Carnegie Library in Lambeth, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Library occupied in ‘siege’ against Lambeth Blairite cutters

James Ivens, Lambeth Socialist Party

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, south London, is under community occupation. The borough’s Labour council closed it on 31 March to begin transforming it into yet another gym.

Police have now effectively locked in the protest, which is “turning into a siege”. Lambeth’s ultra-Blairite administration is refusing to negotiate. One councillor even mocked the community by tweeting pictures of cats on treadmills in response to challenges.

Some library supporters are declaring that, in spite of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, they will never vote Labour again. This underlines the Socialist Party’s consistent warnings that failing to stand up to Blairite cutters will alienate Corbyn’s support base.

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Private gym company Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL) successfully bid to run Carnegie as a “healthy living centre with a self-service neighbourhood library”. How is a ‘library’ supposed to operate without librarians? How many books can you shelve on a treadmill? How can you study in silence next to cross trainers and kettlebells?

At the start of the occupation, activists were defending the site in shifts, and continuing to run services for the community. But police have now sealed off the building. They are not permitting entry or re-entry, although they are allowing occupiers to leave.

Lambeth Socialist Party backs the occupation and has visited the Carnegie to assist. We will continue to do so. But in order for the occupation to win, public sector union Unison must build for further strikes.

There is currently a consultative ballot for industrial action across Lambeth’s entire battered and angry council workforce. Such action would be a big step forward. Coordinating with council workers under threat in the neighbouring boroughs of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bromley would increase the impact.

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, memories board, April 2016, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, memories board, April 2016, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Jeremy Corbyn should intervene in support of Lambeth libraries and all jobs and services. Rather than tolerating Tories in red ties, he could instruct Labour council leaders to set legal no-cuts budgets.

Sadiq Khan, Labour’s London mayoral candidate, has so far declined to support the libraries campaign. Khan supporters even tried to cover and remove Carnegie protesters’ placards at the Blairite’s launch events.

Library campaigners understand the role of Blairite cutters very well. But the leadership of pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum refuses to fight them. Momentum must immediately stop campaign activity for hated Blairites like Councillor Florence Eshalomi, or public support will continue to decline.

‘The library is a complex organism… cutting it off is just barbarism’

Several dozen campaigners, mainly from the local Herne Hill area, met in the Carnegie on 31 March to discuss their campaign. They are members of the community of all ages, and regular library users. When the Carnegie officially closed at 6pm, they refused to leave.

The council plans to shut four of the ten libraries in this deprived and densely populated inner-city borough. The Minet Library in Myatt’s Fields near Brixton closed the same day.

Carnegie Library occupation in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library occupation in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Laura Swaffield, chair of ‘The Library Campaign’ charity, said the police cordon means the situation is “turning into a siege”. The occupation has attracted national media attention, including from the BBC and a front page of the Financial Times.

Libraries are not just about books. The Carnegie is an essential quiet workspace for revising school students. During my visit on 1 April, one young woman was poring over Latin GCSE notes. The local chess club used to meet in the facility. Organisers were even running a kids’ music session in the library’s garden.

Placards reading “words not weights” adorned the Carnegie’s gates, next to trade union and political banners.

One occupier said to me: “The library is a complex organism, the way it interacts with all different parts of the community. Cutting it off is just barbarism.”

Embarrassing for Khan

It seems clear that Sadiq Khan sees the campaign as an embarrassment. Another occupier told me that “flatlining support” for Khan would really send a message to Labour cutters.

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, April 2016, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Florence Eshalomi, who is helping to drive through the cuts, is the local Labour candidate for the Greater London Authority. Eshalomi – a sitting borough councillor – is reportedly an executive committee member of Tony Blair’s ‘Progress’ faction.

Placards in the occupation read “Shame on you Eshalomi”. Protesters have chalked the ground outside the library with angry slogans, including “we will never vote Labour again”. But the leaders of Lambeth Momentum continue to blithely support Eshalomi and Khan.

At its last meeting on 16 March, Lambeth Momentum agreed to picket a fundraiser for Eshalomi. A right-wing mole in the group leaked this decision to the Times, which ran a sensationalist attack on the group.

Published on 18 March, the story included a denial from Momentum nationally, and insistence that Momentum backs Tory-lite Labour ‘moderates’. Only a week later, activists received an email from Lambeth Momentum organising a canvassing session for Eshalomi!

Falling turnout at the group’s meetings is due in part to leaders’ failure to stand up for anti-austerity politics.

Cats on treadmills

Meanwhile, high-handed Labour councillors ignore counter-proposals and sneer at campaigners.

According to local news website Brixton Buzz, a senior council employee in charge of libraries presented alternative funding plans that could keep all ten Lambeth libraries open. Councillors refused to consider it.

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, children's music session, April 2016, photo by James Ivens

Carnegie Library in Lambeth, children’s music session, April 2016, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Councillor Alex Bigham actually tweeted photos of cats on treadmills in response to requests to debate the closure plans. And Councillor Matt Bennett attacked locked-in occupiers for sharing a bottle of wine during a housing crisis. His own council’s policies – selling off council homes, planning to bulldoze estates like Cressingham Gardens – are exacerbating this.

Lambeth Unison released documents in October that suggest links between a councillor and GLL. Councillor Jane Edbrooke delayed her proposals on the library service, allegedly to give GLL time to prepare a takeover bid. It seems the firm had previously sent staff members to closed workshops meant for community consultation on the libraries.

Occupation holding fast

In less than a week, the occupation has had a tumultuous response. National and international solidarity has poured in as workers everywhere grow sick of capitalist politicians’ attacks on jobs and services for working class people.

During the occupation’s first night, protesters saw off police who said they had received a 999 call from a staff member in the building who ‘felt threatened’. The only threat to library workers comes from Lambeth council, not occupiers. Campaigners eventually persuaded police to leave after a union rep called all the workers out of the building. Officers were not allowed to enter the occupation.

For now, the occupation is holding fast. Police are not even allowing children to visit parents in the building. The council is seeking an injunction, but at the time of writing has not succeeded. Coordinated industrial action, combined with strong solidarity support for the occupation, could lead to victory.

Public meeting: South London fights back!

Organised by South London NSSN (part of the National Shop Stewards Network)

Wednesday 13 April 2016, 7.30pm

Karibu Centre, 7 Gresham Road, London SW9 7PH

  • With speakers from the campaign against library closures; teachers balloting for strike action; junior doctors fighting an imposed contract; and more.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 4 April 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.