The revelation that Bridgend CBC is cutting £36million from its spending over the next three years was shocking enough, but hearing that they are already targeting things like home care services for the disabled, nursery education and school transport emphasise just who is being made to pay for the mismanagement of the economy by successive governments.
This isn’t even the end of it. George Osborne’s autumn statement revealed that the cuts will now have to continue until 2018, such has been the failure of the chancellor’s economic strategy. Not surprisingly, the dawning realisation of what this means for some of the most hard-pressed families in the country has brought howls of outrage.
But the situation facing Labour councillors is especially acute, since not only are the funding cuts political, but the burden of current and projected needs in working class communities like Bridgend are enormously greater. People in Bridgend, I am sure, did not elect Labour councillors to merely administer cuts for the Con-Dem government but to represent and protect their interests at the local level. It is all well and good that Cllr Nott, leader of the Council, hollers with outrage that the cuts will cause “extreme pain” but voters are increasingly beginning to ask what he is planning to do to protect the hard-pressed people he represents.
Labour’s approach nationally thus far has been to identify central government as responsible for the painful choices facing Labour councils, but to accept that these savage cuts are effectively a fact of political life, at least this side of a general election. The responsibility of power, we are told, means taking ‘tough choices’ to avoid still worse consequences. But is it true that Labour councillors have no choice but to become the instruments through which Pickles will deliver cuts to deprived communities in Bridgend?
Once upon a time, the Labour Party would have been talking about empowerment, community and decentralisation, echoing its grassroots co-operative traditions, and providing real alternative models of service delivery. No more. Such socialist ideas have been purged in Blairite New labour. Furthermore, those expecting a Labour government to restore local government structures and finances to the status quo are likely to be disappointed. As with so much else, Labour may oppose the scale and pace of the cuts today, but will not make promises to reverse those cuts the Tories have already implemented or set in train.
Of course, many councillors want to demonstrate that they are more than hapless accomplices of Eric Pickles’ cash‑grab from local services. But they are shackled by their blind loyalty to a Party that is no longer the one they joined a few decades ago. A few Labour councils, and the UK’s only Green Council in Brighton, have been seeking ways of implementing some progressive measures. So, for example, they have committed themselves to becoming living wage employers and stipulated minimum pay standards in the course of procurement from contractors. Some have instigated a ‘Fairness Commission’, bringing together academics and social policy experts with councillors in open public deliberation to take evidence on inequality in their boroughs and make practical recommendations for directing what limited resources are available to tackle the problem. None of this will be found in Bridgend.
Shock, horror! A number of Labour councils have even been actively exploring co-operative initiatives around renewable energy. In Preston the local authority has suggested that erecting wind turbines on council-owned land would put £1.5 million a year into the council coffers. No such creative thinking between Cllr Nott’s ears.
The stock response to the argument that Labour councils could refuse point-blank to deliver the coalition cuts is that any alternative, deficit-based ‘needs budget’ would lead directly to Eric Pickles assuming direct control over local budgets and implementing cuts with no thought for those most in need. It is true that no course of locally-determined resistance can ultimately succeed without direct confrontation with central government based on a mobilisation of local communities nationwide. But were Labour to spearhead a national campaign of militant resistance involving local communities in determining their collective needs, the secretary of state wouldn’t find it easy to suspend the entire apparatus of local democracy. And unlike during the epic rate-setting disputes of the 1980s, individual councillors no longer face personal financial ruin, since – although they can be debarred from office – the power to surcharge expelled councillors no longer exists in law. But Labour simply has no stomach for a fight any more.
The Labour left is, of course, an impotent sideshow these days. Even those advocating a militant ‘no cuts’ stance recognise that it would require a strategy for building confidence and extending community support. But there can be no excuse for councillors failing to exhaust every option in their power to delay and contest the implementation of cuts – in the first instance by drawing on reserves and making full use of prudential borrowing powers – to buy time in which the forces of resistance in the community can be consolidated. Bold and determined resistance could inspire levels of popular support that could transform calculations of what is politically possible. Had the people of Bridgend voted for the Green Party instead this Labour group, this is what they would have got. Public resistance, embodied in movements like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (PAAA) has thus far has not shifted Labour councillors from passing cuts budgets. But then such movements are supported primarily by the Green Party and Plaid Cymru – with hardly a Labour councillor in sight.
There have been some limited local exceptions, such as the two Southampton Labour councillors who refused to vote with the ruling Labour group to close a leisure centre they had explicitly promised to save at elections a few months earlier. Following their decision to form a rival group on the council, Labour Councillors Against the Cuts, they have been formally expelled from the party!!
Grassroots resistance has failed to grab many national headlines thus far. But things may be beginning to change. The decision of Newcastle Labour leader Nick Forbes to announce the total axing of the city’s arts and cultural funding, for example, has brought together a coalition of incensed workers, community activists and high-profile arts figures. Birmingham, meanwhile, is facing the complete destruction of its youth services, with more than 1,000 job losses and further areas of council provision threatened with being ‘decommissioned’ in the future.
The stakes are also about to be raised significantly. Labour councils are going to have to make specific choices as people are thrown into extreme financial hardship due to the latest benefit ‘reforms’. The circumstances might be the result of central government policy, but will they employ bailiffs to evict families who have fallen behind on their rents due to the new benefit cap? Will they prosecute people who fall into arrears due to the removal of council tax benefit?
Anti-cuts councillors could be more imaginative about forms of practical resistance. For example, they could consider technical measures beyond options presented by council officers – such as drawing up a charter of immediate defensive measures to which Labour councils could sign up, in dialogue with tenants and residents associations, unions, community activists, charities, faith groups and others with experience of working with real social needs. This might consist of working with the unions to ensure that services are kept in-house, not privatised; protecting council tenants through a moratorium on all evictions; developing long-term debt repayment schemes for council tax bills or social housing rents; implementing licensing standards, including de facto local rent controls on privately-rented accommodation; and so on. But we have already heard Cllr Nott dismiss some of these ideas out of hand.
Unless Labour can actively demonstrate that it is on the side of working people in actions and not just words, then its councillors will be treated with the same contempt as representatives of the other mainstream parties. If this leads to people turning to truly ecosocialist alternatives like the Green Party, then there could still be a silver lining to this miserable cloud that hangs over us all.
Much of this article is based on the following two reports: