This capitalist crisis has posed things in a point blank fashion. Austerity cuts have hammered local government and public services across the board. Cuts were announced by the Coalition in 2010 of nearly 30% from local authority budgets, which have to cover most of the basic needs of local communities, from rubbish collection to emergency payments for the most needy in society. However, the Local Government Association says it has identified almost £1bn of additional cuts or delays to grants, adding in some authorities to a further cut of 10% of its core funding.
The leader of Birmingham City Council has said that in practice, when all things are taken into account, the level of real cuts will be in the order of 50% of a council’s budget, which will mean the destruction of local services as we know them.
There is no let-up in these cuts. This April there will be a much bigger round of cuts, followed by more cuts in 2014, 2015, 2016 and beyond. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has estimated a further £27bn needs to be cut after the next election. There seems to be no end to this vicious cycle. All we need to do is look at Greece - that is now our future.
Local government services are being systematically dismantled, with horrific consequences. Cuts could return Britain to a state of squalor, with more rats on the streets, more deaths caused by dangerous goods and a greater chance of a national crisis such as foot-and-mouth disease, according to warnings from environmental health officers.
Tory and Lib-Dem councils have led the way in pushing through the cuts, as was the case in Southampton where these attacks provoked massive opposition from the trade unions, the council workforce and working people generally. This led to a series of strikes, demonstrations and protests, which eventually led to the removal of the Tories last May and the coming to power of a Labour Council. However, the new council is now facing the dilemma of cuts of between £20m and £40m.
The austerity programme has put Labour councillors in Southampton, as everywhere else, on the spot in being responsible for carrying out draconian cuts to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the community. In the boom years, Labour councillors would merrily take decisions on how to expand local provision. They were administering reforms to working people at a time when capitalism could afford them. That era has firmly come to an end. Even over the last 30 years, there have been a series of attacks on local government funding, with their budgets being continually squeezed.
Under the Thatcher government, instead of fighting the government, the Labour leaders adopted a policy of the “dented shield,” namely of Labour authorities making the best of the cuts that were imposed. In the past, a favourite policy of the Labour Lefts in councils was to increase the rates to finance services, until the Tories introduced rate-capping. That route has now been firmly closed with increases in Council Tax being tied to a legal limit of 1%. Local authorities, if they wish, can call a local referendum to increase the Council Tax further. However, with personal incomes so squeezed, no authority is likely to win such a referendum. In effect, raising extra revenue in this way is effectively blocked.
In many authorities, cuts have been carried through by stealth by the Council Cabinet responsible for the running of councils, which have then been rubber stamped by Labour councillors. However, the current cuts are of such magnitude that it has become more and more difficult to get these cuts pushed through. In effect, while in the past councils had “muddled through” using creative accountancy and other measures, these are no longer possible options. Today there is no place to hide. Labour councillors are now facing a dilemma. What are they to do? Are Labour Party councillors just elected to become the messengers of Tory cuts?
In 1921, in the London borough of Poplar, George Lansbury, leader of the borough and the future leader of the Labour Party, together with the rest of the councillors, broke the law and they went to jail en bloc for refusing to penalise the poor. “Better to break the law than beak the Poor” was their slogan. They attracted widespread support from the working class locally and nationally for their courageous stand.
As a demonstration of defiance, the “guilty” Labour councillors assembled at a mass rally near Chrisp Street Market and marched to prison. This act of resistance became commonly known as “Poplarism”.
In 1973, the Labour authority of Clay Cross in Derbyshire defied the then Tory Government over the implementation of a Housing Finance Act that dramatically increased rents. It became a point of reference for all those in the Labour Party and outside who were fighting the Tories. They carried on this defiance until the Government deliberately “merged” Clay Cross with another area in a government reorganisation.
From 1983 to 1987, the struggle of the Liverpool Labour Council was an example to all those prepared to challenge Thatcher and fight for the working class. By refusing to put the cuts on the backs of working people and endorsing a deficit budget they were able to win resources from central government. It showed that militancy paid.
Unfortunately, the Labour leadership, led by Kinnock, worked to destroy militant Liverpool in favour of the discredited policy of capitulation and the “dented shield”. By their militant stand, Labour won increased majorities in every election they fought. They were never defeated at the ballot box but were surcharged and disqualified by the Tory courts. Some were then shamefully expelled from the Labour Party by Kinnock, who himself later got a nice high-paid “job” in Europe. This reveals the real militant traditions of fighting Labour councillors. It is a tradition that must be revived today.
