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?