Six and a half years into the demands of being Leader of Southwark Council, with his party at war nationally and the prospect of continued funding battles with a Conservative government in austerity-era Britain, Peter John could be forgiven for the odd moment spent dreaming of a quieter life.
Yet he insists this is far from the case. “It’s business as usual”, he maintains, when sitting down this week to talk to the News.
“I believe we’ve achieved a lot since 2010, but I still feel there’s so much more I want to do. If I’m re-selected then I’ll be standing again in 2018 and we’ll be looking to maintain and build on what we did at the last elections. I’m not done yet.”
At a time when at a national level the Labour party are in disarray, with a revolt over a leader barely ten months into the job triggering an outright challenge and with fears of a split in the party – paradoxically perhaps, John can argue that Labour in Southwark is stronger and more united than it has been for many a year.
Having seen off a Tory/Lib Dem coalition to win power in a neat inversion of what was unfolding in Parliament in 2010, he has since won a more convincing mandate locally, with 48 of his party securing council seats out of 63 in total.
This was followed up by a longed-for clean sweep of the borough’s parliamentary seats – add in a new Labour London Mayor and GLA member for Southwark & Lambeth – local party politics seemingly couldn’t be further removed from the chaotic scenes on the national stage.
Not that he isn’t casting a worried eye over national affairs in his party, with his frustration that the Labour party gives scant thought to local government when it looks towards the future.
“It’s ironic”, he continues. “At present it’s only really in local government where Labour is actually in power, but the Parliamentary Labour Party just seems interested in a debate about national politics. It forgets that half the country has Labour in local government and if they’re anything like Southwark, they’ll be defending people from the worst excesses of what’s happening nationally and defending Labour values.”
Yet what exactly are Labour values – and isn’t that precisely what the party at a national level is scrabbling about trying to work out? Does he believe that current leader Jeremy Corbyn represents a return to true Labour values over the years of Blairism, even if that might mean years in the wilderness of opposition? Or is anyone but Corbyn an improvement?
“You can ask whether the Blair government was too pragmatic and too centrist. But don’t forget that back in 1997 we hadn’t had a Labour government for eighteen years. There was always the possibility that we’d drop everything, lose it on election day, frighten people as [former party leader] Neil Kinnock did. People now query whether Corbyn has actual policies that he wants to deliver. And ask any member of the Southwark Labour group – being in power is so much better than being in opposition because you can effect change. I still think what we’re doing represents good Labour values – investing in homes, free and healthy school meals, last week launching our free gym and swim campaign. I’d very happily be prepared to defend what we’re doing as the best of Labour values.”
Surprisingly though, and whilst admitting that he’ll be voting for the other candidate, Owen Smith, John believes that the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership came too soon.
“The party have embarked on this assault on his leadership without having a strategy for what will happen next. They hoped he would just go, but he didn’t, and nobody has a view about where it will end satisfactorily for the party. The problem for us is that what goes on nationally affects what we’re doing locally – we’re already hearing it on the doorstep.
“I do think that Corbyn should have been given a greater chance to prove himself. In London we now have a Labour Mayor and we’ve won local by-elections. There’s nothing I can see that says Corbyn has failed as a leader in terms of our results. I won’t be supporting him in the leadership election. But I wouldn’t be here, having this challenge, in the first place.”
So how can it be business as usual if there’s a chance that Labour could split in the autumn, regardless of who wins the leadership battle? How to provide good governance when half your party is in revolt?
“I hope we don’t get there. There’s one thing having a vote of no confidence in your leader. It’s a completely different thing for those 200 odd MPs to form their own party. Can you imagine someone like Harriet Harman leaving the party?”
Yet what about Bermondsey MP Neil Coyle – who despite proposing Corbyn as leader was one of the very first to call for him to go?
“I’m not even sure he’d do it. I think you might get twenty or thirty MPs at most. I hope there won’t be a split, but if there is, we’ll manage it at a local level.”
Selection of party candidates, with the sudden influx of new Labour members and impact of pressure group Momentum, could prove interesting. He talks with passion about what he believes Labour should be championing across the country – how it should be his party leading the way on devolution with the northern powerhouses, and arguing for the benefits of immigration before and indeed after the Brexit vote.
