Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Labour Councils and the Cuts

Last Wednesday I gave a talk to a city-wide Labour party members' meeting on alternatives to the cuts. The argument I made could be boiled down to three words: investment, investment, investment. I argued the cuts are morally objectionable, that Labour would pay a heavy political price if it did not articulate a clear alternative and put an economic case against cuts beyond efficiency savings (i.e. tightening up procurement practices, etc.) on the grounds that even slow and shallow cuts favoured by Miliband and Johnson compromise domestic markets at a time when the gloomy outlook for the global economy means British capital will be more dependent on it than in the pre-crisis period.

There were two interrelated points the subsequent discussion turned around. The first of these was leadership. The meeting heard there have been gatherings of Labour council leaders to discuss strategies in the face of the Coalition's cuts. Whatever transpired wasn't related to the rest of us in any depth but it is clear they are all operating in the dark and cobbling together plans on the hoof. There has been no steer of any kind from the national leadership on what actions Labour and Labour-led coalition councils should take.

As we have seen, Ed Miliband has
shied away from challenging the Coalition and proven wobbly on the cuts, reserving the right to back some while opposing others. But in travelling this line of march Ed has sleep walked into a trap the Tories have laid for him. By accepting their terms of the debate this has allowed the Tories and the media to paint Labour as defenders of millionaires' entitlement to child benefit, and being relaxed about the state throwing tax payers' cash at fat cat landlords. Like Ed's predecessors, the leadership are overly concerned with playing the Westminster game, a game governed by received wisdom, ideological conformity and the preoccupations of the media elite. The leadership are operating in the sphere of 'non-punishment' and will not launch an adequate assault on the government's programme unless the pressure of the anti-cuts movement forces them to.

For rank-and-file Labour, labour movement and anti-cuts activists the tasks remain building a strong opposition as well as clearly and unambiguously arguing that there is a viable alternative to fast and deep or slow and shallow cuts.

The second big issue is the question of Labour councils and the cuts. The Coalition has decreed a cut in government grants to councils and as these make themselves felt Labour-affiliated unions will be organising the most of the industrial opposition on the ground. In some cases Labour councillors will have the unenviable task of passing on these Tory cuts. Stoke City Council, for example, is having to cut £83 million over the next four years. This means the loss of 713 jobs this year and deleterious knock-on effects on The Potteries' notoriously fragile economy. Councillors at the meeting expressed their anger at having to pick up the tab for bailing out the banks, and the statement prefacing the consultation budget document makes that plain.

As a couple of people from the floor pointed out, this was a politically calculated move on the Tories' part. Forcing Labour councils to cut services and jobs is designed to drive a wedge between them and the rest of the labour movement, and tar the party with some of the blame for cuts and damage them electorally. So, what is to be done?

As Darrell argues refusing to go along with the cuts is one option. In the mid-eighties Labour councillors from Lambeth and Liverpool City Councils failed to set a legal budget. This led to the surcharging and debarring of 80 councillors from public office. These councillors were backed by significant sections of the trade union movement and the Labour party (who were able to pay off the fines) and, it should be noted, without that support it's doubtful this highpoint of municipal socialism would have been reached.

Unfortunately that's not where we're at today. In the absence of a strong labour movement what are the chances of that happening now? It can't be ruled out over the coming years but it's highly unlikely similar council-led struggles will happen over the course of the next financial year. From the standpoint of Labour councillors, the thought of being surcharged in excess of £100k isn't an attractive prospect. And even before the setting of an illegal budget is a possibility measures have long been in place to prevent recalcitrant councils from doing a Liverpool or a Lambeth again. One sniff of serious defiance and an authority can be taken over by a Pickles-appointed bureaucrat and cuts rammed through. Whether that measure would succeed is a moot point as the vast majority of Labour councillors will not place themselves in the firing line of likely financial and political ruin and allow things to get that far. With the costs of defiance so high most would rather face electoral defeat.

That is the position Labour councillors see themselves in. The question is how does the anti-cuts movement relate to them? Should they be branded as opponents and excluded from anti-cuts campaigns? Should dialogue between councillors, unions and anti-cuts activists remain open for the purpose of launching a campaign to ensure proper funding for local authorities, and for future collaboration should a council go down the defiance route? Should they be ignored and left alone to wrangle with their consciences while everyone else gets on with campaigning?

