students needing study space for their GCSEs to those on low incomes who come for internet access.
Edward who runs the chess club, with 150 members from the ages of five to 95, said it was important for the library as a “centre of knowledge” to have groups like his. “We’re helping children develop analytical thinking – and concentration,” he said.
But campaigners in the library say their “peaceful, good humoured occupation” is now “effectively under siege” by desperate councillors.
Extra security guards, with police, have prevented anyone entering or re-entering the building since Friday afternoon. Some 80 people including small children are inside. Another 100 people joined a Friday evening rally in solidarity outside. Supporters were also set to rally at the library's front steps at 3pm today, Saturday.
The council is seeking a court order to evict the occupiers. But this cannot be served until Monday at the earliest.
Everybody is united in defence of the public library service. “If we let it go when there are all these people saying why they need this place we won’t just lose our library – we’ll lose our power to be listened to,” Faith said.
Rob Jones and Rosie Protheroe are also sitting in at Carnegie. Their twin 11-month old daughters are the youngest occupiers.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Rob. “But this is our library. Our son is nine. His grandma takes him to the chess club every Saturday – he loves it.
“The council have been shutting stuff for years, like youth clubs, but the youth need the library. We don’t need a gym here – there’s two down the bottom of the road.”
Rosie agreed. She’s lived nearby all her life and has been going to Carnegie since she was a child. Rosie said, “There’s always nice things for the kids to do during the holidays that are free.” But the space has made a big difference for her too recently.
“Being on maternity leave, with two young children, and having this space to come to was so important as a social space to meet and talk with other people.”
For Labour councillors none of this seems to matter. But as people have become part of the occupation and the campaign to save Lambeth libraries they have realised how much they mean to other people too. And it’s made them more determined.
Kicking the poor and driving through cuts hasn't proved as easy as Lambeth Labour expected. But when will councillors do the harder thing and start opposing Tory austerity instead of saying their hands are tied?