Labour councillors and Tory cuts: realities and responsibilities
Phil at A Very Public Sociologist has an interesting post up questioning how Labour-run councils and their councillors should respond to their current predicament: they may disagree with the slashing of Council budgets, but they’ve still got to manage those budgets, and managing those budgets is likely to mean cuts.
I gave my initial two- part (reality and possibilities) answer to this a few months ago now:
While the complications of civic challenge and associated public resistance merit a blogpost in their own right, they include…..support for measures taken by Labour left councillors (those in control of Councils) ,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 decisions about whether to risk surcharge and, ultimately, prison.
For the avoidance of doubt, it’s worth just being clear where we now stand with the law, and how it is different from the early 1980s.
In the 1980s councillors risked surcharging if they overspent budgets in attempts to resist the cuts. The Local Government Finance 1998 changed that, as this council paper makes clear:
[S]ection 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 ….requires the chief finance officer in England and Wales to report to all the authority’s councillors if there is or is likely to be unlawful expenditure or an unbalanced budget. This would include situations where reserves have become seriously depleted and it is forecast that the authority will not have the resources to meet its expenditure in a particular financial year. The issue of a section 114 notice cannot be taken lightly and has serious operational implications. Indeed, the authority’s full council must meet within 21 days to consider the s114 notice and during that period the authority is prohibited from entering into new agreements involving the incurring of expenditure.
That is, there is now little scope for councillor resistance of the Liverpool/Lambeth type, because the Chief Finance Officer is legally bound to stop council transcations if s/he feels the situation warrants it. This power outweighs democratic decision-making.
So what options are there?
Back in July, I continued:
[There are] 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.
The government’s commitment to a General Power of Competence is renewed in in para 2.2 of the new Local Growth White Paper to a General Power of Competence, and I still think there are opportunities for the leftist subversion of that bill.
More important than any of this, though, is the need for Labour left activists to get over the idea that resisting council cuts is the work of councillors alone, and that as and when they fail to resist them, they should simply resign, or else be seen as traitors to the cause.
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!
I absolutely agree with this.
The real responible work for leftist Labour members is not to harangue councillors for their betrayal, or prepare to do so by assuming they will, but to take the necessary organisational steps to support and work with them, in the most realistic and effective way.
At its most extreme, this may include using the existing pary infraststructure, including using the full remit Local Government Committee (LGC) of the CLP, to ‘instruct’ councillors (on the threat of deselection if need be) to resist cuts right up to a Section 114 notice, thus forcing the issue into the public domain but, unlike Liverpool and Lambeth, not leaving councillors hanging out to dry.
(The LGC has in many areas become simply an administrative body dealing with candidate selection and election campaign management), but the rule book is clear enough at Ch. 12, Clause II, Object 2 that the remit includes the development of a wider ‘electoral programme’.)
More likely, once councillors and activists come together – either through the LGC process or more informally – other ‘creative’ ways of resistance might be developed.
These might, for example, include mandates from the CLP/LGC for asset sales (where possible to ‘friendlies’) in order to avoid cuts to services.
What better headline, if you get the press strategy right, 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 funding space, till the point that a sensible government comes in and funds the council properly, to buy the building back of Matalan (at a price massively deflated from the sale price because of Tory economic mismanagement!).
This is a ‘top-of-the-head example, but the important point is that Labour councillors should be part of wider strategy. Simply blaming councillors for cowardice won’t work; we need to develop a more popular mandate to push them further in their resistance than they might otherwise go on their own.
This brings us to the other useful comment on Phil’s post (from a ‘Chris’), which bemoans the way Labour councillors have gone about their work in secret:
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.
While I think this is overly damning of Labour councillors as a breed and unhelpful tactically, in precisely the way Boffy criticises, the point about the need to be more open about the real issues and the real choices available is well-made; this is an essential part of the development of a realistic programme of resistance fronted by councillors in the relevant fora, but backed by the wider Labour party and then by a wider public.
This is easier said than done, of course. At one level information is already widely available to those members of the public who wish to see it – all Council budgets and committee minutes are freely available on the internet – but that doesn’t mean people engage with the demcratic process, and certainly we can expect little help from the press.
What is needed is the development and use of specific techniques to overcome these barriers to engagement, alongside a genuine commitment from councillors – supported in it by their party – to open up what the realistic options are in the context of the legal constraints, including the development of Co-operative Councils, but also more creative solutions, bordering on civil disobedience and very much in instiutional subversion mode, of the type outlined briefly above (and that is just one example).
It’s for precisely this reason that I am, in my position as Leader of a Labour group of councillors, booked to go to London on Tuesday to learn more about specific ‘participatory budgeting’ techniques which allow budgeting debates to happen in the public domain in ways which do not simply favour ‘the loudest voices’ (see Carl on this also). I’ll be bringing these lessons back to West Lancashire with a view to doing witn my Labour group exactly what Chris recommends – getting the debate out there, and helping us stand up to the Tory programme of cuts more effectively than we might otherwise.
It is not enough simply to ‘diss’ Labour councillors as corrupt cowards. In general they are not.
Simply to blame, rather than organise, is to avoid responsibilty and solidarity. The Labour left should know better.