On Tuesday 8 March 1994, the labour council in Islington, North London, voted to reopen Springdale nursery. This was the result of over 15 months’ campaigning against the closure of the nursery. Victories against cuts are rare enough these days to make this one worth study. It is a small victory: the money involved is only about 0.1 per cent of the council’s budget. To defeat the far bigger cuts being pushed through by councils and central government, we will need a much bigger scale of action.
But some basic principles hold good for small struggles and for large. Stubborn direct action, coupled with dogged political campaigning through the labour movement, is the way to win. Both aspects of the struggle are equally essential.
This short pamphlet tells the story of the Springdale nursery struggle through selections from the reports in Socialist Organiser
May 1993: the nurseries are occupied
Socialist Organiser no.563, 13 May 1993
Workers and parents are occupying two nurseries in Islington, North London, 24 hours a day to stop the council from closing them.The occupation started on Wednesday 5 May, when workers in Islington council’s 10 nurseries struck for one day to protest against cuts and closures.
The occupation of Harvist and Springdale Under-Fives Education Centres is fully supported by the local NALGO and NUT branches.
The Labour-controlled council plans to cut £0.5 million by closing the two nurseries, and by reducing two of its other nurseries to under-3s only. It has promised places at other council nurseries for children from Springdale and Harvist; but parents may not get the nursery they want, nor one close to where they live.
The closures mean cuts in nursery places across the borough. Many staff will lose their jobs. Waiting lists for nursery places have been frozen. There will be less staff time for each child at the eight remaining nurseries.
Islington council has already closed two nurseries, Lloyd Baker Street and Canonbury. Sian Williams, the council’s Assistant Director of Education, told parents at Marquess UFEC last week that further cuts are likely next year - even more closures, possibly a scaling-down to a few "super-nurseries”, with the rest of the money going to (cheaper) nursery classes in schools.
Parents and workers at Harvist and Springdale argue that nursery education should not be an optional extra, first in line for cuts whenever money is short. Under-fives are intensely curious and eager to learn. American research, recently quoted in the Guardian, shows that people with pre-school education are much less likely to commit crimes, and more likely to get good jobs when they grow up.
“The critical learning period is 0 to 5. Without nurseries, these children will miss out on learning social and moral skills," says Sharon Whittington, who describes herself as “an angry parent" at Springdale.
The cuts are a false economy. For every pound they “save", they will cost many more later, on crime, policing, social services, and undeveloped talents.
lf the council is short of money, why don’t they fight the Govemment for more cash, instead of taking it out on Islington children? ln any case, the "saving" is minuscule — a mere one-quarter of one per cent of the overall budget, well within the budget's margin of error. `
Debbie Whitfield, the chair of Islington NALGO, says: "Islington NALGO fully supports the action of our members in the nurseries. We are fighting both for jobs and to keep the under-fives education service. We ran a long campaign of strike action against the council over compulsory redundancies last year and early this year, and won significant concessions. We plan to win here too.”
The council majority for closures was small — 19 for, 13 against. It should be possible to get the issue reopened.
Left-wing Labour councillor Liz Davies says: "The Labour Party should not be closing nurseries. The nurseries can be saved by occupying and making closures unworkable, and by putting pressure through the Labour Party. Campaigners should join the Labour Party and get wards to mandate councillors to reverse the closures”.
The fight for trade-union support
Fearing for their jobs, the Springdale workers dribbled away from the occupation and accepted redeployment within the first few weeks. But the occupations were strong, run mainly by workers at Harvist and parents at Springdale.
The campaign farmed out in several directions. The national leaders of the nursery workers’ union, NALGO, had quickly repudiated the occupations; but they were eventually forced to swing rotmd to support by a vote at the union conference on l8 June.
The National Union of Teachers also had some members in the nurseries, though none became active in the occupations. Islington NUT won a 72 percent ballot majority for strike action against education cuts. The nursery campaign tried to get the NUT to take up the cause of the nurseries, but failed.
Speakers were sent to all the labour Party wards, and a re-vote at the council Labour Group meeting on 7 June failed by only three votes to reverse the nursery closures. Campaigners also petitioned, leafletted, spoke at dozens of meetings, and made contact with nursery campaigners in other areas.
