10 reasons the Left should support Labour Council Cuts (Reasons 1-5)
We are in the midst of a three week period many when many Labour councils are setting their budgets. All of them will make cuts. Labour councillors up and down the country will receive abuse for what many on the left will see as their betrayal and cowardice.
This is a two part, unashamedly detailed, article about why such abuse is both unjustified and counterproductive, and about how Labour councils and the broad left should be coming together to bash out a better way forward than the Tory-pleasing acrimony currently developing.
First, a word about where I’m coming from on this…
I am an individual member of the Labour Representation Committee, the leftist campaign and organizing body within the Labour party. At its January AGM, which I attended, the following resolution was passed by a large majority:
Labour councillors should:
1. Explain to local communities why they are not willing to become accomplices of the ConDem government, spelling out how the cuts will devastate services and jobs if implemented.
2. Where they are in control of the council, refuse to draw up or endorse budgets for 2011-12 that implement the draconian cuts demanded by the government; where Labour councillors are in opposition, refuse to vote for a single cut.
3. Work with representatives of community groups, local authority workers and trade unions, trades councils, Labour Party members and other political activists, to block council officers or government commissioners from seizing control and implementing the cuts.
(Most relevant section of a long resolution quoted)
I voted AGAINST this resolution, which was put by Ted Knight, ex-Labour leader of Lambeth Council well known its resistance to Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s.
I also had my had raised for much of the debate but was not called to speak, either because I couldn’t be seen on the balcony of Conway Hall I stress this point because there have been accusations that only one councillor, Charlynne Pullen, defended the ‘voting for cuts’ position, and this fits with the unfortunate emerging narrative of modern councillors as cowards.
I am also the leader of a Labour Group of Councillors on a Borough Council.
Currently Labour is in opposition, so I am not in the position to make a decision on what cuts to put forward. Were I the leader of the Council, however, I would have no hesitation in taking to next week’s Council meeting a budget commensurate with my legal duty to set a legal budget. If that needed to include cuts to jobs and services, that is what I would propose (in fact in my Council this is not needed, but that is beside the point).
I would most likely be proud of what the cuts package I was proposing, because I would be proposing a cuts package from a socialist position.
This is not a popular position on the broad Labour left, to say the least.
This is at least in part because leading Labour councillors have not explained their position as fully as they might, preferring to dismiss the Labour left’s arguments ether as deliberately divisive and self-serving. For example, while Luke Akehurst’s argument for setting legal budgets is pretty good, the hostility with which he puts it across is hardly likely to win over those he should be trying to win over.
Similarly, and more seriously in terms of overall effect, calling legitimate protestors ‘fucking idiots’ rather than going about trying to convince them that he is actually doing the right thing, was hardly a masterstroke of communication by Lewisham Labour leader Steve Bullock.
Labour councillors need to make cuts, for the reasons I set out below, but they also need to explain why they need to more clearly than they have done to date. It is no good blaming protests for their lack of understanding when the relevant information has not been put their way.
My job in this article, then, is to set out the case for Labour cuts as clearly as I can, but to do so with the same level of understanding and respect that I would like the Left to show towards councillors taking difficult but necessary decisions on cuts.
Ten reasons for the Left to support Labour Council Cuts
1. Pickles will cut if we don’t
This is the most obvious starting defence for Labour councillors charged with making cuts. It is also happens to be correct.
[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 section 114 notice and during that period the authority is prohibited from entering into new agreements involving the incurring of expenditure.
We can’t wish away this reality. Although no-one knows precisely how the endgame would be played out if a Council did vote to set an illegal budget (and it’s not going to happen in 2011 at least), the reality is that the Chief Finance Officer (Section 151 Officer) of such a local authority would be legally bound to take the steps above. Continued refusal to set a legal budget will mean that it is indeed set by officers, who are the ones, in the end, who have practical control over expenditure (bank account mandates etc.).
That’s precisely the reasoning behind section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988.
