How can Labour activists defend local services?

A local government worker responds to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s recent letter setting out their policy in relation to Labour councils implementing Tory austerity

OVER the coming month, councils across the UK will be setting budgets for the coming year. They will include savage cuts, with the most vulnerable (women, children, the elderly and the sick) suffering the most. It is our job, as Labour party and labour movement activists, to protect the working class, both as the users of these services and as the workers whose jobs are on the line when they are decimated.

That much is clear. The question that remains is how.

For those of us who live in cities, towns and boroughs where Labour councillors are in opposition, the answer is relatively straightforward, albeit daunting. We fight against every cut.

Likewise those, like myself, who are employed by local authorities and active in our unions, the task is set out in advance. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our work colleagues and the families who depend on us for housing, adult and social care, youth services and so on. We fight against every cut.

But most of us live under one of the 110 Labour-controlled councils. Most of these councils have already implemented severe cuts, as the Tories have reduced central government funding by 40 per cent over the past five years. Now they are being asked to pass on another 6.7 per cent in cuts over the next four years, the bulk of which will fall during the next two.

Even the Tory leader of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, has described this as a “knockout blow” saying that, “At some point you are going to have to start doing service changes and that is going to end up giving people a lower quality of service at the same time as their [council tax] bill is going up. There isn’t really a business model that says that’s a good idea. No one ever liked to pay more for getting less.”

Jeremy and John’s letter

It is in this context that the letter to Labour council leaders from Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett has emerged. We have reprinted the key paragraphs of the letter opposite.

Let’s start with the positives. The letter rightly starts by making the point that the crisis in the councils is a result of the huge cut in local government spending being imposed by the Tories. There was no negotiation. These are not cuts that Labour freely chooses to make. We would do things differently.

It also ends with the passage that Ted Knight quotes in his motion to Gypsy Hill ward in Lambeth, also reprinted here and recommended by Ref Flag as this month’s model motion. I will expand on that later.

No, the problem comes with the quote from John’s conference speech, in which he argues against councillors setting “illegal” or “unbalanced” budgets, which could lead to “either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities [which] would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us” under the Local Government Act 1992.

John argues that this completely alters the situation compared to the 1980s. But does it? In the 1980s, some left-led Labour councils did set deficit budgets based on the people’s needs. This led to improved council services, particularly in housing, and a growth in support for Labour on the streets and in the polls. Their aim was to rally the working class across as many councils as possible to demand more money from central government under the slogan, “Better to break the law than break the poor”.

But the Tories under Margaret Thatcher hit back. Councillors were barred from holding office and fined when the money ran out, for the “crime” of making the councils destitute; something that was the Tory government’s fault, not theirs. Councillors were removed from office, with Neil Kinnock expelling some from the Labour Party for good measure.

The only thing that has really changed since then is that the judges can intervene at an earlier stage. This affords Labour councils less time to rally workers in their defence, on the basis of letting them see with their own eyes the new and improved council homes, nurseries and schools that Labour wanted to provide. And of course that there were more left wing, anti-cuts councillors and even some District Labour Parties (DLPs) that could hold the council Labour groups to account.

By signing with Jon Trickett a letter that throws away the option of setting no cuts budgets, Jeremy and John have disarmed their own supporters. They have strengthened the right wing in the party, who never had any intention of setting budgets on the basis of people’s needs, and who can now turn round and say, “Even the leader and his right hand man say we should pass on the Tory cuts.”

We should remember that this was the line of Neil Kinnock, who claimed that Labour councils had to obey the law at all costs in order to keep the Tories out and defend (some) local services “with a dented shield”. It was a failed strategy. It did not help oust the Tories in 1992. On the contrary it emboldened them to bring in the hated poll tax.

It could lead Corbyn’s Labour Party into being viewed not as an anti-austerity party, but as an austerity-lite party, not that dissimilar to Ed Miliband’s; although it doesn’t have to.

But let’s not pretend that the legal and financial pressures will lessen once Labour is in Downing Street and not just the Town Hall. They will increase, as Greece’s Syriza found out to its cost when it tried to take on the European Union and the European Central Bank.

What now?

The most important strategic strength of the Labour Party and the reason why we remain feared by the capitalist class is that we are part of a labour movement. That movement includes not just 7,000 councillors and 231 MPs, but millions of trade unionists and hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members and supporters.

Together we can knock on doors, call mass meetings in every ward and speak in workplaces, drumming up support for an anti-austerity fightback. We can petition on the high streets to demand more funding from central government. If they have money for wars and Trident, then they can find some for local services, which often provide a lifeline for those on the breadline.

We can test our strength by campaigning to save those services that are currently being shredded by Labour councils. This is what is happening in Lambeth, where Labour wards are supporting striking librarians to save their service, and in Southwark, to prevent a 73 per cent cut in youth services.

Victory, or even just a serious mobilisation, would demoralise the Labour right and encourage the working class. If councillors counter by asking us where we should make cuts, we should reply, “Nowhere. We should pass no cuts.”

Most importantly we can hold conferences with delegates from workplaces, housing estates, tenants’ and residents’ associations, unions, party branches and the under-represented youth, women and black and minority ethnic communities. There we could hammer out not only a “needs budget”, giving people a say in drafting policy, but also develop a plan of action to defend it with strikes and direct action.

We might not be in a position to shape the council budgets this year, but we can start campaigning for defiance of the Tory cuts next year. We must fight for the re-instatement of DLPs, so that the party’s mass membership can hold their councillors to account collectively, and mandate them to pass needs-based budgets. We can select anti-cuts candidates for council elections.

I am sure Jeremy and John would agree with much, if not all of this. It is hinted at in their letter and Ted Knight’s model motion fleshes it out.

But four more years of implementing Tory cuts at a local level is not an option. It will lead to defeat, not just at the local level, but on the national stage as well. Neil Kinnock never won an election with his “dented shield”, and five years of compliance during the last government did not usher Ed Miliband into Number Ten.

What is most alarming is that John did not always think like this. As recently as 2012, he moved a National Committee Statement for the Labour Representation Committee that resolved to:

  • Call on Labour Councils and councillors to resist the cuts locally, and to refuse to implement them,and to help build the forces which can sustain that level of resistance
  • Develop a socialist local government strategy for Labour councils
  • Bring together a conference of LRC Labour councillors to discuss strategy, share experiences and build a councillors’ network
  • Secure the selection and election of socialists at all levels within the Party
  • Work with others in the Party to deselect councillors and other representatives who support neoliberalism and the working class paying for the crisis

The fight for the soul of the Labour Party, to turn it into a consistently socialist party, something that Labour has never achieved in its history but that is vitally necessary for Corbyn’s survival, has to start from where we are. And that means opposing the rationale for cuts and focusing Momentum groups to coordinate a campaign with the unions and communities to stop them.