Monday 3 October 2016

Labour stifles the anti-cuts movement

A year ago I published a piece on Wembley Matters which asked what Jeremy Corbyn, then the new Labour leader, would do about local council cuts.  I drew attention to the contradiction that under him Labour claimed to be an anti-austerity party while local Labour councils were implementing the Tory austerity agenda by making cuts to services. LINK

In December last year Corbyn and McDonnell, responding to pressure from local council leaders who in turn were under pressure from anticuts campaigns, threw the towel in and wrote to Labour councillors telling them to set 'legal' budgets:
Failing to do so can lead to complaints against councillors under the Code of Conduct, judicial review of the council and, most significantly, government intervention by the Secretary of State.

It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities. Their priorities would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us.
In effect this meant implenting cuts.

In March this year, just as Councils were formally approving budgets, the People's Assembly Against Austerity LINK  asked councillors to sign the following letter:
As Councillors we believe this Tory Government's ideological opposition to public services lies behind the deliberate underfunding of Local Authorities.

Councils have faced unprecedented cuts; Local Authority grants in England have been slashed, with £12.5 billion of cuts and half a million Council workers losing their jobs since 2010. Osborne has forced through 40% cuts to Council budgets meaning that local authorities face the reality of cutting frontline services including Adult Social Care and Children's Services, leaving those that rely on them at risk.

We believe that austerity is a political choice. We oppose all cuts from Westminster and believe Osborne’s plans for Local Government will only make a bad situation worse.

We call on the government to reverse cuts to council funding so we are able to provide essential services our communities rely on. Furthermore we call for an end to austerity that is seeing living standards for the majority fall.
Given the Labour leadership's instruction this meant paper opposition only, although councils tried to find alternatives by rising charges and rents and finally raising council tax. This still meant of course that the poor were paying for austerity - but by a different route.

The situation is now worse as a result of cuts in real terms to local authority education grants. LA education budgets have not been increased to take account of increased pension and national insurance contributions or the increasing number of pupils in schools.

The anti-cuts movement had argued for councils to refuse to set budgets, set illegal budgets or devise a needs based budget, as an alternative to making cuts. This to be accompanied by a mass campaign involving councillors, trade unions, voluntary organisations and the public. 

In practical terms combining the two approaches didn't work because no group of councillors took the former approach although some individual councillors voted against budgets losing the whip as a consequence.  It was then difficult for local Labour parties to mobilise the public against cuts when they themselves had implemented them.

This year, by agreeing to the freezing of the Revenue Support Grant and the associated four year action plans, councils have accepted the government cuts and boxed gthemselves in for 4 years.

The Labour National Executive Committee has now strengthened control over Labour councillors with the following  rule change:
Members of the Labour group in administration must comply with the provisions of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and subsequent revisions and shall not vote against or abstain on a vote in full council to set a legal budget proposed by the administration.

Members of the Labour group shall not support any proposal to set an illegal budget. Any councillor who votes against or abstains on a Labour group policy decision in this matter may face disciplinary action.
My interpretation of this is that when in opposition Labour groups can decide to vote against cuts budgets but where Labour is in power individual Labour councillors cannot vote against cuts budget.  These are not just any cuts, these are Labour cuts - and therefore preferable?

I searched in vain for any reference to challenging cuts and mobilising mass campaings in Jeremy Corbyn's Conference speech.  I publish the section on local councils in full. He praises local councils for what they have done despite the cuts and describes (rather than advocates) some councils' decisions to take services back in-house. In doing so he says that this is cheaper and preserves working conditions. However this presents difficulties as year after year Labour administrations have argued that out-sourcing to private providers has saved council tax payers money whilst not acknowledging that lowert costs have been achieved by lower wages, worse working conditions, poor pensions etc.  

Even worse some councils have argued that the private and voluntary sector is more able to respond to local need in araes such as youth provision and social care.

Already, across the country, Labour councils are putting Labour values into action, in a way that makes a real difference to millions of people, despite cynical government funding cuts that have hit Labour councils five times as hard as Tory-run areas.

Like Nottingham City Council setting up the not-for-profit Robin Hood Energy company to provide affordable energy;

Or Cardiff Bus Company taking 100,000 passengers every day, publicly owned with a passenger panel to hold its directors to account;

Or Preston Council working to favour local procurement, and keep money in the town;

Or Newcastle Council providing free wi-fi in 69 public buildings across the city;

Or Croydon Council which has set up a company to build 1,000 new homes, as Cllr Alison Butler said: “We can no longer afford to sit back and let the market take its course”.

Or Glasgow that has established high quality and flexible workspaces for start-up, high growth companies in dynamic new sectors.

Or here in Liverpool, set to be at the global forefront of a new wave of technology and home to Sensor City, a £15million business hub that aims to create 300 start-up businesses and 1,000 jobs over the next decade.

It is a proud Labour record each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do.

But I want to go further because we want local government to go further and put public enterprise back into the heart of our economy and services to meet the needs of local communities, municipal socialism for the 21st century, as an engine of local growth and development.

So today I’m announcing that Labour will remove the artificial local borrowing cap and allow councils to borrow against their housing stock.

That single measure alone would allow them to build an extra 12,000 council homes a year.

Labour councils increasingly have a policy of in-house as the preferred provider and many councils have brought bin collections, cleaners, and IT services back in-house, insourcing privatized contracts to save money for council tax payers and to ensure good terms and conditions for staff.

Corbyn's election campaign inspired many independent activists (and not a few Green Party members) to join the Labour Party and gave the left inside the Labour Party fresh energy. 

The problem now is that on the ground, and impacting on the poor, they face 4 more years of local government cuts, 'efficiencies' where fewer workers do the same or increased amounts of work, council tax rises, increased service charges, dodgy regeneration projects to increase the council tax base and privatisation.

Maintaining the morale of new recruits in such circumstances will present a real challenge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Short-termism, Martin. When the great Social Movement is finally built all your petty concerns will be history, as, probably, will you and I.
In 2 or 3 elections time the Tories will be swept into the dustbin of history and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
As Julian of Norwich was wont to say: 'Look to the future, now, it's only just begun'.

Mike Hine