Open letter from Islington nursery parents to the NALGO union conference:
Socialist Organiser no. 566, 10 June 1993
A month ago, NALGO general secretary Alan Jinkinson "repudiated" the action by Islington nursery workers, members of NALGO, who joined up with parents to occupy our nurseries and stop the labour council closing them.
No cut could be meaner than these nursery closures - hitting at tiny children and often hard-pressed parents - and none could be crazier. The cost would be counted for decades to come. American research suggests that £1000 "saved" in nursery cuts brings extra costs of £4100 in undeveloped talents and lives which go into the hands of social workers or police.
The Islington nursery workers’ action was right in line with official NALGO policy of fighting cuts.
Yet Alan Jinkinson "repudiated" it because Islington Council threatened legal action against NALGO.
The "repudiation" was always stupid and cowardly. A month later, there can be no doubt about it,
Alan Jinkinson’s ducking-out only transferred the legal threat onto the local Islington NALGO branch, which voted unanimous support for the occupation at a well attended meeting. Legal action against the union branch would be much easier, politically, for the Labour council, than action against the national union.
Yet Islington council has not dared to put the threat into practice. Taken aback by the wide support for the nursery occupations, it has dithered.
At a council labour group meeting on Monday 7 June, a proposal to reverse the nursery cuts was squeezed out only narrowly: the right wing pushed through a vague alternative proposal, which suggested concessions but ducked firm commitments, by 18 votes to 15. The week before, 13 out of 20 local Labour Party ward branches had voted to keep the nurseries open.
Islington council’s right-wing labour leadership must be unable to believe their luck. Threats of all sorts against the local NALGO branch, the nursery workers, and us, the parents, have had little effect. Yet against the national union - a mass organisation, much better placed to resist threats than us locally - an empty piece of bluff produced immediate results!
lf NALGO nationally had supported our occupations from the start, then there can be little doubt that we would have won by now. As it is, it will take longer and be more difficult, but we remain determined. Within the next couple of weeks our struggle is due to be joined by a local strike of the National Union of Teachers, also against education cuts.
Emergency resolutions for NALGO conference from Islington NALGO, Barnsley NALGO, and Renfrew District will call on the union to scrap the "repudiation” and back the occupations. Back the resolutions! Fight the cuts! Save our nurseries!
August 1993: parents fight on alone
Socialist Organiser no. 570, 5 August 1993
Socialists are often asked why we bother so much with the political differences on the left. The short answer is that we need to win the class struggle, and to win we must get our ideas straight.
A local struggle in Islington over the last three months has illustrated that truth, in a way that merits a bit more than a brief report.
The round-the-clock worlcers’ occupation at Harvist nursery has now ended: the workers, faced with the threat of the sack, have accepted redeployment, and the nursery will close.
An occupation continues, run by parents, at the other council nursery fighting closure, Springdale.
The occupations started on 5 May. We soon won the support of 13 out of 20 local Labour Party wards, but we lost by just three votes at the meeting of the council’s ruling Labour group on 7 June.
We needed wider industrial action to win. We had a good chance. The nursery closures were part of .£.8 million cuts across education.
Islington branch of the National Union of Teachers is dominated by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). The SWP were very active in supporting the nursery occupations. Although, predictably, they had opposed the campaign through the Labour Party, and their organiser was delighted when we lost on 7 June (it proved how bad the Labour Party was!), they would surely support industrial action.
They were talking very militant, and the NUT had a 72% ballot majority to strike against the cuts.
Then, through technical adjustments and before any action, the council drastically reduced the number of compulsory redundancies involved in the cuts. The NUT claimed victory. lt called a token one-day strike on 17 June and left it at that. The cuts continue.
The one day strike was, for the SWP‘s militant image, what the family photo on a leaflet is for the caring, reliable image of the average cold-hearted, doublecrossing bourgeois politician.
We appealed to NUT branch official and leading SWPer Shaun Doherty to support the nurseries. We proposed (it needed proposing!) that they meet with Islington NALGO for a concerted campaign against the education cuts. We invited them to our campaign committee. We put out a leaflet on 17 June. No response!
