Save Our Nurseries: 'Corbynism from Below' in Tower Hamlets

The fight to save nurseries in Tower Hamlets has much to tell us about how the contradictions within Labour might play out over the coming years.

In Tower Hamlets, Labour ran a great local election campaign this year and took back the local authority from no overall control. But in spite of having a strong mandate in what is to this day one of the most deprived boroughs in London, Mayor John Biggs has tied the party to mast of closing the borough’s three remaining day nurseries.

Save Our Nurseries Tower Hamlets held a public meeting in advance of the closures, organised by the Unison branch representing nursery staff. Here, the reality of what closures would mean brought the room to tears. Mothers courageously spoke for the first time publicly about the exceptional support their children had been given, as the nursery staff present held their hands supportively. Labour members expressed their disappointment with the new councillors, who just recently activists had canvassed day and night for, only to have just two of the 42 elected show up to the meeting (Mayor Biggs was scheduled to attend, but had a ‘family matter’ at the last minute). Campaigners from Salford travelled down just for the evening, to share their story on how they prevented the same thing happening in their area (for now), and thereby proving the closures avoidable. The room was a spectacular, emotional manifestation of the contradictions that the Corbyn moment has come to now embody – defeat coexisting with victory, local and national, within and without the party. This small example has much to tell us about how these contradictions could play out over the coming years. I spoke with several activists about this campaign to get their version of events.

“That’s not how the world works”

The campaign is older than Corbynism. It started in 2010 when the council was run by the infamous Tower Hamlets independents, during which time Labour in opposition actually spoke out against the closures. After taking the council back, the party lead by Biggs distanced themselves from any such talk and began the ‘consultation’, first appealing to privatisation, then ultimately opting for shutting them altogether. This has been seen by many as a betrayal by Labour in local government that activists across the country will find all too familiar.

The manifesto pledges leading to the election in May 2018 were not compatible with a deficit in the schools budget of £1.3 million, so the Mayor would argue. However, the intake to one of the sites apparently stopped in July 2017, and activists tell me “there were papers swimming around in March saying the funding was going to go from the schools’ budget”. In other words, it could be said that the service was deliberately run down in order to make the case for closure, whilst the political capital of supporting the nurseries was racked up for use in the election. What happens when this is pointed out to the local Labour right? “Their attitude is it doesn’t matter how much you scream as a campaign group, that’s not how the world works, its our budget and we understand it better than you”. ‘They’, of course, is not only the Labour establishment, but the senior council officers, who like the senior civil servants Tony Benn would confront during his time in the cabinet, have an institutional hostility to the left.

It is worth reminding ourselves why these services matter. They offer wrap-around care; children under two can be dropped off at 8.30am and picked up at 7pm. The importance of this for working single mothers, of whom there are many in central London, are obvious. The workers here are overwhelmingly local women with specialist skills, such as having fluency in sign language. This is exactly why the private sector wouldn’t take the staff: they cost too much. The buildings are purpose-built, they have a deaf unit, and the actual cost for parents is very cheap. “It’s about state intervention in our lives and how important that is”, as it is put to me, in this case universal intervention to make all children and their families better equipped to go to school. That is of no small importance in a borough where child poverty hovers around 55%.

Within and without the party

In London, there are pockets of resistance against these sorts of draconian council practices in patches here and there, but to the extent they have political sympathies they are broadly speaking ‘anarchist’ and, perhaps understandably, in no rush to make alliances with Labour. Save our Nurseries, by comparison, is intimately linked up with the party in a way I would argue is attractive and essential for the realisation of Corbynism.

Support for the nurseries has been made in motion after motion. It has passed in the local women’s forum, the local constituency party, and even at women’s conference this year. The decision to close is therefore at odds with actual Tower Hamlets Labour policy. Supporters of the campaign have gained officer positions and some have even, against extraordinary odds, this year become councillors themselves. Mothers of the children affected have been recruited to the party specifically to fight for the nurseries.

