Councils lost about a quarter of their funding during the 2010-15 Tory and Lib-Dem coalition government. Now they face the same order of attack again. Libraries, social care, and all community services beyond the minimum councils are legally compelled to do face futher chops.
Either Labour finds a new approach, or Labour councils will be reduced even more to local administrators of the Tories’ demolition job on our communities. Discussions and debates in local Momentum meetings have showed majorities saying that Labour councillors should refuse to make cuts, defy the Tories’ plans, and help mobilise the labour movement and the community to defeat them. Many new activists are keen on defiance; but few councillors.
The first demand, over the next weeks and months, should be that council Labour groups submit their plans to democratic local labour movement conferences. Those conferences can both rally forces for local anti-cuts campaigns, and convince or push councillors to make a stand,
After the Tories came back to office in 2010, at first some Labour council leaderships campaigned against the cuts in local government finance, even though simultaneously they translated those financial cuts into cuts in services and jobs. Gradually that faded to almost nothing. More recently Labour councils have been quiet. There wasn't even a loud demand from councillors, in the run up to the 2015 general, for a future Labour government to restore the funding cut by the Tories. By and large, the Tories have been able to get a large proportion of the cuts they wanted done for them by Labour in local government. Some Labour councils have made positive changes around the edges of making cuts. Others have gone enthusiastically with the Tory flow. But all Labour councils have made big cuts.
There are no guarantees of victory. There never are in struggles. But both logic and historical examples show that struggle could win. In fact, the risks are smaller than they once were, and while the Tories would have many advantages in such a battle, our side would have many advantages too.
Sometimes the alternative is described as setting a “deficit budget”. That is a bit misleading. Councils can borrow money, but unlike central government, they cannot operate in a sustained way on the basis of a deficit, borrowing more or less at will or printing money. There is no way to beat cuts just by financial juggling. Still, councils are large organisations with complex finances which give them quite a bit of leeway. They can cut top management salaries and perks. They can scrap wasteful spending like using agency workers and consultants. They can sell non-service-providing commercial assets. They can juggle accounts to move spending items from one financial year to the next, or draw on future revenues. They can run down reserves. They can set budgets which are "balanced" on paper but defiant in reality. Such financial gambits are no long term strategy. But they can buy enough time for councillors to mobilise council and other workers, council tenants and the wider community in a campaign to demand funding is restored.
If any significant number of Labour councils defied the Tories in the way I have described, refused to make cuts, and mobilise a big campaign, the government would have to retreat quickly. If even one council took a stand, the Tories would have a serious fight on their hands.
Poplar in East London in the 1920s and Clay Cross in Derbyshire in the 1970s took a strong stand of defiance against a Tory government. And, although both were fairly small councils, the only ones which remained defiant when other Labour councils faded, both won. Both won changes in government policy. The law has been changed, either because the Tories don't want to make martyrs, or because they think scarce any sanctions are needed to keep councillors in line. The legal powers to jail councillors, as during the Poplar struggle, or heavily fine and bankrupt them, as in Clay Cross, or surcharge them, as happened to Liverpool and Lambeth councillors in the 1980s (after they'd backed down), no longer exist. The Secretary of State for Local Government does have wide powers to send in commissioners to run a council, as has recently been done in Tower Hamlets. But think about it. The Tories send in unelected commissioners to take over a local authority and impose cuts — and the elected councillors are on the streets, around the Town Hall, campaigning against those cuts. They are backed by council workers and a mobilised local community.
A victory against the cuts would be much more possible in this scenario. Certainly more possible than if it's ruled out in advance by the councillors meekly making the cuts. Directly imposing cuts against the organised and mobilised will of the local community and its elected representatives is more difficult than having them done for you by elected councillors who tell the community that the cuts are unavoidable and as small and gentle as they could be.
My guess is that in fact the Tories would hesitate. They'd first hope that pressure and threats would make the councillors lose their nerve. Demonstrations, strikes, rent strikes, residents withholding council tax, the council withholding PAYE or VAT money, would all be possible. The aim should be mounting pressure to force concessions from the Tories, push them to back down, and create the best possible conditions for their replacement by a Labour government which will restore funding,
Councillors should be pushed to integrate themselves as a part of a democratic anti-cuts movement which discusses, debates and decides how to pursue and escalate the campaign against the government. Councillors will have little credibility with workers, tenants and the community unless they themselves take a stand against the government by refusing to vote for cuts. Measures like cutting top management pay are important not because they can plug the funding gap, but because they demonstrate political will. They mark a break from the model of Labour councils which continue to pay huge salaries at the top, use consultants, private services, academise schools, and make cuts without a murmur. The first step must be a strong anti-cuts movement to fight the cuts regardless of what councillors do, building unity across the left and labour movement in that fight.