Nick Chaffey, Socialist Party national committee
Tory austerity has meant a decade of attacks on the working class. Nowhere has this been felt more sharply than local councils. As the 12 December general election approaches, a bold call by Jeremy Corbyn for Labour councils to immediately halt council cuts would show the possible difference a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government would make compared to previous Tory, Lib Dem and Labour governments in this century.
In particular, Tory government cuts since 2010 have been brutal, impacting on young and old alike, decimating vital services and council jobs, leaving council workers overworked and underpaid.
At the same time household council tax bills have risen, leaving workers paying more for less services. With the slashing of council tax support, forcing the poorest to pay more, court summons for council tax arrears are rising fast.
Combined with the hated ‘Bedroom Tax’, benefit cuts through the introduction of Universal Credit, along with a chronic housing shortage, rising market and ‘social’ rents, increasing homelessness, and over one million using food banks, and so on, working-class communities have been thrown back to the poverty levels associated with the 1930s. This cost of living crisis is stoking enormous anger.
Some councils are on the verge of bankruptcy despite making swingeing spending cuts. Tory-run Northamptonshire was the first, but others are reaching the edge.
Scandalously many of the biggest councils carrying out most of the cuts are Labour controlled, led by right-wing opponents of Jeremy Corbyn. This vast bureaucracy of Blairite councillors – many of whom campaigned for Corbyn’s removal in 2016 – are dutifully carrying out the Tories’ dirty work.
Right now cuts are being made by Labour councils; and jobs lost mean lives ruined. Local councils are also preparing new cuts budgets for 2020.
This has left a deep scepticism in working-class communities towards Labour, fed up with years of broken promises and betrayal.
Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of an end to austerity has the potential to enthuse millions as the election in 2017 showed. He has made positive announcements about restoring council funding to schools, social care and youth services – amounting to £25 billion additional money. He has announced an intention to restart council house building – a good beginning of 100,000 a year by 2024. And an extra £1.1 billion funding to tackle homelessness.
They will certainly be welcomed by many. But how much more so if he was to come out clearly and say, “Enough is enough. Stop the cuts. Use your reserves and borrowing powers. We will reimburse you on 13 December.” Action speaks louder than words.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the battle to restore council jobs and services to meet the needs of working class communities will continue.
The current policy of council workers’ unions – Unison, Unite and GMB – is to oppose cuts and campaign for councils to use reserves and borrowing powers to protect jobs and services as the means to fight for full government funding. That policy needs to be urgently put into action.
This will require building militant, fighting, democratic trade unions that act in the interest of their members.
The council cuts crisis will be a battleground of an anti-austerity Corbyn government. The capitalist class will mobilise all its forces to block reforms in the interests of working-class people that encroach on its profits and show an alternative to the capitalist crisis.
Even if Corbyn gains a majority of MPs in the election based on support for his anti-austerity manifesto, the Blairite MPs will be part of the capitalists’ campaign that seeks to block a radical Corbyn manifesto going through parliament, and will undoubtedly be assisted by Blairite councillors.
The Socialist Party has repeatedly outlined the need for the ‘Corbyn insurgency’ to take on the historical task of transforming Labour into a mass workers’ party. Measures needed include: replacing the Blairites with fighting socialist MPs and councillors, restoring the party’s federal, democratic structures, placing the trade unions at the centre of the party, and readmitting all expelled socialists, including the Socialist Party.
It is clear that the task of replacing these ‘pink Tory’ cutters with fighting, socialist councillors is still to be done. That task cannot be put off forever, events will demand it.
In the meantime, while the Socialist Party gives its support to a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government carrying out policies in the interest of working people, where Blairite Labour councillors continue to cut, we will continue to ensure there are anti-cuts candidates in local council elections, fighting for the ‘Liverpool road’ (see below), to ensure the services are there to meet the needs of our communities.
A decade of fighting back
There has been a fightback, despite the depth of the crisis, and the woeful role of Blairite councillors and the unwillingness of their allies in the tops of the trade unions to mobilise national resistance by council workers and working-class communities.
