Croydon council, in South London, has issued a Section 114 notice. This means the council will now only provide a bare legal minimum of services, ie make even more drastic cuts. A local union activist spoke to Josh Lovell and Sacha Ismail about the possibilities of a fightback in the borough.
Like other local authorities, Croydon is the victim of ten years of cuts. It has lost 76% of its central government funding. The Labour administration has also invested in some dubious ventures, a number of which have not worked out – but the fundamental frame is these dramatic cuts to its funding. Covid has brought things to a head, because the government has not even provided the funding to cover immediate increased costs. More widely, we know that Labour councils in poor areas have generally experienced sharper cuts than Tory councils in better off ones.
In Northamptonshire, after it went bankrupt, the Tory administration essentially outsourced everything. Beyond social care, education and refuse, we’re likely to see everything – parks and open spaces, leisure centres, libraries – cut to the bone, if there’s anything left at all. Most things aren’t statutory, even say transport for kids with Special Education Needs. The council will probably just stop doing them. Even statutory services can be stripped down the bones. It’s workers in these services who will bear the brunt, with huge knock-on consequences for those using them.
What are the unions in Croydon doing?
Earlier this year, there was a big round of redundancies. The big three unions - Unison, Unite, GMB - joined forces to oppose them, lobbying councillors and the local MPs, and organised demonstrations. It’s a different situation now, much more dramatic – in terms of yet more mass redundancies, but also things like a four day week with a corresponding cut in pay. We don’t know the details yet, but it’s clear it’s going to be very bad.
Union members are really angry that they’re being made to pay. There’ll be a discussion about what people want to do, but it’s clear we’re going to have to fight as strongly as possible. There’ll certainly be demonstrations before Christmas, and we hope to build a big political campaign. There may be strikes.
In terms of the lockdown, we had socially distanced protests during earlier lockdowns, and we can do that again. The legal ruling Unite won affirming the right to picket was also helpful. There’s also lots of online stuff we’ll be doing. More to be announced very soon!
So as you say, the council has lost three quarters of its funding. What are you calling on them to do differently?
They’re in a very difficult situation, I’m sympathetic, but the problem is they are not fighting. Labour councils should be taking a strong stance. As a bare minimum, they should be vocally demanding the government provides more funding. Croydon isn’t. It’s not even really criticising what’s happening. [See the council’s statement here, and quoted below the interview.] The council and councillors should be supporting protests and actively working with the unions and campaigners to put pressure on the government.
This could make a big difference. If the council spoke out to the press and the public, that alone would have an impact. It could call people out on protests and demonstrations. It could involve a whole range of community groups in the fight, including ones that are usually “non-political”. It could use its weight to lobby MPs and Parliament at one end, and support unions and industrial action at the other. It’s all fairly simple, in some ways obvious stuff – but it hasn’t been happening.
On a certain level, the lack of even verbal protest is bizarre, yet it’s almost universal. What do you think are the reasons?
Well, a lot of Labour councillors are on the right of the party. More broadly, though, there’s been a negative culture shift over many years. A lot of basics about how we struggle have been lost. We’ve seen a lack of action against cuts and austerity more broadly, including from the unions in many cases. All that produces widespread feelings of resignation. The culture of struggle needs rebuilding, and obviously unions can be key to that.
What about “no cuts budgets”?
In principle that’s something I absolutely support. There are legal difficulties in doing it, but probably more fundamentally it’s not where the debate is currently at. It would need to be built up to, and probably only work if it was coordinated by a number of councils across the country. The starting point, anyway, is getting campaigning and pulling councils into supporting it. Very basic stuff, I know!
In the years immediately after 2010, there was quite a lot of anti-cuts activity, including lots of local anti-cuts groups, but as the cuts got worse it largely died away. Why do you think that is?
There’s definitely a strong element of fatigue, which has been exacerbated by last year’s election results. When you have defeats terrible things somehow become normalised.
Another factor is that since 2015, the left has put a lot of energy into the Labour Party. That’s something we should have done differently when Corbyn was leader, building organisation in communities and not just focusing on internal party battles. If we had we’d be in a much stronger position now. I include myself in that criticism. In 2010 we had Millbank, massive demonstrations and local campaigns. We’ve done less of that since Corbyn became Leader. Of course current setbacks for the Labour left make things even harder.
The Corbyn leadership wasn’t too hot on this either...
There was a lot of focus on trying to build unity, and so the leadership often held back. Particularly as it was under constant attack. It was probably also distracted by Brexit. I do regret that after 2015 the left wasn’t more forceful about this and many other things.
And now, what do you want to see from Labour nationally?
Clear, ambitious policies. We’ve not heard anything much at all over the last few months. The strategy just seems to be to look competent and not say much. We need clear policies along the lines of, or building on, the 2019 manifesto. Labour needs to be much more critical than the government – yes, it’s extraordinary circumstances, but they’re doing a terrible job, at the cost of people’s livelihood and indeed many people’s lives.
Specifically, Labour should be demanding proper funding for councils. The government should be forced to make good its offer to cover the costs incurred during the pandemic. Then we need to restore the funding lost over the last decade. I’m not hearing anything like that from Labour. The demands I’m raising are quite conservative, really, but at this point there’s no strong voice even calling for those things.
What support have you had from the Labour Party or Labour members locally?
Several Labour councillors have already been supportive of council employee’s this year and we have some good links. A few of them were critical of the council leadership even before this. We’ll be following that up, as well as the local MPs. By the way, we have a Tory MP in Croydon South who is trying to say this is because Croydon has a Labour council – totally ignoring the government’s cuts, what’s happened in Tory Northamptonshire, and indeed the fact that Croydon was Tory-run not long ago.
We’re just starting the work of making links with Labour Party members. In other borough where workers have had struggles and disputes over the last couple of years, there have been really strong links with Labour members, and I’m confident this will be similar.
What kind of outside solidarity can help?
Again, it’s getting the basic things to happen. Sharing everything on social media, circulating petitions, getting statements of support. Everyone should understand and highlight that other local authorities are under the same threat, which makes solidarity with Croydon even more urgent. I can’t emphasise enough how important this dispute is going to be; it’s in everyone’s interest to get behind Croydon workers.