If Southampton’s new Labour council fails to make cuts as required by the coalition government, then, says Mike Tucker (Solidarity 266), “commissioners will come in and run the council”, and after that “the Conservatives could come back into power”.
Under the Local Government Act 1999 s.15(6), Eric Pickles, as the minister, can personally or through “a person nominated by him” take over “a specified function of the authority” if he is satisfied that the council is failing to make “arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness”.
The laws which used to open the way to councillors being surcharged, suspended, or disqualified no longer hold since the relevant parts of the Localism Act 2011 came into force on 1 July 2012.
It would not be instant or easy, legally, for Pickles to impose commissioners. If the commissioners attempted harsher cuts than an elected council would make — with the councillors still in office and agitating loudly against the commissioners — then workers’ and community anger against the cuts would double up with anger against the undemocratic imposition.
With even minimal leadership from the unions and councillors, a vast storm of protest could be aroused, deterring the government and rousing other Labour councils also to oppose cuts. If it is not worth trying to push back cuts in such favourable conditions, then it is hard to see when it would ever be worth taking the risk of fighting anything.
When arguing that they must make the cuts required by the coalition government, Labour councillors often say that “one council on its own” could achieve nothing.
In the first place, it’s untrue. Under a more unfavourable legal regime, one small Labour council, Clay Cross, in the early 1970s forced by its defiance the repeal of the Housing Finance Act.
In the second place, it’s a pass-the-parcel plea. Every Labour council says it can’t defy the government because none of the others will. Every one uses all the others as an excuse, and is used by all the others as an excuse.
The answer is that several Labour councils — for example, all those which are now describing the imposed cuts as “abolishing local government as we know it” — should defy collectively. For a start, one should take the initiative.