Resistance to cuts at a local level has been widespread. The fight to save libraries, children’s and youth centres, swimming pools, and care homes, has been endless.
As the initial round of cuts were imposed a small but heroic number of councillors refused to vote for cuts in Southampton, Hull, Warrington and Leicester. And with the help of the Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC – an anti-cuts electoral alliance established by the RMT transport union and the Socialist Party in 2010), these rebels called for ‘no cuts’ budgets.
No cuts budgets
This was before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. What a different situation would we be in, if his election had been used as a platform to build a united campaign of Labour councils to stop council cuts?
By using reserves and borrowing powers to set no-cuts budgets, councils could then mobilise mass campaigns of council workers, their trade unions and the community, demanding the Tory-led government restore council funding.
Elsewhere, important industrial battles have taken place, with council workers fighting back. Key victories have been won showing what is possible by the Birmingham bin workers (2017-18) and home care workers (2018-19), the Glasgow equal pay strike (2018), and Southampton council strike in 2010-11, and teachers at Valentine primary school in Southampton this year.
If council union leaders had mobilised their huge ‘army’ of members in national strike action, council cuts could have been halted.
These struggles, especially in Birmingham against a right-wing Blairite council, exposed the need for a different approach. Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett got significant support for his criticism of Birmingham Blairite councillors when he told them: “If you act like Tories, we’ll treat you like Tories.”
By calling for an immediate freeze on council cuts, Corbyn would distinguish himself from these ‘pink Tories’ and mark a decisive turning point in the election.
Calling for support from council trade unions to back his call to freeze cuts would help in mobilising the kind of election campaign that is needed to bury the scepticism about a Corbyn-led government and inspire confidence that real change is coming.
Corbyn must take the ‘Liverpool road’
In the 1980s a major battle took place against the Thatcher governments’ attack on local council spending. While a united campaign of over 20 Labour councils mobilised to oppose cuts, it was the Militant-led Liverpool Labour council (Militant was the forerunner of the Socialist Party) that showed the road needed for victory.
With the backing of a mighty mass movement of council workers, including strike action, their trade unions and working-class communities – mobilised through the then democratic structures of the Labour Party – it refused to carry out Thatcher’s cuts.
This meant the council won an extra £60 million from the government to carry out its programme; building over 5,000 new council homes, leisure centres, nurseries, a city park and creating thousands of jobs and apprenticeships.
This fighting strategy remains the only way to end the decade of austerity. Labour currently controls over 120 councils with a combined spending greater than 16 EU countries’ government budgets!
As TUSC outlined in October 2018: “The Labour-led councils control combined budgets of £78.83 billion, and hold around £9.33 billion in general fund reserves, £1.91 billion in housing reserves, and £2.97 billion useable capital receipts reserves.”
If Corbyn was to mobilise this force under the banner – “Stop council cuts now!” – it would demonstrate to millions of workers, in deeds not just words, that he is determined to end austerity.
A decade of devastation
- Government cuts to the Revenue Support Grant total £16 billion. Councils have lost 60p in every £1 (Local Government Association 2019), with over 220,000 council jobs cut, 25%, in England alone (LGC Sept 2018)
- As jobs and funding have been cut, services for young people have collapsed. 760 youth centres shut. 1,000 children’s centres shut
- In social care, 1.4 million people aged 65 plus don’t receive the care and support they need with essential living activities, relying on unpaid carers. 627,000 people – nearly 900 a day – had been refused social care since March 2017
- Council tax bills have more than doubled since 1997 – from £688 to £1,591 for average band D. In 2018, there was over £3 billion of outstanding council tax debt (excluding fees). An estimated 2.2 million households were behind with their council tax in 2017-18 out of 24.2 million that are liable to pay council tax
- In 2017-18, 305 people were given prison sentences, with a further 6,278 given suspended sentences, for failing to pay their council tax
- Housing crisis estimates put over 1 million households on housing waiting lists
- Schools cuts mean schools are in deficit, with cuts to teachers and teaching assistant staff. This has led to over 1 million children in class sizes of over 30, damaging the life chances for working class children