Labour and trade union activists meeting on 15 January in London at the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) conference voted almost unanimously to call on Labour councils to defy the Tory/ Lib-Dem cuts.
The LRC is the biggest grouping of the Labour left, and has the affiliation of six unions, four Labour-affiliated and two (RMT and FBU) not.
Only one speaker at the conference, Charlynne Pullen, a Labour councillor from Islington, north London, demurred. Her council has put out a leaflet denouncing the local cuts (pictured below), and council leader Catherine West has told anti-cuts demonstrators that she is “with them all the way”... but the council is implementing the same cuts that it denounces!
Charlynne Pullen argued that if Labour councils don’t make cuts, then the Government will kick them out and make worse cuts directly.
Gordon Nardell, a lawyer with expertise in this area and a former Southwark Labour councillor, who was also at the conference, confirmed to Solidarity that reserve powers exist in law for the local government minister, Eric Pickles, to “sack” an elected council and run the local authority himself.
But our chances of defeating cuts are better if they are fought by a whole united local labour movement, fired up by outrage at Pickles’s coup.
For that reason, Pickles might well not choose to intervene and instead wait for a defiant council to lose its nerve as it runs out of money, as Liverpool did in 1985. In any case, defiance by the council would improve, not worsen, the odds for fighting cuts.
It wouldn’t even mean councillors being surcharged, as they could be in the 1980s. Individual councillors could face complaints at the Standards Board (which the coalition government plans to abolish, but hasn’t abolished yet) for defying council Finance Officer’s warnings, but at worst they would only be fined, suspended, or disqualified (in which case fresh councillors are elected in their place).
However, Pullen’s argument is popular among Labour councillors. In Hackney, east London, the council’s ruling Labour Group has passed a motion aspiring to “lead the fight against the cuts” at the same time as... making them.
The Labour Party nationally, and the Labour Group, must (says the Hackney motion) “play the leading role in campaigning against” — if not the cuts as such, at least “the excessive speed and depth of the cuts”.
Leaflets, petitions, street stalls, rallies, demonstrations, banners on demonstrations are promised.
The Labour Group resolves to “use the campaign against the cuts to recruit members to the Labour Party and drive the renewal of our ward parties...”
Yet the motion also notes that the “excessive speed and depth” is nowhere more speedy and deep than in local government.
What will the Labour Group do about those exceptionally “excessive” cuts? Implement them! “Our legal responsibility to set a balanced budget”.
The contradiction is resolved in the councillors’ heads by the thought that: “the electoral defeat of the Coalition parties and a Labour victory is the only certain way to overturn their policies”.
But what do we do while the cuts are happening, between now and the general election?
The Hackney Labour Group has already told us that electoral victory for Labour in local elections in May will not “overturn” the coalition cuts, but at best produce a variant of them “targeted on protecting services for the most vulnerable”.
How do we get a new Labour government which will actually “overturn”, i.e. reverse the cuts and other Coalition policies, rather than building on them (and maybe slowing them down) as Blair did with Thatcher’s policies? Not by training the labour movement to implement and apologise for Labour council cuts, but by rallying the whole labour movement to fight.
Taking the Hackney Labour Party banner on a TUC demonstration is good, but not enough. To beat the cuts we must coordinate budgetary defiance from the councillors, council worker strikes, rent strikes and the withholding of council tax.
In Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, the constituency Labour Party General Committee has passed a motion calling for defiance. A number of new members are putting themselves forwards as “anti-cuts” Labour candidates in the upcoming elections.
A fight in the unions is also necessary. At present the local government unions are telling Labour councils that they should make the cuts, but negotiate them through voluntary redundancies and agreed redeployments. In the 1980s, when some Labour councils defied partially, often the unions, and even the council workers’ own shop stewards’ committees, weighed on the side of compliance and compromise.
Labour councils should defy the cuts; and, to make that possible, the unions must be won to a policy of demanding and supporting defiance.