In the run-up to the local and general elections on May 6, we'll be taking a close look at the candidates and issues from some of the London battlegrounds. First up, Jason Cobb sets the scene in Lambeth.
The London Borough of Lambeth has thankfully moved on since the Loony Left days of refusing to set a rate. The political breeding ground that gave us Ken Livingstone in Norwood, plus John Major walking the mean streets of Brixton, is still very much a Petri dish for national political thought and ideas.
The local elections on May 6th are being used by the national Labour party to gauge the public reaction to the much-mooted John Lewis style model of local government. The right of centre Labour-led Lambeth Council decided to announce the mutualisation of local politics just two months ahead of the local elections, gaining a Guardian front-page piece in the process.
This is a key election issue, both on the ground in Lambeth, as well as within wider political discourse. Essentially it allows local people to run local services, taking away the financial burden from Council Tax payers. Critics argue that it also removes the democratic accountability we entrust our politicians with via the ballot box.
Lambeth Labour promised a consultation with residents throughout March. Come April, and there is still no sign within the borough that this has been rolled out. A Freedom of Information request asking what the savings have been to the public purse in a John Lewis style managed housing block, revealed that no savings have been made.
Housing is also a key issue in Lambeth for campaigning local politicians. The revelation that out of the entire count of empty homes in London, one in five is located in Lambeth, has shocked many locals who are stuck on the housing waiting list. The incoming head of Lambeth Living, the ultra-Blairite Keith Hill MP, will be a busy man when he steps into his new role on May 7th.
The housing policy in Lambeth has been masked, however, by the complete meltdown of Leisure. Streatham Leisure Centre was closed because the Council couldn't afford to pay for essential repairs. A private developer closed Clapham a few months later. The only other pool in the borough, Brixton Rec, introduced a 7-9am only public swimming session, whilst a refurbishment to the changing rooms took place, less than two years after a £2.7m similar project.
But it's all about events dear boy, events. The Labour group finally managed to seal a deal with Tesco in Streatham after almost a decade of political and corporate dithering. Just weeks ahead of the local elections, Tesco has been give planning permission for a new superstore, in return for re-building the leisure facilities.
Likewise in Clapham, the bulldozers have moved in this month to build a (reduced size) pool plus, of course, the private residential property on council land as the corporate paymaster payback.
Housing, leisure and Petri-dish politics aside, the Labour group in Lambeth have managed to freeze Council Tax for the past two years. This compares to the massive 40% hike by the LibDems when they held power four years ago. Not surprisingly, Lambeth Labour leads heavily with this in its election manifesto. One would imagine that the other twenty-four local authorities who have also frozen Council Tax ahead of May 6th are also keen to talk about this on the doorsteps.
The high-profile twittering @mayoroflambeth has been a genuine success story in the past twelve months. Taking a sabbatical from his Labour party duties in the Clapham Town ward, Councillor Wellbelove has worked wonders in trying to unite the borough. The introduction of a Youth Mayor of Lambeth is also to be applauded. Over 10,000 Lambeth youngsters took part in the democratic process to elect Darren Tenkorang last month.
The challenge for the LibDems in Lambeth is to not only come up with a credible alternative to the John Lewis form of government, but also to actually get their message heard. Cuts in the public sector are the driving force for the Petri dish experiment in Lambeth. Whoever takes control of the borough will need to make massive savings.
It is unclear if the LibDems have any grand plans to manage the 'financial tsunami' that has been spoken of, or simply if they are poor at communicating their ideas to the public. The slogan of 'only the LibDems can beat Labour' is still rolled out, conveniently overlooking the fact that the LibDems in Lambeth will actually need the support of the Tories to take back power in the borough.
Which brings up nicely to the Lambeth Conservatives. It is very difficult to have any feelings either way to the blue rinse mob in the borough. The Bullingdon toffs of Dave and his Notting Hill set are a far cry from the leafy Lambeth Tory stronghold of Norwood and West Dulwich.
Lambeth Conservatives are equally as nice as they are wet. They are almost universally liked, probably safe in the knowledge that they will never gain any real political power in the borough.
The Greens in Lambeth are defending their current seat held in the Herne Hill ward, as well as targeting Brixton Hill as a possible coup. Toppling council leader Steve Reed in his own backyard would be a significant scalp.
Elsewhere in the borough and The Oval ward looks like being a key battleground. Labour have set their sights on the current three LibDem seats. The policy of putting forward a candidate who lives outside of the ward, not to mention simultaneously having serious Westminster ambitions down in the East Hampshire constituency, is sending out a confused message to locals at The Oval.
Campaigning by all parties is now in full flow. Labour is dominating the agenda, thanks to high profile online activities, using twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Lambeth Labour has posted some incredibly vile and vulgar videos to the latter, leading many sympathetic voters to look elsewhere come Election Day.
Lambeth Life, the council funded newspaper, is seen by many in the borough as simply being the mouthpiece of the ruling Labour Group. The continuation of the council newspaper has also become a major election issue in itself. The Labour group is currently involved in a stand off with the South London Press. This has become highly personal, with the chief SLP reporter for Lambeth having been cautioned by police for the common assault of the Lambeth cabinet member for Community and Safety.
The council has pulled all statutory local authority advertising from the local paper, conveniently placing it in Lambeth Life instead. The justification is that the SLP carries 'escort ads,' something that doesn't sit too well with a local authority that has put in place a prostitution strategy. The end result is a local newspaper hostile to council reporting, and the Chief Reporter now banned from entering Lambeth Town Hall. Democracy and accountability have been lost somewhere inbetween.
The national picture in Lambeth is not nearly as exciting as the local picture. Kate Tally Hoey is a shoe-in for Vauxhall, despite a risible 46% turn out by the electorate back in 2005. Streatham is slightly more interesting. The youthful Chuka Umunna is taking over from Keith Hill as the Labour PPC. With some truly preposterous expectations placed upon Chuka ('A Barack Obama for Britain'), the Streatham boy is up against Chris Nicholson for the LibDems.
The departing Streatham MP, Keith Hill, cowardly used his Parliamentary privilege to make allegations about the funding of Nicholson's campaign. The LibDem has been transparent in his funding; yet still the local Labour group continue to repeat the allegations.
To his credit, Umunna has not made any political capital out of the issue. He has actually made efforts to distance himself from the right wing members of his own local Labour party. Despite the clean-cut, vibrant youthful image, Umunna is actually a left of centre Labour candidate - something of a rarity in Lambeth.
And so the choice for Lambeth voters on May 6th is to sign up for participation in a Petri dish style of local government under an ultra-right-wing Labour administration, or leave it to chance with the unknown policies of the LibDems.
Tally Hoey will be returned to Westminster via Vauxhall, whilst Streatham voters have the choice of a high profile left wing rising star, or a credible LibDem who is not afraid to fight back.
Battle lines have been drawn, let the voters decide...
By Jason Cobb