So what should Labour councillors do today? Should they capitulate in the tradition of the “dented shield” but this time without any shield? In other words, should they become the direct “unwilling” agents of the Tory Coalition? This is the argument of the Right Wing. They say that if they do not implement the cuts, then the Government will implement the cuts by imposing unelected commissioners - we should give into their blackmail, otherwise General Pickles will come marching in and take over the council.
The problem of this argument is that instead of the Tories and the Coalition being blamed for the cuts and job losses, it will be the “unwilling” Labour councillors who would be blamed. The councillors will face the odium of the people who elected them. Cuts are cuts, no matter who implements them. “Please don’t blame the messenger” will be seen as no excuse. This will sow bitterness and discontent against the Labour Party and turn people away from voting Labour. “They are all the same”, will be the refrain.
Labour councillors were not elected to introduce cuts. Many said before they were elected that they opposed cuts. Labour councillors now need to put their money where their mouth is.
Unfortunately, there is no fight or opposition coming from the national Labour leadership. Scandalously, they have themselves accepted the need for cuts and austerity. It was embarrassing to see Ed Balls lack of an alternative to the arguments of the Tories in the House of Commons in the recent debate over the economy. He has already endorsed a wage freeze under a new Labour government. This will inevitably bring a Labour government into collision with the trade unions and their members who would have helped to get Labour elected.
Ideally, all Labour councils would have got together to organise a conference to agree on a way of opposing the cuts. It has now been left to Labour councils individually to decide on what they should do.
Some individual councillors have already voted against the cuts, such as the two councillors in Southampton, who had the backing of the trade unions. They were suspended from the Labour Group for their action for a period of six months but, under pressure from the party and unions, this was reduced to three months. Unfortunately, due to their short-sightedness, they made the mistake of setting themselves up a new “Anti-cuts Labour Group”, which meant splitting from the Labour Party. As result of this mistake, they were expelled. This has unfortunately now made the fight against the cuts in the party and trade unions locally more difficult. The opposition in the party will now have to fight without the involvement of these two councilors.
This should not have happened. Splintering the struggle simply plays into the hands of the Right Wing.
There are a group of Labour councillors in Hull who are intending to make a stand against the cuts. They have the support of the trade unions in Hull who have already been very active against the cuts. Any cuts imposed in Hull, which has already faced years of decline, will decimate the future of the city. The Council is the main employer and therefore any cutbacks will directly undermine any local employment prospects. To their credit, all the Labour councillors, including the leader of the Labour Group, opposed the cuts of the previous administration. So did the Labour MPs in Hull.
Here is a great opportunity to fight back and make a stand that can reverberate nationally. The trade unions and the councillors opposing the cuts need to organise a mass campaign, on similar lines to the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign. Meetings need to be held in every ward to explain the nature of the cuts. Anti-cuts committees need to be established as widely as possible. Pressure needs to be exerted on the Labour Party and the Labour Council to do the right thing. They need to be shown the real strength of feeling that exists and what the implementation of the cuts will mean!
If the Labour Council stood firm against the cuts and the Tory-led government then attempted to impose a commissioner in Hull, such an act will be met with outright opposition and defiance. A campaign would be organised to defend the elected council and would, in effect, paralyse any imposed commissioner from day one. Such a person would not be able to find a single collaborator, starting with the local authority workforce. There would be a campaign of mass resistance. A Tory commissioner would not be welcome in Hull or anywhere else!
This campaign would then be taken to the whole of Yorkshire and beyond. The fight would be taken into the trade unions and the Labour Party: No implementation of the cuts!
It would be the beginning of a national campaign, with resolutions of support being raised in every trade union meeting, shop stewards committee, Labour Party branch and tenants’ association. The trade union movement should give its entire backing to lobbies, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.
This campaign should also be linked to a fight for socialist policies as a real alternative to the cuts. We are facing decades of austerity on the basis of capitalism. There has never been a better time to demand an end to this austerity-ridden capitalist system. UNITE, the biggest union in Britain, has come out for the nationalisation of the banks. It is affiliated to the Labour Party and has correctly voted to reclaim the Party for the working class.
We should however go further. We should take over the “commanding heights of the economy,” the giant monopolies, under workers’ control and management, without compensation to the fat cats. Only then would we have the resources to plan the economy in the interests of the majority and not the profits of the few. Instead of cuts, we could have a massive expansion of services, housing and employment for all. Otherwise, the alternative is cuts, austerity and misery as capitalism goes deeper into crisis.
The Labour Party was formed by the trade unions to fight for the interests of working people. It adopted the aim of socialism in 1918. It is time to recapture the fighting spirits and traditions of the Labour Party. Enough of bending the knee to big business and the City of London! Stand up for working people! Fight the cuts! Fight for socialism!