The national leadership of the nursery workers’ own union, NALGO (Unison A), had condemned the occupations as illegal. NALGO conference (on l8 June) backed the occupations, but even then the NALGO/Unison leaders delayed for a month before issuing any strike pay.
The Islington branch supported the occupations, but wider action there was difficult because the branch had only recently ended a long campaign over compulsory redundancies.
The branch leadership (Outlook supporters) were supportive but sluggish. The SWP, with dozens of members in the branch, might have been able to make a difference. They did nothing much but denounce the branch leadership — and then call for a half day branch strike on 22 July.
This call allowed the SWP to appear militant, but for the campaign it served only as a show of weakness.
There was never any chance that the council meeting on 22 July would reverse the cuts, and no follow-up was proposed to the half-day action. The branch meeting on the strike call was grossly inquorate; and, realistically, there would have been a poor turnout anyway.
That was the background to the Harvist workers’ enforced decision to end their courageous stand.
S.O. supporters argued for the campaign to get the best deal we could before Harvist had to retreat.
Our proposal fell because the Springdale nursery parents all voted to fight to the end for full victory or nothing. We understand and respect their view, and they should continue to get full support. What we understand only too well, but do not respect at all, is the SWP's support for the Springdale parents’ view.
Never in the last three months has the SWP proposed any strategy for winning the nursery campaign. Their organiser explained it to us: they have never thought the campaign could win anyway, and their purpose in getting involved is to recruit rather than to win.
They offered no argument about how the Springdale campaign can win more as it is now, without any link to trade union action, than it could in the remaining days of the Harvist occupation. Yet — for the sake of the image — they cheered on militancy. The SWP's combination is typical: cynical concern for their "image" above the real struggle; mouthy militancy when they run no risk of being called to account; utter feebleness when real action is possible and they are put on the spot; nothing consistent, nothing thought through. Imagine what it would mean in a big workers’ struggle — let
alone a revolution — if the SWP were in a position to influence it.
No SWPer active round the nurseries whom we have spoken to has defended the NUT branch leadership’s action. Disconcertingly, none of them had any notion that they, as ordinary SWP members, might have any control over Shaun Doherty and the NUT branch officials. Not only is the SWP uninterested in strategies to win the class struggle, it has no democratic channels through which SWP members who are interested in winning can budge the “party” hierarchy.
That is why we have to bother with the differences on the left, and why we have to build an organisation with policies to win.
Continuing against the odds
Letter from councillor Liz Davies,
Socialist Organiser no. 572, 9 September 1993
Islington may rest on its former reputation for being left-wing, accountable to the Labour Party and the community and funding progressive childcare. The reality is different. Islington Labour Parties, for all their left talk, frequently accept whatever terrible cuts the Council proposes. This cut, however, was widely recognised by the Party as a cut too far.
Nursery campaigners visited almost all labour Party ward meetings. They put their case directly to Party members. 13 out of 20 wards, along with one General Committee and the Local Government Committee, passed motions calling for the Council to reverse its policy and keep the nurseries open. Islington labour Group of Councillors was forced to redebate the issue. All the Labour Councillors were under pressure from their wards to vote to keep the nurseries open. The pressure nearly worked! Some Labour Councillors changed their mind, acknowledged their ward’s views and voted with the left who had always argued for the nurseries to be kept open. Other Labour Councillors, having promised support to the campaign, stayed away. The motion was lost by 3 votes. Since then, the Council Leadership has resisted all attempts to redebate the issue, even avoiding calling meetings requested by Labour Group.
Over the summer, the campaign within the Party has dissipated. lt is now the left’s task to raise the profile of the campaign and get the issue back on the agenda!
It would have been easy for the Council leadership to bow to public and Party pressure and keep the nurseries open. The cut proposed was a small sum compared with the millions hidden in accountancy techniques. The Council would have emerged as responsive to public pressure and with the humility of listening to arguments and changing its mind.
The Council leadership was determined not to respond to public pressure. They could not be seen to be "giving in" (in their words) to the community. They refuse to accept the legitimacy of a community campaign. To "give in" would, in their eyes, mean that they lost face.
The campaign is continuing. lt has survived the loss of one nursery. The other, Springdale, is defiantly occupied and continues to receive public and Party support.