Suggestions please.

(
Image Source)

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil

interesting piece. on the issue of surcharging we have done some research in to this, and are almost 100 per cent sure that you can not be surcharged. rob windsor had an article in 'the socialist' about it, if you google our site, you should find it.

i think if even one labour council stood up to the cuts it would have a big effect. here in coventry, they want 1200 jobs lost before the end of the financial year. how to relate to them? some would argue, as the swp do, that you can't critisize them and that you need to get labour councillors on board at all costs. to be clear i would like that, the more the merrier, but the question is on what basis i guess.

the labour leader of cov council spoke at the protest on oct 20th, the same week as his council sent letters to every council employer advising of redundancies, the question is, what do labour councillors add to the campaign if they do not oppose cuts? there are a few labour activists involved in cov against the cuts.

thoughts?

ph

Robert said...

During the anti Poll Tax campaign Labour and its councils were utterly useless. They imposed the tax and prosecuted non payers. Their line was they had no choice so behave yourselves suffer and vote Labour next time round and we'll repeal it.

Arguably they didn't have any choice. A political party seeking to become a government can't encourage breaking the law both because this is a vote loser and because it expects its own laws to be obeyed once in government itself.

We need an anti cuts alliance independent of Labour though that shouldn't preclude sharing a platform with Labourites prepared to condemn the cuts.

Anonymous said...

The only honourable course is to fight the cuts or at least VOTE against them, or have the decency to resign. Imagine if the whole ogf Rhondda Council resigned and the Tories had to send in Picles appointed stooge. The position would be untenable.
But most Labour councillors have no honour.
Andy (NHS Rep)

Paul said...

This (as a Labour group leader, but in opposition till 2012 with a fair wind/2013 if not) was my tentative answer to the questions you set out in your last para:

'While the complications of civic challenge and associated public resistance merit a blogpost in their own right, they include:

a) support for measures taken by Labour/left councillors in control of councillors who are prepared (perhaps at the instigation of local parties/labour movements in the first place) to move towards ‘transcation-ceasing’ Section 114 notices from their Chief Finance Officers, in their determination not to cut services and jobs. Differing levels of reserves within councils will mean this will happen in different years (and in general not in 2011-12), but the popular connections with the local government struggles of the 1980s (especially Liverpool) will mean that these are high-profile issues, for which elected bodies and their supporters must prepare well in advance, seeking to avoid the ‘isolation’ mistakes of Militant, and create broader phalanxes of support for what are, ultimately, personal decision about whether to risk surcharge and, ultimately, prison.

b) the threats and opportunities offered by the Coalition’s planned Powers of General Competence, about which I have written a great deal on this blog. While I have focused on the threat to (often statutory) services and their jobs brought by this proposed legal change, it also brings with it opportunities for resistance focused on the legal bias inherent in the legislation in addition to the services themselves, and specific targets for action (as above) in this regard. In addition, thought needs to be given early on how the legislation, which effectively allows councils to override other primary legislation, might be ‘hi-jacked’ for our own purposes, for example by local Labour councils allowing themselves to take on debt in order to keep jobs/services, in a way which lies outwith current powers of local government, but would arguably – and the argument becomes a site of public resistance – would then lie within it.'

for the full post, part of a series, see http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/07/11/resisting-the-cuts-3-localism-legalities-loopholes-labour/

Thinking on from then (I wrote it July 11th, there are two points that stand out:

1) There is a recommitment in para 2.2 of the new Local Growth White Paper to a General Power of Competence in the forthcoming localism bill, and I still think there are opportunities for the leftist subversion of that bill (seehttp://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/regional/docs/l/cm7961-local-growth-white-paper.pdf for the current White Paper.

2) The preparatory work for leftist CLP is still, through the LGC or directly, to 'order' councillors (on the threat of deselectin if need be) to resist cuts even under threat of a section 118 notice, thus forcing the issue into the public domain but, unlike Liverpool and Lambeth, not leaving councillors hanging out to dr. This shoud include mandates form the CLP for asset sales (where possible to 'friendlies' in order to avoid cuts to services.

