What led to Lambeth's humiliation?

The borough is a spectacular mess. Tony Travers examines who was responsible for letting it happen

Share
Related Topics
The London Borough of Lambeth has been the victim of many crude attacks over the years. Conservative Central Office and its erstwhile friends in the tabloid press used the south London council as a kind of gold standard for looniness. Whatever Liverpool and Hackney might have got up to, Lambeth would always go one better.

The report by Elizabeth Appleby QC published yesterday, will widely be seen to vindicate the name-calling and political attacks of the past 15 years. It would be difficult to exaggerate the nature of the criticisms made in the report: "an appalling financial and administrative mess"; "dishonest employees, dishonest members of the public and dishonest contractors"; mismanagement of funds"; and so on.

Remember, Ms Appleby was appointed by Lambeth itself, not by the Government or an outside agency. Rarely can a public body have organised such spectacular public humiliation for itself. Yet if the report is even half-correct (and it is worth remembering that reports of this kind are generally toned down for publication), it begs a whole range of questions.

First, why did Whitehall let Lambeth get into such a mess? Britain is a small country, where the Government has - potentially, at least - virtually limitless power. Labour would have been most unlikely to have obstructed legislation to intervene in Lambeth. Only this week, Gillian Shephard announced the takeover of a school in Hackney. How much greater was the case to move in to sort out this most disorderly of boroughs.

The truth is that chaos and mayhem in Lambeth suited the Tories. Year after year, the party and the press have been able to mount a broad attack on Labour on the basis of a few maverick councils. It is hardly surprising that it has been Labour, rather than the Conservatives, who have in recent years been promising to intervene in failing councils.

Secondly, why did the electoral system fail? Widely reported evidence of the developing grim state of Lambeth was plain before the 1982 local elections, and certainly in 1986 and 1990. Yet it took till 1994 for the electorate to remove the ruling group's majority. Opinion polls suggest that although dislike of Lambeth was widespread before the 1990 elections, local hatred of Mrs Thatcher's government was so strong that it overrode suspicion about the council. Mid-term anti-government swings are clearly a dreadful impediment to effective local democracy.

In addition, throughout the Eighties, the electoral system gave Labour far more seats per vote than the other parties. In 1982, Labour won overall control while gaining six percentage points fewer in votes than the Conservatives. In 1986 and 1990, Labour's performance in Lambeth mirrored the Conservatives in national elections: 43 per cent of the vote gave them massive majority on the council.

Thirdly, how could Labour, both nationally and locally, have allowed such a grotesque mess to develop? To be fair to the national leadership, there was never much doubt they wanted to stop the politically embarrassing antics of their local government comrades. But as councillors were armed with local mandates, it proved difficult to argue them away from their high-profile anti-Thatcher policies.

Only the growing realisation that Lambeth-style behaviour was losing Labour votes - particularly in London local elections - led to local counter- revolutions. Many Labour councils have radically changed themselves from within. Southwark, Manchester and Camden have all shifted right back to Blairite moderation, away from previous positions well on the way to the dire condition of Lambeth.

The Appleby report is equivocal on whether Lambeth can recover: "Lambeth seems intent on living in the past ... Unless Lambeth turns its time and attention to the future, the much needed improvements will never come about."

Much store is set in the report on giving the new chief executive, Heather Rabatts, a virtually free hand in changing much of the existing management. Sackings will be inevitable. Elected members have been warned to put their own house in order. If Lambeth is retrieved, it will create an all-time great management text.

The writer is director of a research centre at the London School of Economics.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Ben Chu
David Cameron leaves Number 10 to speak at Parliament  

Tunisia attack: To prevent more bloodshed we must accept that containment has not worked

Patrick Cockburn
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue