The Lib/Tory government plans to make many of its cuts by chopping finance for local councils. About 60% of councils’ income comes from central government (about 25% from council tax, and the other 15% from rents, fees, charges, etc.), and the government plans to force a freeze on council tax rates in April 2011 budgets.
What will Labour councils do? Some have been chopping away for years, under New Labour government, and are moving fast for bigger cuts to accommodate the new central government policies.
Neath Port Talbot council in South Wales, for example, has demanded big cuts in overtime pay and allowances — and threatened to sack all 7000 council staff, and re-employ them on worse terms, if they don’t agree.
What about Labour councillors who say they want to join anti-cuts campaigns and fight the Tories?
We should demand that they refuse to carry out or co-operate with the cuts. Labour councillors should do what Poplar Labour council, in East London, did in the 1920s; what Clay Cross council, in Derbyshire, did in the early 1970s; and what several Labour councils talked about doing, but never properly carried through, in the mid-1980s: They should use the council as a platform to mobilise the local unions and working-class communities to defend and improve social provision.
It will be a hard fight to push any Labour council into doing this.
Local government is more undemocratic than it was, with the new “executive mayor” or “cabinet” systems. Councillors get more money. In Islington council, in London, for example, every councillor got over £10,000, the council leader £48,000, and seven other leading councillors £35,000 each, in 2008-9.
Labour Party life and democracy has withered, so that very few councils have an active, energetic local Labour Party pushing them to take a stand.
In the early 1980s, several Labour councils first responded to Tory cuts by raising rates (local taxes) rather than cutting services. That option has been closed off by the Tory council-tax freeze. Central government also controls more of councils’ income than it used to.
The government has greater legal powers to intervene if it considers a council’s policy “irresponsible”, and to impose commissioners to run the council instead.
In 1986-7 Labour councillors from Liverpool and from Lambeth, south London, were surcharged and disqualified from office. They were punished, in fact, not for running illegal budgets, but for delay in making any budget at all in the 1985-6 financial year, i.e. for irresolute gestures towards a fight against central government cuts.
Subsequent defeats mean that those penalties are seen as the result of fighting cuts, not as a result of being irresolute about fighting cuts.
All those factors exist. But the stakes now are bigger than they were in the 1980s. From the start, in anti-cuts campaigns, socialists should be arguing unequivocally that the right thing for Labour councils to do is to defy the cuts and help mobilise the local unions and working-class communities. To do otherwise is to concede half-defeat in advance.
If that argument — and mobilisation around that argument in unions, tenants’ groups, and so on — pushes even a few Labour councillors here and there to take a principled stand against cuts, those councillors can play a big role in the battle, as individual left-wing councillors did in many areas in the 1980s.
“We need to tell people cuts are not inevitable”
Andy Walker is a Labour councillor in Redbridge, east London. He spoke to Martin Thomas.
MT: The coalition government is relying on Labour councils to carry out a lot of the cuts for it. How should Labour councils respond?
AW: There needs to be a major campaign against the cuts, that makes the point that it’s an ideological attack. We do have the money to spend on public services, it’s a question of political will. The Tories are being very clever at pretending there’s no alternative, but we don’t need to spend billions on Trident or have troops in Afghanistan. There are also wealthy people who could afford to pay more in taxation. It’d be a bold, brave council that wants to go down that path of campaigning. I hope some Labour groups might want to.
MT: If even a few Labour councils refused to comply with cuts, and mobilised unions and communities to stop them, it would have a huge effect.
AW: I wouldn’t advocate any councils working to illegal budgets, because that could imply councillors losing their homes. But a vigorous campaign against the cuts is perfectly legitimate.
MT: The question of illegality doesn’t arise immediately, though. Councils have leeway in the budgeting and they don’t have to make new budgets until 2011. It’s possible for them to build up movements where they could simply refuse to impose cuts, and force the government to take on whole communities if they want to push cuts through.
AW: I think you have to be very careful about how far you want to push it.
MT: You’re a Labour councillor in a Tory-Lib Dem council. What role do you think Labour groups and Labour councillors should play in councils when they’re in opposition?
AW: We still have a duty to look to educate the trade unions and the wider community about the political nature of these cuts. They’re not inevitable; they’re calculated to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.
MT: In some areas, anti-cuts committees are already being set up by Trades Councils and local trade unions. Do you think Labour councils and local Labour Parties should play a role in establishing these?
AW: That’s a great idea.
MT: Over the last decade, we’ve seen a decline of Labour Party democracy, including a deterioration of the levels of control local labour movements are capable of exercising over council Labour groups, and a deterioration of local democracy generally. What measures would you advocate to combat that?
AW: My view is that it stems from Tory anti-union laws. People used to get together in the workplace to discuss political issues. For me, democracy is about democracy in the workplace. It’s not about putting a cross on a ballot paper every five years.
By weakening the trade unions so severely, the Tories had an impact on wider democracy in the Labour Party because people just aren’t engaged in political culture. There are fewer people in schools and workplaces talking about politics. Active trade union membership has shrunk. With one or two exceptions the unions have become very top-down and passive. There are less and less people prepared to talk about politics at a grassroots level.
We can turn it around, but we need to have an analysis of why there is so much apathy.
I was disappointed that John McDonnell didn’t get onto the ballot paper in the Labour Party leadership election; he offered the most believable way of re-politicising the working class through his work trying to win back some of the rights the Tories snatched away from us.
MT: One of the main issues you’ve campaigned on is housing. What measures do you want to see the Labour Party committed to?
AW: The right to buy has got to go. It’s been so disruptive to communities. Most houses are bought by a landlord, so instead of those houses going to someone locally who needs accommodation it just goes to whoever can pay the highest rent. That could be someone from another borough or indeed from anywhere in the country. It fuels grievances and people are unhappy about it. It’s a key reason why the BNP has had some success.
We need to move towards a substantial house building programme, otherwise these problems are going to continue. I’m advocating that Labour groups put together a costed plan for a significant number of new-build houses, with gardens. We need to lobby the leadership for that policy to be taken up.