As the Unison branch representing the staff have been at pains to emphasise, this is about the strategic devaluation of workers. When one of the staff leaves, no-one gets replaced, and the specialist skills they have acquired over years and years have been re-cast as irrelevant. These staff are in the eclectic company of all manner of ostracised workers, from miners to university lecturers. This is class struggle, and the mystery therefore is why more local Labour parties are not involved in community organising of this kind.

It is easy to ‘other-ise’ Tower Hamlets, as indeed many have done, as ‘the rotten borough’. The history of political corruption in the area is alarming, however activists remind me that “what’s happening in the council is just what is being played out across England.” Nor is it correct to regard this as a simplistic left vs right factional struggle. There are members on the left who have not joined the campaign, I am told, because “they saw it as too much, too controversial, didn’t want to put their name to it”. Conversely, some on the right have argued firmly against the closures. As I have argued in these pages before, local party struggles are often not characterised with where you theoretically find yourself, but where your actual, material activism takes you. It is put to me more bluntly, “I would love to say Momentum came in swinging, but it’s not as simple as all that.”

Further complicating matters is the question of where responsibility for all of this truly lies. It has become a cliché to point out the breathtaking savagery of Tory cuts to councils. Nonetheless, the worst of austerity can and has been circumvented in various social democratic ways throughout the country. Preston’s model of ‘in-sourcing’ and Islington’s 50% rule are, to name just two, impressive examples of what can be done with the political will in place. Many members are involved exclusively because of Corbyn’s leadership, and for them what that means above all else is “actually coming together and understanding what we need to fight for, and part of the fight against the Tory cuts has to be about how you empower people”, an empowerment that has to be in place before a Labour government is.

Both and neither

What conclusions can we draw from all this? In their seminal Inventing the Future, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek rail against the ‘folk politics’ of the contemporary left. This form of organising’s problem “is not that it starts from the local… The problem is rather that folk political thinking is content to remain at (and even privileges) that level.”1

What is self-evident in this campaign is that its locality is precisely what gives it strength and what cultivates class consciousness among its supporters. But its deep links to Labour ensures both that it has some political leverage it would otherwise not, and that its locality is not to the detriment of energy that could be spent on much wider, national issues, of which the nurseries are merely one part. It was the absence of links to community organising like this that many authors have cited as fatal to Syriza in Greece, whose capitulation was not cowardice, as is widely argued, but rather inevitable as they failed to have the reserve army in their communities to provide the political capital that would’ve been essential for any pursuit of a ‘Plan B’.2 The potential danger of not having such plans in place for a Corbyn government is very real.

In equal measure, there is a danger that on its own, folk-local activism becomes about stopping something from happening and nothing else. In a traditional campaign, the kind of which aforementioned London single issue groups are attached to, the absolute horizon of achievement would be preventing an act of austerity, like an eviction or a closure. Praiseworthy though that is, in these scenarios the political will of those responsible remains as it is, and another target is simply found, one less able to organise, and therefore one more vulnerable. The value of being both ‘within and without’ Labour activists is refusing to accept this ‘inevitability’. There is an increasingly real possibility of ensuring the political will does not remain as it is, through the long fight of democratising the party, the election of leftist councillors and officers, combined with effective community organising. At time of writing, a last-ditch effort to save the nurseries has been made possible by new councillors demanding the mayor ‘call in’ the decision to close, and in Salford they’ve had the same issue, the same strategy, and they have successfully resisted closure - all of this is vindicating those engaged in the struggle for party reform.

Deliberately running down a public service to justify its destruction is neoliberalism defined, and what’s happening in Tower Hamlets is indeed what’s happening everywhere. Our response has to mirror this. The successes and failures of this campaign are a reminder that Corbynism will have to be contingent and universal, to be communicative locally and nationally, rejecting the false choice of scaling up or keeping your purity. This is a daunting challenge, but to offer among other things a public space in which children can be nurtured and receive care irrespective of their parents’ income, it’s worth rising to.

  1. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso 2014, p11-12. 

  2. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Socialist Challenge Today: Syriza, Sanders, Corbyn, Merlin 2018, p53-55.