What better headline, if you get the press strategy, than the enforced sale of the Town Hall to Matalan, who then rent it back to the Council for a fifth of the purchase price? That gives four years space, till the point that a sensible government comes in and funds the council to buy the building back of Matalan at a price massively deflated from the sale price because of Tory economic mismanagement.

Just one off the top of my head example. I think the watchowrds this time round are subversion and good publicity, not (as in the '80s) noble resistance and shite publicity.

Paul said...

This (as a Labour group leader, but in opposition till 2012 with a fair wind/2013 if not) was my tentative answer to the questions you set out in your last para:

'While the complications of civic challenge and associated public resistance merit a blogpost in their own right, they include:

a) support for measures taken by Labour/left councillors in control of councillors who are prepared (perhaps at the instigation of local parties/labour movements in the first place) to move towards ‘transcation-ceasing’ Section 114 notices from their Chief Finance Officers, in their determination not to cut services and jobs. Differing levels of reserves within councils will mean this will happen in different years (and in general not in 2011-12), but the popular connections with the local government struggles of the 1980s (especially Liverpool) will mean that these are high-profile issues, for which elected bodies and their supporters must prepare well in advance, seeking to avoid the ‘isolation’ mistakes of Militant, and create broader phalanxes of support for what are, ultimately, personal decision about whether to risk surcharge and, ultimately, prison.

b) the threats and opportunities offered by the Coalition’s planned Powers of General Competence, about which I have written a great deal on this blog. While I have focused on the threat to (often statutory) services and their jobs brought by this proposed legal change, it also brings with it opportunities for resistance focused on the legal bias inherent in the legislation in addition to the services themselves, and specific targets for action (as above) in this regard. In addition, thought needs to be given early on how the legislation, which effectively allows councils to override other primary legislation, might be ‘hi-jacked’ for our own purposes, for example by local Labour councils allowing themselves to take on debt in order to keep jobs/services, in a way which lies outwith current powers of local government, but would arguably – and the argument becomes a site of public resistance – would then lie within it.'

for the full post, part of a series, see http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/07/11/resisting-the-cuts-3-localism-legalities-loopholes-labour/

Thinking on from then (I wrote it July 11th, there are two points that stand out:

1) There is a recommitment in para 2.2 of the new Local Growth White Paper to a General Power of Competence in the forthcoming localism bill, and I still think there are opportunities for the leftist subversion of that bill (seehttp://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/regional/docs/l/cm7961-local-growth-white-paper.pdf for the current White Paper.

2) The preparatory work for leftist CLP is still, through the LGC or directly, to 'order' councillors (on the threat of deselectin if need be) to resist cuts even under threat of a section 118 notice, thus forcing the issue into the public domain but, unlike Liverpool and Lambeth, not leaving councillors hanging out to dr. This shoud include mandates form the CLP for asset sales (where possible to 'friendlies' in order to avoid cuts to services.

What better headline, if you get the press strategy, than the enforced sale of the Town Hall to Matalan, who then rent it back to the Council for a fifth of the purchase price? That gives four years space, till the point that a sensible government comes in and funds the council to buy the building back of Matalan at a price massively deflated from the sale price because of Tory economic mismanagement.

Just one off the top of my head example. I think the watchowrds this time round are subversion and good publicity, not (as in the '80s) noble resistance and shite publicity.

Gary Elsby said...

The Labour movement backed Liverpool?
Did it?
I recall the opposite and those leading were condemmned as Militants and were thrown out of the Labour Party.
A Nationwide purge took place thereafter and anyone targetted was also thrown out.

What was the outcomeof your speech to the massed ranks of City wide stoke Labour?
Not much I bet.

londoner said...

When we asked similar questions of our local Labour council leader last week, his reply was along the lines of "the law's changed so you can't do a Poplar or a Liverpool any more. The public wouldn't forgive us if we resigned and left the cuts to be made by the Borough Finance Director in conjunction with Eric Pickles".

I expect that is what you will hear from the leadership of all Labour councils.

Loz said...

