We must fight all council cuts!
During January and February many council budget-setting meetings are taking place across the country, slashing millions more pounds off vital services.
At the same time many councils are forging ahead with plans to build new developments at the expense of communities.
But despite Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity leadership of Labour many of these councils are run by his party.
Ahead of council budget announcements and local elections in May we look at examples of the actions of Blairite Labour councils and why we need to oppose them.
Editorial of the Socialist, issue 978
Left NEC victories, Williamson resignation, council tax debate…
Corbyn’s Labour needs 100% anti-cuts strategy and fight for democracy
How can we save our local leisure centre? What can be done to halt gentrification and meet housing need? How can the deepening crisis in social care be addressed? What must be done to protect local jobs and halt attacks on pay and conditions?
These are just a few of the questions which working class people are asking, especially as we approach councilbudget setting and May’s local elections.
They are questions which demand concrete answers in the here and now. Rhetoric, handwringing, and semi-pious exhortations to ‘hold on for a general election’ are all utterly insufficient.
Yet at present, it is this that is on offer, not just from Labour‘s Blairite right (many who are actually brazen with their anti-working class policies and sentiments) but even from the leadership of Momentum.
Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North and former shadow fire minister, appears to have been pushed to resign from the front bench after making comments about an alternative to local government cuts.
Acknowledging that the austerity which has been dutifully doled out by councils over the last seven years is in fact intolerable, he argued that Labour-run local authorities could consider increasing council tax for those living in properties which fall within the highest tax bands.
This, he said, could be used to help raise the funds needed to stop cuts and protect services.
Socialists must always oppose any increases in taxation which have the potential to fall on people with low or middle incomes.
Council tax, which is calculated based on the estimated value of properties in which people live (whether as tenants or owners) and which does not properly take account of people’s ability to pay, could certainly not be described as progressive.
Chris Williamson’s proposals did acknowledge this, and included ideas for ways for those on lower incomes to ‘claw back’ increases in the tax on higher bands – to protect cash-poor pensioners, for example.
This complex schema, to be approved in each council area in a local referendum, would be open to ferocious attacks and distortions by the Tory media.
Nonetheless, he was grappling with vital questions: how can Labour councils act to protect working class people from the ravages of austerity? How can they play their part in fighting to ensure that the burden of paying for capitalist crisis does not fall on workers, pensioners and youth?
For Labour’s right, this is a crime which cannot be tolerated. Since the beginning of Corbyn’s leadership the Blairites have sought to use their base in local government – where they have the vast majority of Labour councillors – in order to undermine him.
In particular, they have ferociously opposed any suggestion that Labour councils might have options other than those of cuts, privatisation and redundancies.
In one indicator revealing the extent to which many Labour councillors have accepted the ‘logic’ of neoliberalism, it has been revealed that Leeds City council was on the verge of offering a £100 million contract to the parasitic company Carillion just before its collapse.
But councillors do have a choice. Around Britain, Labour councils currently hold over £9.2 billion in general fund reserves.
They administer combined budgets of almost £75 billion. They have substantial borrowing powers, as well as the ability to work together to ‘pool’ funds and collaborate with other local authorities.
In other words, far from being powerless ‘technocrats’, bound by the logic of austerity or the chaos of the market, Labour councils are in fact a potential alternative power in Britain.
Indeed, even if just one Labour council was to take a stand, using reserves and borrowing powers and refusing to lay more hardship on working class people, it could mobilise behind it a mass campaign and have a profound effect on the political situation.
It could hasten the demise of May’s weak, divided government and bring about an early general election.
Any hint that councillors could take such a road is anathema to the Blairites. That is why it was disappointing that Corbyn and McDonnell appear to have bowed to their pressure by encouraging Williamson’s resignation.
Unfortunately, this has not been their first retreat on the issue. As part of their mistaken strategy of attempting to ‘keep on board’ the Blairite rump that remains dominant in Labour’s parliamentary party, local government and machinery, they have made a number of concessions to the demands of the right on this issue.
But far from placating the right and buying their loyalty, concessions like these have only encouraged the Blairites to press Corbyn to back down on other issues.
In particular, these have included questions of party democracy and the selection and reselection of candidates.
Labour’s recent national executive committee (NEC) elections saw Momentum-backed candidates win all three of the available seats.
This means that for the first time since Corbyn’s election as leader, his supporters (all-be-it of varying shades of politics and loyalty) will have a narrow but clear majority. Momentum’s self-appointed leader Jon Lansman was among those elected.
This is potentially a step forward. The question is: how will this position be used? To fight for mandatory reselection that will allow Labour members and trade unions the chance to democratically decide candidatesand kick out the Blairites? To help take on cuts-making Labour councillors and support any and all who are prepared to resist austerity and refuse to implement cuts?
In recent weeks, Momentum’s leadership has begun to push an alternative strategy for ‘fighting’ local government cuts, which is based on a model put forward by Bristol’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees.
The essence of it is to support and call for protests against cuts, and to use these as a platform to ask the government to provide more funding – hoping that the pressure of large demonstrations will bear down on May’s government.
Borrowing from the strategy put forward by the Socialist Party, they even suggest drawing up ‘needs-based’ budgets.
But unlike us, they see this as merely an exercise in propaganda, not as something to be acted upon and implemented. It is here that the strategy ends.
Should the Tories refuse to provide funding, councils should, according to Momentum’s leaders, make the cuts as required.
Those who have joined protests to demand an alternative should be asked to simply accept that the council ‘has no other option’.
They should be asked to continue to cast their votes for Labour councillors, even while they make themselves busy destroying local jobs and services.
Demonstrations are not a bad place to start. But they must be linked to a strategy which includes councils refusing to implement cuts.
So far, the ‘Rees model’ has singularly failed to extract further funds from the Tories. Indeed, when the Bristol mayor came to London to meet the communities’ secretary he was snubbed – not even offered a meeting!
Socialist and left-wing politics means little if it is unable to provide a way forward in the real struggles faced by working class people in the here and now.
In the June election, Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto generated a surge of enthusiasm because it began to offer answers to the needs and aspirations of ordinary people.
But this manifesto provides a sharp contrast with the programme on which the majority of Labour’s right-wing councillors will be standing at this year’s local elections.
As Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett put it at this year’s TUC congress “if Labour councillors act like Tories we should treat them like Tories”.
In the view of the Socialist Party, this should include being prepared to provide an electoral challenge to cuts-making councillors – whatever colour rosette they wear.