Lobby of Wood Street library, Walthamstow, photo Sarah Wrack (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
Nancy Taaffe, Waltham Forest Socialist Party
Libraries come from a tradition of workers’ self-education. Their heyday was the 1950s when workers laboured in the factories and mines and libraries serviced a certain deprivation of the ‘soul’.
They were often recognisable in working class communities by the buildings in which they were housed, much like churches. Leon Trotsky once wrote that the Russian revolution of 1917 would need places which acted like cultural competitors to the drinking houses and churches in working class communities in capitalist society.
The achievements of the workers’ movements after World War Two included the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act – making provision statutory. It is a testament to the post-war settlement that ‘going to the library’ is lodged into millions of working class children’s memories.
Of course reading habits and print media have undergone their own revolutions, but libraries – historically and today – play a far greater role in working class communities than reading alone.
It is in-keeping with these traditions that Socialist Party members have been a constant in the fight to keep every library open.
In 2016 Wood Street library – along with two other libraries in Waltham Forest, east London – was earmarked for closure and ‘relocation’ to sterile plastic retail units in newly ‘regenerated’ housing developments. All three libraries saw community campaigns immediately spring up to prevent these relocations and building closures.
The campaign to defend Wood Street (my local library, where I worked until 2012 when I was made redundant through cuts) successfully collaborated with other campaigns to get the consultation restarted.
In the new consultation, the community responded by 85% to keep the library in the iconic 1950s building it is presently situated in. The plans seemed to go silent as the local elections approached. Because of the pressure of the campaign, all of the political parties who stood produced literature that pledged to keep Wood Street Library.
It was received with shock and outrage when on 17 July we found out that the original 2016 proposal to shut the library was going to the council cabinet. The campaign immediately sprang into action. We called for the cabinet decision to be called in for scrutiny.
We called on everyone we knew inside the Labour Party, spoke to Corbyn-supporting councillors at meetings and tried everything to contact and convince any Labour councillor. To no avail. Not one Labour councillor helped us. Into this silence came the hypocritical cavalry of Tory councillors who opportunistically managed to get the decision called in.
Even though the council virtually shuts down for the whole of August and many families who may use the library go on holiday, the campaign had a good lobby of the scrutiny committee and a cross section of campaigners spoke in the committee, appealing for a reversal of the cabinet decision.
The Labour councillors, including one who had previously espoused her “love for Corbyn” at a meeting of Momentum in 2016, voted to close our library. In this topsy-turvy world of local government cuts, Tory councillors got cheers while Labour ones were heckled.
The decision taken at the cabinet was to agree in principle the closure of 1950s building and the library’s relocation in a year’s time.
Some in the campaign want to constitute ourselves so we can bid for the old building when it comes to be sold. Some believe that we can run it as voluntary community centre.
As socialists we have explained that this option could only be a stop gap, as something we consider doing in the context of an incoming socialist Labour government taking the building back into public provision and giving jobs back to local people.
The campaign has agreed to fight on. A year is a long time in politics and we’re all agreed… it ain’t over.