Twenty-five years ago, when Mothers Square was the Mothers Hospital and the year-long miners' strike had just come to an end, Hackney Council was in the thick of a rebellion against a government attempt to restrict local authority spending. Along with several other Labour London boroughs and Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council, Hackney tried every political and legal means to defy Margaret Thatcher's "rate-capping" legislation before half the Labour group joined with Tory and Liberal Councillors to vote through a budget that was acceptable in the eyes of the law. The Town Hall chamber was invaded. The group leader resigned. Fur flew. But in the end all the rebel authorities complied with Mrs T. What became clear then remains just as clear now - the failure to set a legal budget would mean a hostile Tory government stepping in to set it for you.
The new Tory-led threat is, of course, a huge cut in the government grant that represents the bulk of the Council's budget. The precise size of the cut is not yet known - 16 December is the suspected date when the bad news will be, rather belatedly, revealed - but it is certain that the poorer boroughs, nearly all of them Labour-run, will be hardest hit. A grant reduction of more than quarter is anticipated over the coming three financial years, with a chunk of it "front loaded" rather than the total being spread evenly over the whole period. From Camden to Barking and Dagenham they've been engaging in painful arithmetic, with children's centres, libraries and special needs provision all being sized up for the chop.
What should Hackney do? At its full meeting last month Council declared its opposition to the "unnecessary cuts" but it is not the stroppy thing it was in 1985. Those who regret this would do well to reflect on the options for resistance and their past failure to deliver victory. They might also take note that Mayor Pipe, in his additional role as chair of London Councils has led the way in exposing the front loading of the cuts in the face of denials by Communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles that any such thing was happening. The Local Government Chronicle has since reported Pickles unsuccessfully begging the Treasury for more cash and contemplating a large plate of humble pie.
Perhaps this will yet result in the hammer blow to Hackney being a little less brutal than it might have been. If so, it will be a welcome but small consolation. The hard fact will remain that Pipe and his colleagues are going to have to wield the knife that Pickles hands them. In Labour Lewisham, where provisional cuts have already been agreed, Mayor Sir Steve Bullock has asked community groups to come forward to help keep threatened libraries open. It is galling and unfair to have David Cameron's Big Society ploy forced on you. But we in Hackney may soon have to deal with that reality.