As importantly, you can bet your bottom dollar that Pickles would be leaning over the shoulder of that same Chief Finance Officer tasked with setting a legal budget, ensuring that this process is as punitive as possible, and extracting every last column inch as to why the Labour Council is hurting its residents.
I’ll return to this theme of why it’s important exactly WHO sets the legal budget at 5 and 6 below, but first we need to provide a (respectful) corrective to the other three related arguments (Reasons 2-4) put by those arguing against all cuts.
2. The removal of surcharging and the threat of prison does NOT make it easier to resist the cuts
A central argument used by Ted Knight at the LRC AGM, and widely repeated elsewhere, is that it is much easier now for councillors to resist the government’s cuts because there is no personal risk of surcharge or prison.
This is, frankly, an odd argument.
We are effectively asked to believe that the Thatcher government decided, in the form of the Local Government Act 1988, to make it easier for Labour councillors to resist cuts, as a reward for Labour councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool showing such personal bravery.
What the 1986 Act actually did was to remove the possibility of Labour councillors becoming martyrs to the anti-cuts cause, while at the same time ensuring that the mechanics of local government finance were tightened up to make it physically impossible to spend, by enshrining in law the Section 151 officer’s duty to stop further expenditure.
To suggest otherwise does, sadly, contain an element of hubris on the part of Ted Knight and his 1980s comrades.
This isn’t to say that their 1980s actions weren’t brave (indeed that’s what I said previously), but this is not the 1980s, and they are wrong to suggest that the councillors of 2011 are less brave and committed to socialism than they were.
Such insinuations are as unhelpful as the (odd) untrue assertion I’ve seen from Labour councillors, who should know better, that surcharging is still a danger. It isn’t, but that doesn’t make resisting cuts easier.
3. Resigning as a councillor means you don’t get to be a councillor any more
A further common position taken by the Left, and linked to that above,is that Labour councillors who are not brave enough to resist cuts by voting against them should resign, and allow braver Labour candidates to stand instead.
This position fundamentally misunderstands what the 21st century councillor is, and is again an inappropriate hark back to the 1980s, when precisely such steps were taken in Lambeth (in the context of the threat of personal surcharge).
Ask any half-decent councillor who’s been on the scene for a long time, and they will tell you that the job of a councillor has changed hugely since the early/mid 1980s.
Back then, being a backbench councillor involved an awful lot of committee work, making decisions on service details which are now largely delegated to officers. Nowadays, being a backbench councillor is about casework, problem solving and community campaigns.
Back then, being a local councillor was about both local politics and local decision making. Now it’s about being a cheap social worker, benefits advisor and amateur road engineer, amongst other things.
Whether or not this change (enshrined in the Local Government Act 2000 but not wholly brought about by the Act) is desirable is open to question, but the fact remains that modern local councillors are different from those of last generation. That is why there is occasional conflict in local parties when local ‘stalwart’ councillors are deselected by assessment panels (rather than by ward members) on the basis that they do not have the expected attributes; often they have not changed, but the job description has.
As such, most local councillors’ primary function has little to do with the cuts of 10-30%; they are concerned with ensuring that their local constituents get proper and equitable access to the 70-90% of resources that will remain, whether that be through ensuring that the potholes on an estate do get filled in, or helping someone argue their ‘borderline’ case over revised social care eligibility.
This is important stuff, and not something we should be abrogating for the sake of fifteen minutes of fame and defiance.
If I resigned today, I would be leaving behind at least a dozen local initiatives, whether that be work on road safety schemes or work to set up a Tenants’ Association for Sheltered Accommodation tenants as preparation against future Tory assaults on their tenancies. None of this stuff will ever be headline news, but they are important to my local constituents all. That’s true for many councillors, and it’s important that leftwing activists recognize that this is the kind of stuff that motivates many modern councillors.
4. Prudential borrowing is not a viable option
Some on the left have also put forward the argument that Labour Councils can avoid cuts if they use the prudential borrowing facilities available to them.
If only it were so.
If it were the case that Councils could borrow prudentially to provide for ongoing revenue, you’d expect to see at least a few going down that line, working either on the basis that a future Labour government will provide settlements decent enough to cover debt interest and steady repayment, or even that the debt might be picked up in its entirety by central government.
