Home > General Politics > Labour Councils and Cuts: What can be done?

Labour Councils and Cuts: What can be done?

Richard Watts has an interesting piece up on LabourList today, discussing how Labour Councils should respond to the Governments spending cuts. I’m sure that Labour Groups around the country have been discussing this for some time, but I’m glad Richard is discussing a possible approaches more publicly, after all, cuts to local government will be just as much of an issue as cuts to centralised infrastructure, and the Party, and the broader movement needs to contemplate how this will be handled.

It’s interesting to consider the role of Labour councils in this process of savage spending cuts. The Party has a strong presence in Local Government, Labour Councillors possibly have more of an opportunity to limit the effects of cuts, than members of the Parliamentary Labour Party do. Labour MP’s aren’t setting the terms from opposition, and lack any real input on the agenda, whereas Labour Councillors, as Richard points out, are the ones making the final decisions in many areas, and as such can exercise a certain amount of discretion.   

Now I know a lot of lefties aren’t going to like this idea, but we must accept that Labour Councils are going to have to make cuts, and we should be ready to contribute to a debate about how we can implement cuts forced on us by central government, whilst attempting to limit the effects on the most vulnerable.

Now of course there are calls from some sections of the left for some kind of “no surrender” policy from local councils, along the lines of that attempted by Militant in Liverpool;

There are some, largely in groups linked to the Socialist Workers Party, calling on councils to ‘resist’ the cuts by setting illegal budgets. But along this road madness lies. Aside from the illegality of setting an unbalanced budget, local authorities doing this would very quickly just run out of money; services would collapse and the losers would be the most vulnerable who depend most on council services. If councils run out of money to pay for meals on wheels, it won’t be middle class Trots that go hungry.

Whilst I’m not keen on the “middle class Trots” jibe, I agree with Richard’s point that setting illegal rates are bound to fail, both financially and politically.

Opposition is all well and good, and I don’t want to give the impression I am discouraging any kind of protest. But we must accept that these cuts are happening, and occupations, marches etc. are only going to help weaken the Government over a period of time, as opposed to actually reversing the initial decisions. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, I’m sure that’s what more Militant Comrades will say anyway, but it’s what I think.

It will also be the responsibility of local Labour Parties to make sure the people in their areas know who is responsible for these cuts to services that are coming, we can’t let the Tories shift the blame to local government!

So how might Labour Councils protect the most vulnerable as I have said above? How do you decide what is more important when the choice is the local library or funded leisure activities for unhealthy kids?

And obviously the only problem isn’t the loss of services, but loss of jobs too. The economy in some areas completely depends on the Council for employment, either directly or indirectly, and sadly again, Job losses just can’t be completely ruled out!

This reminds me of a story my Grandma told me recently, about her time working for the local Council during the 80′s recession. The local leader of the Labour Council Roy Oldham,  (who sadly has just passed away) gathered all the Council’s employees at a local football ground, and discussed the possibility of people taking a pay cut as opposed to redundancy. The staff appreciated his candour, and agreed to lose a small amount of their monthly wages, on the condition it would be repaid to them during better times.

This is an example of the kind of things labour councils could be doing to, and we shouldnt shy away from discussing such things in the interest of the greater good.

But no one approach will be appropriate in every area, and now is the time to start considering what we exactly can be done.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. July 28, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    I’m not against setting illegal rates in principle, but I agree that councils are in a weak position and I can’t see it being a successful strategy.

    I do wonder about refusal to implement some of the directly mandated cuts though – what if Labour councils let it be known that they would turn a blind eye to any workers who refused to implement the cuts in housing benefit? It’s a relatively small amount of money we’re talking about and could be cross-subsidised from other sources.

  2. Adam White (@theday2day)
    July 28, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Sounds like a good idea to me Tim. Im not too up on the technical practicalities involved in administering Housig Benefit though, or how the funding works to be honest. Care to elaborate?

    • July 28, 2010 at 9:20 pm

      I don’t know enough to be able to elaborate properly; it’s something I need to look into.

