Rosie Newbigging was Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Welwyn Hatfield in 2019. She is a Unite the Union shop steward at Bedford borough council, and sits on Unite’s London and Eastern Regional Industrial Sector Committee for local government and its National Industrial Sector Committee for local government. She spoke to us about the potential for fightback in local government.
Since 2010, with the start of Tory-Lib Dem coalition, we’ve had £100m worth of cuts in Bedford. For the 2021-22 financial year, there are over £21m further cuts planned. A few of us had a conversation, people in the Labour Party and people in the trades council, about the need for a robust campaign to fight back. The Trades Council debated a motion calling for a no cuts campaign and a needs-led budget. I took it to my local Labour branch, and it passed there too, and we went to the CLP where it was passed, slighlty amended – so we had a call for a campaign to be established. We have now established a campaign involving the borough trade unions (Unite and the NEU are the reps), the trades council, the Labour Party and also the Labour group on the borough council. The campaign group has just started.
Are the Labour group a reliable ally?
We are hoping the labour group will come out fighting. Currently there is power sharing with the Lib Dems on the Executive with 3 labour portfolio holders. We are asking the labour group to join us fighting cuts to jobs and services and to say enough is enough. We’re going to the fight the cuts whatever happens, but it’s important we invite the Labour Group to work with us – after all we are all part of the same Labour and trade union movement which publicly opposes austerity.
As a start, we need labour councillors to interrogate and scrutinise the detail of what’s in the budget proposals – and get out information into the public domain that is clear, accessible and sets out exactly what the proposed cuts actually mean. At the moment the council’s consultation on the cuts seems to be designed to only provide bits and pieces of information. There’s not a lot of transparency, everything’s coming out incrementally. That allow services to be cut through salami style tactics.
The majority of Labour councillors are on the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committees and so are ideally placed to scrutinise the detail of what the proposed budget cuts could mean for local jobs and services. They need to provide information to the campaign but also get it out and explain it to the wider public.
I’d like to see the Labour group put lots of amendments to the budget, and try to reshape it as much as possible to stop cuts to front line services and avoid job losses. That doesn’t contradict them voting against it in the end if it still makes cuts.
We want labour councillors to come out fighting against any cuts which will mean job losses or cuts to services. We also want the group to oppose any further privatisation and to actively campaign to return services in house such as the failed privatisation of sports and leisure services. Fusion, the private company, which holds the contract is currently making dozens of long serving, loyal staff (previously directly employed by the council) redundant.
Why do you think Labour councils are reticent about even making a fuss?
I really don’t understand why Labour groups which are in opposition don’t come out fighting. Those who are in control feels there’s a contradiction, and they say they have to set a legal budget, because otherwise the commissioners will come in and curs services in a way that will be even worse. There may also be reticence because of the experience of defiance by councils in the 1980s. My own view is that Labour councillors should champion the demand for no cuts, needs-led budgets to ensure that the case is made for proper funding of publicly owned services. We have to resist austerity.
What is your campaign going to do?
As I said we want to understand exactly what the cuts package will mean – we need to get that information through the Labour group or directly from council officers. Then we will get that information out to explain to the public, people who use services, carers and voluntary organisations exactly what the cuts could mean, for example significant reduction in the adult social care budget is proposed. We are linked to our local Labour MP, Mohammad Yasin. We need a broad-based campaign in Bedford to protest against the cuts and link to campaign in other areas as part of a national campaign of resistance.
Making a noise, exposing it, that’s the key thing. Resistance is critical. If you don’t fight back, you’ve got no chance.
What do you want to see from Labour nationally?
We need the Labour leadership to come out and really support a national campaign to stop any further cuts, to say no more job losses, no more cuts to services, and let’s really look at the need in our communities, what funding is required to properly support that. Also the return of privatised services, a drive to bring services back in house. Labour has to robustly campaign against the public sector pay freeze and demand a decent pay rise for local government workers.
Whether it’s in the health service, local government or elsewhere, public sector workers have worked tirelessly during the pandemic. The Tory government has managed the Covid crisis disastrously. Public services - including local government - have been central to supporting communities during the pandemic but the Tories have compounded an already desperate financial crisis in local government by failing to give local councils enough money to provide the support needed during the pandemic. Local government workers have done a fantastic job in this crisis and are now facing yet another pay freeze which amounts to a pay cut, wording harder in worse conditions or at risk of losing their jobs.
We can and must fight locally, but the fightback against this obviously has to be national and workers need that support from the Labour Party. We need a full-blooded national fightback that links communities, councillors and trade unions.
In the 2019 manifesto, we talked about injecting billions into social care, we talked about free personal care, about reversing cuts. We need ambitious policies and measures to pay for them, a wealth tax, closing tax loopholes and forcing corporations like Amazon, which has profited massively from the pandemic, to pay more tax. It’s fundamentally about what kind of society want to live in. We are still one of the richest countries in the world and there is enough money to share out so that everyone can lead a decent life, have a good job, a decent home, enough to eat and the public services we need, when we need them.