November 1993: first victory
Socialist Organiser no. 582, 25 November 1993
Stubborn determination and militancy can win! On Monday 22 November, the parents who have occupied Springdale nursery, in north London, round-the-clock for nearly seven months to stop Islington council closing it, won a great victory against the odds.
A joint meeting of the council Labour Group and the Islington Labour Local Government Committee (that is, delegates from the local ward labour Parties and trade unions) voted for Springdale to stay open as a council nursery. .
Under rules dating from Islington council’s leftist period in the early 1980s, the council’s ruling Labour Group is bound by the decision of this joint meeting. Council leaders are already trying to weasel out of it, but nursery campaigners, reinvigorated by their victory, will be increasing the pressure to make sure they can‘t.
The joint meeting, originally due in June, had been postponed again and again while the council leaders tried to isolate and wear down the nursery occupiers. Workers occupying Harvist nursery (also to be closed) were forced to end their action in August by the threat of the sack and lack of support from their union, UNISON.
The council threatened the Springdale occupiers with cutting off the electricity, gas and water, and with prosecution under the Children Act. Week after week, they stuck it out. Illnesses, worries about their children's future, and sheer weariness, thinned out the occupation. A stubborn few held out.
A dogged political campaign in the local labour Party — which won 15 out of the 20 wards to the cause, including some which were considered solidly right-wing — combined with the occupiers’ determination to win the vote on 22 November. Both the direct action and the Labour Party campaign were vital. Neither could have succeeded without the other.
Support is now more vital than ever, to enforce the Labour Party decision. We should also demand details on the promise made by the council’s chair of education, Phil Kelly, to try to fob us off on 22 November, that the Harvist site will be reopened as a voluntary-sector nursery in the New Year.
To tidy up a loose end: we had argued at length just before the Harvist occupation ended over the idea of putting a "fallback” position into play. The argument continued through the autumn. The "fallback” idea meant when the next joint meeting of Labour councillors and Labour ward and trade-union delegates was eventually called, we would try to ensure that as well as our demand for reopening Springdale as a council nursery — no-one ever suggested abandoning that — a proposal to oblige the council to give aid to continue Springdale as a voluntary-sector nursery on favourable terms would also be on the table. ln the end the parents agreed to this. A middle-of-the-road Labour councillor was pushed into proposing such a "fallback” at the November meeting. lt was carried, but only as an amendment to the basic resolution to reopen Springdale as a council nursery, which thus
superseded it. The occupation, and the political campaign in the Labour Party, continued.
February/March 1994: victory consolidated
Socialist Organiser no. 589, 17 February 1994
Springdale nursery in Islington, north London, will reopen in September this year. The decision by the council’s ruling labour Group on 16 February is almost certain to be ratified by the full council. It follows a mandate from a joint meeting on 22 November of the Labour Group and the local Government Committee (delegates from labour Party branches and trade unions); and that in turn followed a six-month occupation of the threatened nursery by parents and children, and a long campaign of agitation.
A year ago, council officials were talking about cutting Islington's then ten council nurseries back to three. Now Springdale has been saved, and the council has decided to open a new nursery at Golden Lane.
lt shows what stubborn direct action and dogged battling within the Labour Party can achieve.
Socialist Organiser no. 592, 10 March 1994
Parents campaigning to save Springdale nursery from closure by the Labour council in Islington, North London, won a second time over this Monday, 7 March. Last November, a seven-month occupation of the nursery, coupled with a political campaign in the Labour Party, swung a joint meeting of the labour councillors and delegates from Labour Party wards and trade unions to vote to reverse the closure.
On 7 March, the day before the council was due to vote on a 1994-5 budget including the reopening of Springdale, Phil Kelly, Chair of Education, tried to get the Labour Party to reverse its decision. With a last minute flurry of figures, he claimed that the same amount of money would buy twice as many under-fives places elsewhere.
But the ward and trade-union delegates again outvoted the council leadership. Liz Davies chair of the council Women’s Committee, commented: “This shows the strength of the campaign, and that rank-and-file Labour Party members will not let themselves be used as rubber stamps for the council leadership”.