“I’m not sure we should be trying to out-UKIP UKIP. If we believe that immigration is a good thing, then we have to go out and say we believe in it and this is why. If you’re worried about housing, education, infrastructure, it’s about investing in it so that your fears are not well-founded.” The key for John is the housing crisis – particularly acute in the capital – and he accuses the government of being ‘desperately flat-footed’ about it.
“You have to have government investment – the private sector will never deliver enough. London has built something like 25,000 – 30,000 homes each year for the past 25 to 30 years. It’s not enough.
“I don’t believe limiting immigration is the answer either. The strain of the city growing is a manifestation of that open border policy, so there are consequences. But the way you respond is to build homes. School places we’re dealing with – but housing is the real issue. And the jobs are there – last year Southwark’s employment rate was the highest in a decade or more.”
He champions the argument that a larger population means a larger economy, although when pressed, concedes that an increase in gross domestic product doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in the average family income, or reduced child poverty, for example. Yet still he maintains that if you provide the investment, much of the heat over immigration will dissipate.
“And what I love about London is its vibrancy, how it’s a melting pot – and I think many people feel that way. Do we really want to lose that?”
Newly elected Mayor Sadiq Khan has taken up the London Finance Commission launched by his predecessor Boris Johnson, and John is hopeful that its report will be taken seriously by the government – looking at devolving council tax, business rates and critically, stamp duty.
“We need as a country to rebalance the economy away from London,” he argues.
“Yet it remains true that in order for the UK to prosper, London needs to prosper. We raise about 7% of London’s investment, whereas other world cities have much higher levels. So at the moment we’re competing with the government, with ridiculous controls being put on local authorities.”
He uses the three-year-old Southwark Housing Commission as an example: “We set out a thirty year plan for our social housing supply. That is all put at risk by the government’s Housing and Planning Act 2016. We’re funding the government’s national housing association right to buy policy – how is that sensible where we have a thirty year strategy in place locally?
“I’ll give you another example – we had a commitment in our manifesto about rent rises – inflation plus one per cent. But [former Chancellor] George Osborne declared last year that social rents had to decrease by one per cent per annum between 2016 and 2020. That has created a hole in our housing revenue account forecasting, so there’ll be delays in our kitchen and bathroom extension programme. The point is, there’s always this tension. If you had some big national house building programme it would be different. As things stand, we expect the new regulations in September and October and we’ll be as creative as possible with dealing with it, as we always are.” (In a heated aside about the News reporting on £15,000 spent on a redesign of the council logo, he insists the council has been imaginative and innovative in its budgeting and use of resources.)
With 350 new council homes due for completion by the end of October, and 1500 promised by 2018, John believes Southwark is leading the way in tackling the housing crisis – against a prevailing wind. And yet, speak to some of those decanted around the Heygate at Elephant & Castle and they might not share his enthusiasm – has his administration succeeded in reassuring people about largescale regeneration projects?
“I think we have learned lessons. But with the Heygate, many people were happy to move and we just didn’t capture their story. Then you’re left with a few who aren’t happy and become self-appointed spokespeople for the whole decant process. So suddenly there’s this narrative that it’s all terrible. But there has been a distinct change from the Heygate to the Aylesbury Estate. Leaseholders can carry the value of their equity into their new property – they’re not being penalised. It’s one of the important lessons we’ve learnt.”
With sizeable regeneration projects at Canada Water and on the Old Kent Road taking shape, there’s still plenty to be concentrating on – “we need to get them both right. We want people to be comfortable and confident with what’s being proposed.”
With his fiftieth birthday approaching, and after years of speculation as to whether he would seek to become an MP, John revealed to the News in this interview that he had now ruled this out conclusively.
“The idea has interested me in the past, but I think that door has closed now. I am ambitious, but more for what we are trying to achieve here in Southwark.”
He seems quite content to be overseeing the rebuilding of what Labour have always felt was one of their traditional strongholds. Other than his ambitious council housing target, he is chairing a central London review into further education, with an eye on how to improve what’s on offer for young adults in Southwark.
And whilst the latest employment figures showed three quarters of adults in work, he asks: “Why can’t we notionally be a full employment borough?”
The newly launched free gym and swim campaign and free school meals are, in his eyes, echoes of the kind of policies championed by Bermondsey’s pioneering Labour MP and social reformer, Dr. Alfred Salter.
“We’re getting there… but we’re not quite there yet”, he concedes. “What I would argue is that, in an era when politicians are told they don’t deliver on their promises – we are delivering.”