Entire local services could close in many part of the UK, taking hundreds of jobs with them, as councils seek to make further budget cuts in 2013.
Southampton City Council plans to cut nearly 300 jobs and close their entire youth and play service, as well as the council’s only remaining children’s care home. Newcastle City Council’s cuts plan will see 10 libraries close, its entire arts funding programme abolished, the closure of the youth and play service, and many other cuts, amounting to over 1,000 job losses. North East Lincolnshire Council’s cuts average out to a £150 per person reduction in public spending, with central education services facing a £2 million cut. It is seeking a £58 million cut from its budget over five years. Liverpool City Council is seeking a £143 million cut over four years. Options under consideration include the closure of libraries, a reduction in environmental services, and increased charges for waste removal. Sheffield City Council plans to scrap its Early Years Service, amongst other cuts.
England’s worst-off councils face an average reduction of 3% in their funding from central government. Of the 50 worst-hit councils, 43 are Labour-controlled. Of the 50 least-hit, 42 are led by the Tories.
In response to announcements on those cuts the leaders of Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield councils wrote to the Observer (6 January) to warn the cuts will cause “rising crime, increasing community tension and more problems on our streets” [which] “will contribute to the break-up of civil society if we do not turn back”.
They themselves however, are not prepared to “turn back” and refuse to implement these cuts, however.
Passing on central government cuts to local people by slashing jobs and services is a choice for councils. They could choose to defy the government. So far, none have done so.
Some Labour councillors claim that Labour councils must make cuts in order to stop the Tories imposing worse ones. But cuts plans made in 2012 were met by the further central government funding cuts announced by the Tories in the Autumn Statement. So in response to Labour councils implementing cuts, the Tories have simply proposed further cuts. In attempting to be reasonable and find ways to pass on central government cuts, Labour councils have simply done the Tories’ job for them. Far from backing off, the government has seized the opportunity to go on the offensive to push further cuts.
Former New Labour minister David Blunkett wrote an article in the Guardian on 27 December, recalling his own role in the abortive attempt by some councils, led by Labour leftists, to defy Thatcher’s cuts. He nostalgically recalls the “revolutionary fervour” of his time at the head of Sheffield City Council, and bizarrely claims that the lack of opposition today stems from the fact that “people do not see the ideological hand behind [Tory] policies”.
Self-congratulatory and disingenuous nostalgia from people who postured against cuts but failed to fight (and who went on to become leading figures in a New Labour government politically indistinguishable from the Tories) will not get us far. We need local labour movement campaigns to demand that Labour councils defy the government and refuse to pass on cuts. Even a small number of councils taking such a stand could shake up the political situation.
That is why the “Councillors Against Cuts” statement, initiated by the Labour Representation Committee, is so significant. Although it is currently only backed by a small number of councillors, it represents the first concrete expression of dissent by Labour councillors from the line that Labour councils must pass on Tory cuts.
The council cuts are part of the Tory government’s plan to systematically dismantle public services and welfare provision. The Tories’ ideal is represented by the schemes they are trialling, in various forms, in Barnet, north London, which reduces the council itself to a mere “hub” which tenders out the provision of services to bids from private providers — necessarily less accountable, necessarily driven by profit rather than the needs of service users and council workers.
Cabinet papers from Margaret Thatcher’s government, released on 1 January 2013 under the “30-Year Rule”, show how the Tories considered a comprehensive assault on public services, including health, in 1981, but backed down. The papers show how Thatcher’s cabinet considered a proposal from the Central Policy Review Staff think-tank to end state funding of higher education, effectively abolish the NHS, and freeze benefits.
It is a sad illustration of the deterioration of political culture and the weakness of our movement that they are able to try again now with relative confidence and —so far — little in the way of widespread opposition.
Working-class people face another onslaught of cuts in 2013, as the Tory-led coalition government attacks welfare provision at a national level, and slashes funding to local councils.
Councils face a choice about whether they pass those cuts on to local communities. So far, no councils took the step that Labour councillors in Poplar in 1919 or Clay Cross in 1972 took, and refuse to pass on central government cuts to the working-class communities that elected them.
The Labour Party and its relationship to the working class have changed dramatically since 1972, and even more dramatically since 1919. But it remains a party fundamentally tied to the trade unions, the basic self-defence organisations of working-class people, and a defiant stand by even a small number of Labour councils could help galvanise a wider fight against the Tories. While there is still much work to do to pressure Labour councils into such defiance, there are some small hopeful signs.
Two Labour councillors on Hull City Council, Gary Wareing and Gill Kennett, have released a statement, (on right), committing to a stand against cuts. They have been joined by Kieran Thorpe, the leader of the Labour group on Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, George Barratt, a borough councillor from Barking and Dagenham expelled from the labour group for voting against cuts, and Mark Catterall, a Labour councillor on Todmorden Town Council. The statement, is backed by the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and by Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, Labour councillors on Southampton City Council, who left the Labour group after facing disciplinary sanctions for voting against a cuts budget. In an interview with Solidarity in November 2012, Keith Morrell said: “We wanted the Labour leadership of Southampton Council to organise a national conference for Labour councillors and Labour authorities to discuss a local government fightback. It has to start somewhere. I think our stance could be a spark that lights a bigger fire.” Don Thomas added: “It’s time to say enough is enough, and start fighting back. We send fraternal greetings to Labour councillors in Hull […] and anywhere else who want to resist cuts.”
These are small beginnings. But if trade unions and community campaigns loudly and actively support the stand these councillors have taken, and if they can coordinate with each other through the LRC, these sparks could spread into a much larger fire.
Councillors Against the Cuts
We are a new network of local councillors formed to support the fight against cuts. We believe that instead of implementing the Coalition’s cuts, councils and councillors should refuse to do so and help workers and communities organise in resistance.
We are pledged to vote against all cuts to services and jobs, increases in rents and charges, and increases in council tax.
We do not accept that cuts are “necessary”: there is plenty of money in society, but it is in the wrong hands. Taxing the rich and business, taking the wealth of the banks and cutting Trident are all rich sources of funds.
We stand in solidarity with anti-cuts campaigns, with people defending their local services and with the broader community, tenants and residents, our children, disabled people, pensioners etc., in defence of the living standards and rights of the most vulnerable people in society as the Coalition government attacks them.
We are working with a network of local government workers and other trade unionists to fight for this policy to be adopted and campaigned for in the unions and labour movement. We believe that close links are needed between Labour councillors and the unions in the public sector whether they are Labour-affiliated or not. We believe that, with the confidence that unions are behind them, many more councillors can be encouraged to refuse to implement cuts — and with the knowledge that councillors will support them unequivocally, many more trade unionists will be prepared to fight back against cuts.
Most of us are Labour councillors and our campaign is sponsored by the Labour Representation Committee, but we are open to all left and labour movement councillors willing to pledge to vote against/refuse to implement cuts.
Whether you are a councillor, local government worker, other trade unionist, anti-cuts campaigner, community activist or Labour Party activist — get involved!
Gary Wareing (Labour councillor, Drypool Ward, Hull City Council)
Gill Kennett (Labour councillor, Holderness Ward, Hull City Council)
Kieran Thorpe (Leader of the Labour group and Labour councillor, Hatfield South Ward, Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)
George Barratt (Independent/ex-Labour councillor, Mayesbrook Ward, Barking and Dagenham Borough Council)
Mark Catterall (Labour councillor, Langfield Ward, Todmorden Town Council)
Don Thomas (“Labour councillors against the cuts” councillor, Coxford Ward, Southampton City Council)
Keith Morrell (“Labour councillors against the cuts” councillor, Coxford Ward, Southampton City Council)