Even regardless of the surcharging argument, it seems to me that Labour controlled councils are left with one of two options

1) Deliver a budget within the constraints of Tory Government cuts and attempt to make the best of a bad job.

2) Deliver a needs budget and wait for Pickles' axeman to come in and make the cuts for them - and probably do a more brutal job.

Personally, I'm glad I'm not in the predicament of having to choose which option right now.

On the face of it, option 2 seems a far more principled position. But as things stand, I fear many people will see it as somehow "copping out" and will blame the Labour council anyway even if an unelected Tory hatchet man is brought in to fix the books.

But that could change.

I know a number of people, close personal friends and others, who are now losing work or who are under threat of losing work due to these cuts. Their immediate and very vocal response has been to blame Stoke Council - regardless of the fact that these cuts are coming from Central Government. It's not just the 700 - it's their families as well. And the people who will lose business as a result - pubs, cafes etc...

They are talking about things like "why did Stoke council spend money on those banners round the ring-road"?

(For non-Stoke based readers, the council have just announced more of these banners which promote companies such as Royal Doulton and Wedgwood which have brutally laid economic waste to the area over the past 20 years and thrown thousands of skilled workers out of good jobs and into low-skilled, low-paid, low-security warehouse jobs. The banners are there to, apparently, promote the city's heritage and promote tourism etc.)

I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure that the council didn't pay much money towards the banners - I'm guessing (hoping) the companies themselves put cash towards them - but the fact remains that people are seeing work disappearing at a time when these are going up - and the council is to blame. People will ALWAYS blame the people that weild the axe - however much the executioner claims he is "only following orders".

In my experience since the cuts were announced, people ARE blaming the council. They are NOT blaming central government, at least not yet.

But a strong, independent, anti-cuts movement could change the climate and help educate people as to the truth and the fact there IS an alternative. Most hearteningly, people I know who were, until now, non-political are now asking me as their token lefty mate how to get involved to fight the cuts.

(Off-topic, but where do I point them btw? There are a plethora of different groups and protests, but we badly do need one umbrella for this.)

Without that strong anti-cuts movement, it will be impossible for the Labour councillors to simply abdicate responsibility and let the Tory hatchet man in. Without a strong grassroots campaign, if Labour councillors simply set a needs budget without widespread support then people will simply accuse them of incompetence and blame them anyway when the Tories make the cuts for them.

So it's no good just pointing the finger at Labour councillors and saying "new workers party". The task for all of us on the ground is to mobilise the anger that is emerging and make this even bigger than the anti-war movement protests.

Boffy said...

Those who want a weak Labour Movement to fall into the trap set them by the Liberal-Tories, by asking Labour Councils and Councillors to set illegal budgets and so on, are guilty of the same kind of Ultra-Left childishness that some Bolsheviks were guilty of in 1918. At that time, Lenin, argued that there was nothing revolutionary about such amateurish tactics. Nor was there anything wrong with recognising your weakness, and the need to compromise or retreat.

The crucial issue is whether Labour Councillors and Councils are prepared to wage a decisive struggle against the Cuts, and to be prepared to do what is necessary within the bounds of what is practically and tactically possible, which in turn is dependent upon the extent to which a powerful anti-cuts movement is built outside the Council Chamber. Dividing the movement in advance by saying that Labour Councillors will be excluded unless they agree to act illegally is at this stage ridiculous. It would be like a handful of union members saying they will not work with a steward who has the more than reasonable position of saying they will not walk out on strike on their own!

Darrell said...

Phil,

Thanks for the link. I can see your point about setting an illegal budget but as I point the government is actually opening up a third option between the two extremes - by increasing the councils borrowing power. Of course, this is a honey coated trap but one I argue we can spring if we use the borrowed monies in a way to fireproof councils assets by handing them over to communities.

For a response to your last points please see...http://coalitionofresistance-leeds.org.uk/?p=167 for some thoughts...

Chris said...

What New Labour councils could do and have failed to do is improve 'democracy' within their boroughs by providing better and more honest information to the general public. For too long Labour have provided information on a 'need to know' basis. They have deliberately held back information to the public, usually where some cut in service is happening. The press are rarely better as they only ever really publish articles that serve their own narrow agenda, usually of a reactionary populist type.