Sadly, it’s not the case. The Local Government Act 2003 regulations on borrowing and the subsequent Prudential Code are clear enough about the duty on Councils to provide evidence of the ‘affordabilty’ of their borrowing, and of the powers of the Secretary of State to limit borrowing.
Such legislation brings us back to the issues set out above (Reason 2) with respect to Section 151 officers. As with illegal budget setting, it falls to these Chief Finance Officers to take a view at local authority level on whether borrowing schemes are ‘affordable’ in repayment terms, and the reality is that borrowing for straight revenue is not going to be approved on that score.
That’s why no Councils have gone down this route to date.
That is not to say that Council’s can’t make more creative use of borrowing, and I’ll set out what might be done at Reason 8 in part of this article, but for the present prudential borrowing is simply not a way to avoid cuts.
5. Labour cuts should be different from Coalition Cuts
Luke Akehurst puts the legality argument (reason 1) and the ‘political priority’ argument for Labour cuts in one handy paragraph:
You can’t even get as far as setting an illegal budget and being surcharged. All that happens is that the council officers set a balanced budget for you, with no reference to your political priorities.
Mark Ferguson does the same:
A council that failed to pass a legal budget now would lose control over the finances of the local authority. Decision making would pass to unelected bureaucrats – or worse Eric Pickles – who wouldn’t be bound by the priorities and manifesto pledges of those who had been democratically elected. If you believe that cuts delivered by Eric Pickles would be less damaging – or equiavalent – to those which Labour councillors are forced to deal out, then you have clearly exited the realm of reality.
Both are right about political ‘priorities’, but on both occasions their argument is drowned in so much anti-Left vitriol that it’s unlikely anyone on the Left will be convinced.
More importantly, just saying that Labour Councils have different political priorities doesn’t prove they have. Luke and Mark may be laudably concise in their argument, but what they gain in brevity they lose through lack of evidence.
Evidence that Labour really do, or at least should make cuts that reflect political priorities will of course differ from area to area, but there is evidence.
Take the difference between Liverpool Labour and Tory Lancashire, for example.
In Liverpool, for example. Labour have put together a budget which reduces spending by £91m in 2011-12 but has been able to issue a press briefing which states that:
We have protected, as far as possible, services to children and vulnerable adults. Children’s care services have been protected and will experience a reduction of just 1%.
Meanwhile, says the briefing:
Spending on road maintenance, street cleansing, parks and open spaces will be reduced by £5.8m
Compare this with what’s happening 30 miles up the road in Preston, HQ to Lancashire’s Tories, the opposite is happening.
There are cuts of £71.6m to be made in Lancashire 2011-12, but the Tories have responded by putting an additional £2.038m into highways maintenance while savaging services to the most vulnerable, through cuts to both adult and children’s care services.
The Tory strategy is clear enough ; reduce services to the most vulnerable as much as is needed, because they have a relatively small number of votes anyway, while maintaining ‘popular’ services which are less costly per user, and therefore act as better vote winners in the future.
There isn’t scope here to provide many details of how Tory cuts really are different from Labour cuts. The point is that when Ted Knight stood yup in the LRC AGM and talked with withering sarcasm about how people would experience Labour cuts and tory cuts differently, he was wrong; the most vulnerable will, in general suffer less under Labour cuts than they would under Tory administrations (or Pickles-driven budget setting).
This isn’t to say that Labour councils are getting it right everywhere. Such an assertion would be just a bit too much blind faith in Labour values at the heart of every Labour council. But what is needed in these circumstances is proper engagement with Labour councils over what cuts are being proposed and why, rather than a blanket refusal to engage with any cuts at all (similar to engagement over reserve levels, which I’ll cover in Reason 6).
Coming up at Reasons 6-10…….
6 Reserves are finite, sort of….
7. There’s legal budget and there’s legal budgets……
8. Labour councillors are NOT doing the Tories’ dirty work
9. United we stand, divided we’re shite
10. What are councillors for again?