Lambeth 31 defiant – Interview with Ted Knight (August 1985)

Ted Knight, Leader of Lambeth Council, interviewed by Joan Twelves,-Secretary of Vauxhall CLP, after Lambeth had set a rate on July 3rd.

London Labour Briefing, No. 52, August 1985

Joan Twelves: Now that a rate has been set in Lambeth, what happens next?

Ted Knight: The first action of the majority of the Labour Group is to state firmly that no cuts will-be made in  Lambeth, either in jobs or services, and that the Council will be operating a true deficit budget.

The government is fully aware that it cannot force cuts on Lambeth through a vote in the Council chamber and so they have used a state official, the District Auditor, to remove elected Labour councillors from office. The Labour Group and local CLPs have agreed that the fight to protect the right of elected councillors to resist government policies without being charged with wilful misconduct is a principle for which the movement as ¡ whole must fight. The council trade unions are also giving their support.

JT: We have the by election in Larkhall on 1 August to replace Mike Bright with a candidate, Linda Bellos, who is standing on a platform of no cuts and non-compliance, The Lambeth Parties have taken a position that only those who support s continued struggle against the Rates Act should be on the by-election panel at the present time. Do you think it likely that we will need to replace the 31 councillors threatened with surcharge before the borough elections next May?

TK: The next stage is the issue of the certification of surcharge, which in itself is an instrument which executes the penalty. This could be received from the District Auditor anytime from the end of July until September. The councillors then have to appeal to prove their innocence of the charges and it could take sometime before we reach a final decision. In order to influence the outcome both of the District Auditor’s intentions and of a court decision, the maximum industrial action is needed to convince the government that to follow through the course of action it has adopted will lead to disruption of local authority services not only in Lambeth but throughout the capital city. Therefore, the prospect of by lections to replace the 31 councillors is not necessarily immediate, but we must be ready with comrades who are prepared to carry forward non-compliance. The budget for 1986-7 will be decided in March before the borough elections and we need to have a policy of refusing to make cuts in that budget too.

JT: The councillors have been mobilising massive support for the Fighting Fund. Do you think we should have done this sooner-and that is the role of ordinary Party members in all this?

TK: Labour councillors are engaged in two projects at the moment’ One is to maximise public support for the  arguments against  the District Auditor and Tory policies and to demonstrate that the threat of removal from office because of wilful misconduct is a weapon that the government will use extensively if the precedent is set.

Secondly, the Fighting Fund to enable Labour’s councillors to resist within the courts is essential because the labour movement cannot accept the right of a state official to carry out this action. The Fighting Fund could not have been established before the direct action of the District Auditor because the issue was too abstract.

Labour councillors cannot present their case without the full support and activity of Labour Party members generally. The task is too great and the political issues too important for it to be left to 31 members and therefore in Lambeth we are seeking to involve other Party members in contacting their trade unions and other Labour movement organisations, together with the community groups which they are in contact with.

JT: Another criticism we’ve heard locally from some groups has been that because the fight is solely aimed at presenting Labour’s fight to manage the local state, it has not mobilised the working class, and is therefore opportunist.

TK: The rate capping fight set out to turn a section of the state machine, i.e. local government, against the state itself. And mobilisation of public support for the jobs and services provided by the councils has been successful. During the campaign it was necessary to persuade the trade unions to sink sectional differences and unite in a common fight against the government, and this too has been successful. The decision of government to resort to the District Auditor as its final weapons in forcing policies on Lambeth and Liverpool has in practice taken the fight into the broader community. A united front has been formed between Lambeth’s councillors, CLPs, trade unionists, and community activists; the struggle has shifted from one of management of the local state to that of mobilising a working class community.

JT: A further criticism – from a different quarter is that we shouldn’t be doing anything which could threaten the Labour leadership’s efforts to win the next general election.

TK The fight against rate capping, like the struggle-of the miners, far from damaging Labour’s electoral Prospects actually shows Labour Party representatives as being prepared to carry out a –serious fight against the Thatcher government. This mobilises support from the working class who are seeking a real alternative to Thatcher’s disastrous policies, but even if we are talking about an attempt to win the middle ground – this always moves to the strongest side within a fight. A decision to take a low profile and engage in totally parliamentary opposition to Thatcher is counterproductive even in voting terms. An example of our success for instance, is in the fight for the political levy, where council workers appear to be recording-firm decisions in support of their trade unions continuing to have political funds.

JT: The local Parties are currently discussing the manifesto for the borough elections in 1986. What effect do you think this year’s struggle will have on those elections?

TK: The effect that the firm stand of Lambeth’s Labour Group, with the support of the CLPs and trade unions, will have on the electorate can already be seen in the by-elections that have taken place in Lambeth over the last year. Labour is getting its arguments over and Labour voters are responding to a fighting front against Thatcher. For the 1986 elections, the Labour Parties in Lambeth must present a manifesto based on the needs of the borough and must commit its elected members to fight in unity with the trade unions to achieving that. The defence of services is not enough when those services are already being deprived of financial resource outside the control of councillors and therefore we have to win working class support on the basis of what is needed and how it can be fought for. The actions of the Lambeth labour councillors are a valuable experience, and provide evidence that what we promise to do will actually carry out.

JT: How do we link the fight in with winning the next general election? What demands must we place on the Party?

TK: As well as the whole Party organising support in defence of Lambeth now, the next Labour government must be firmly committed to restoring the rights of councillors, restoring the money taken away and provide compensating, and also restoring local government finance’ the Rate Support Grant, to pre-1979 levels. Lambeth councillors have no intention of being left to fight alone.

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