What Labour councils should be providing and we should be demanding is full disclosure of all council business generally and planned cuts in particular but instead we get the undemocratic cloak and dagger stuff. In my experience Labour councillors have abdicated their responsibility to the people they are meant to represent, they are no better than useless. They are too comfortable with their position, too embedded. A thorough shake up would be most welcome. Let's hold these parasites to account - more direct democracy now!

We have to recognise that the Labour party has been thoroughly corrupted and is in need of cleansing. This being the crucial *political* task in my opinion.

Henry said...

Suggestion?
Support the PCS call for a national demonstration before christmas to encourage the growing seeds of fight back. Do what you can to make this a success.

http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/10543/03-11-2010/con-dems-cuts-can-be-stopped

Anonymous said...

Labour councillors can’t be left to “get on with it” if they start tearing up collective agreements with the unions, as has happened recently in South Wales.
Once a contract is torn up, it’s torn up for good.
The unions simply won’t allow this to happen without a fight.
So, instead of jointly confronting the Coalition, we face a situation where the unions and Labour party are engaged in a futile fratricidal struggle.

Instead, Labour Councils need to find ways to work alongside the unions.
The GMB has offered to “consult meaningfully” on ways of dealing with council budget deficits.
So why not sit down with the unions to develop collaborative emergency budgets?

The unions might be prepared to offer temporary compromises on terms and conditions, in return for jobs being safeguarded, if there was a commitment to by a future Labour government to honour existing agreements.
This of course would require a statement to that effect from Miliband.

Having identified the money they need to safeguard jobs, they could collectively approach their town centre banks and the relevant government offices in Whitehall to ask for it.
If this was advertised in the local press, they might find they‘d get a lot of public support.

In any event, it seems rather urgent for Labour Councillors who want to resist the cuts to get together nationally and discuss these things.

prianikoff

Gary Elsby said...

What can be done is to distance the Labour Party membership from the Labour Group of Councillors who choose to sit alongside the Tories as they plan to cut our services.

This gives credibility to the members, who have never agreed to a coalition with local Tories.

Have some bollocks and stop this pandering and whining about what can't be done.

Anonymous said...

Councillors should resign rather than implement cuts.
Resigning will force new elections and delay the process.
If local democracy is emptied of all meaning then do not support the sham.
No Cuts. Stop Cuts.

Phil said...

Thanks comrades for all the suggestions. Plenty of food for thought.

Londoner, that is the basic position of most councillors I've been hearing from around the country. I expect it was the line recommended by the meeting of Labour council bosses I wrote about in this post.

Gary, there was widespread support for Liverpool and Lambeth - I thought the photo used to illustrate this post would be clue enough. However much of that support was in the teeth of the opposition of trade union and Labour leadership. But that doesn't make its existence any less real.

As for my talk, I'm sure your little helper will pass it onto you when it's been circulated around the membership.

Gary Elsby said...

We don't have helpers in attendance of Stoke Labour, we have our own delegates who forward our views.
If you don't start to put forward motions of defiance, then we will write them and have them presented for action.
We are in receipt of all corrspondence within 15 minutes of meeting closure.
It doesn't suit our purposes to further the current crop of apologists but rest assured, we are in control.

Boffy said...

This post from Left Foot Forward is very interesting.

Phil said...

If you say so, Gary. If you say so.

Sister C said...

Gary, words really do fail me

Chris said...

According to Boffy the Liberals have got their wish as he believes the cuts have been back loaded. So isn’t the panic about the economy now over?

Actually if you believe that consumer confidence is a factor it may be argued that early cuts are better rather than allowing years of low consumer confidence to occur and then to make cuts. Why not cut now and not have the years of low consumer confidence?

My belief is that New Labour simply wouldn't have brought in this level of cuts or anywhere near. The problem is they didn’t quite have the balls to argue their case.

But when virtually the entire big capital supporting media was against your position then who is surprised that a party so in thrall of the media would capitulate?

Gary Elsby said...

Sister C, when we issue the list of Stoke Central 'members', who aren't actually members,then you truly will be lost for words.

I've seen the list, verified it as false and agreed to action the list.