  3. July 28, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    My thoughts on this are already set out at http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2010/07/11/resisting-the-cuts-3-localism-legalities-loopholes-labour/ and in the ensuing debate in the comments with Kate Belgrave. Whether councillors set illegal budgets will depend on the strength of the movement behind them, encouraging them to militancy/holding their feet in the fire. Like Tim, I don’t see this happening in many places, but there are options in many areas to drain reserves (and there’s a auditing grey area here around Section 114 notices, I suspect) and more intricate stuff HRA/GRA transfers which are too complicated to go into here, but which might be used to defend jobs and services.

    But the important thing is to get Roy Oldham type buy-in early on from staff, unions and users through the Coalition against Cuts model I’ve identified. I actually wrote a paper on this (well a couple of paras) for my CLP meeting last week, which I might publish as an example of my thinking and of the nudging process that may be needed with CLPs not used to having to deal with any of this stuff.

    I also cover in general terms, Tim’s idea on ‘civil disobedience’ around local govt’s role in central govt transactions (which is a significant amount of the cashflow through councils). This deserves greater exploration with local union staff who can highlight specific transaction points.

    The other thing Labour councils should be doing, even where they have been guilty of stpuding outsourcing in the ‘good times’ is holding those outsourced companies to account (moral pressure, as legally there often won’t be a leg to stand on) and getting them to accept lower subsidies for the same level of services while demanding that this is met from the corporate bottom line, not through staff reductions.

    I’m thinking particularly of all the outsourced leisure services (often to Serco) where the millions in subsidies (e.g about 1 million per years in v small West Lancs) are all inlfation linked and gold-plated. This kind of campaign to hit the shareholders who benefit from public services delivery could be popular in the context of ‘we’re all in this together’ hypocrisy, and give Labour groups in control something positive to hold on to amidst the really difficult decisions they’ll have coming up.

    Good piece.

  4. Adam White (@theday2day)
    July 28, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Cheers Paul, I must have missed your post when it went up.

    The point at the bottom about inviting anti-cuts organisers to CLP meetings is something I shall certainly be doing. I was saying to some LRC Comrades recently that this is a good opportunity to really start to rebuild the grass roots link between the Party and the Unions. If we cant stand shoulder to shoulder now then when can we sort of thing..

    Im not well up on local government rules and pricedures, so Im going to have to ask what a section 114 notice is?

  5. paulinlancs
    July 29, 2010 at 12:16 am

    A section 114 notice (the 1992 local Govt Fiance Act from memory, but don’t quote me)is a notice signed by a designated Chief Finance Officer if in her/his professional judgement s/he believes a budget to be set, or about to be set, which is illegal – basically taking a council into the red. It has the effect of stopping ALL transactions in the authority immediately for 14 days pending court proceedings. Basically, the Chief Finance Officer (sometimes called the Sec 15q officer from the same act) is legally charged with pulling the plug. It was legislation directed specfically at avoiding another Liverpool.

  6. Simon
    July 29, 2010 at 3:49 am

    I agree that any setting of illegal budgets must be a tactical decision rather than one of principle, and setting an illegal budget is effectively the nuclear option of municipal socialism which backfired horrendously in Liverpool.

    In my view there is no local authority in the country today which is strong enough to challenge the central government in 1980s fashion. But I’m curious what others think about an the possibility of an equivalent action from the Greater London Authority, or a National Assembly. They would seem to have the power to fight Condem cuts if they choose to.

  7. July 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I’m a well known legalist anyway, and would normally point out that the majority of voters in the wider country have voted to force people in some localities to cut. But there is no mandate for this, as the Lib Dems campaigned against cuts of this level of timing. There is no mandate for the laws councillors are being made to implement.

    Beyond that though, setting illegal rates is basically just a propaganda tactic, that gains little save for sending our most sympathetic councillors to jail.

    We should be looking at bringing local communities on board with an anti-government campaign, because they are the political source of the problem.

    This means getting involved in your local anti-cuts groups, and opposing the SWP line if they are basically calling for the implementation of municipal transitional demands instead of trying to politically limit the immediate damage to the working class.

    We could do with a victory rather than another in the long line of defeats. Build confidence by attacking the government and building social bridges with a semi-pliant opposition.

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