Ian Watson

Resisting council cuts in Scotland

Ian Watson

THE HISTORY OF THE LABOUR movement is littered with examples of local councillors acting as the spearhead of resistance to government policy - from Poplar to Clay Cross and Lambeth to Liverpool.

If we have learned anything it is that councillors alone cannot successfully fight cuts. No matter how brave and principled the councillors are, they will fail if there is not a mass campaign of support for them outside the council chamber. Even better, a struggle in a single authority which is part of a widespread and co-ordinated political campaign across a number of councils will stand some chance of mobilising public opinion behind it at council elections.

This point was made eloquently in a series of articles in the February 2016 Labour Briefing in which the authors urged CLPs to build campaigns to support ‘rebel’ councillors - both to ensure that they are not subject to individual legal action and, importantly, do not have the whip withdrawn if they vote against cuts.

All the articles were from comrades in England writing about resistance to Tory cuts. Important though these observations were, it has been galling for those of us in Scotland to read articles such as that by Tobie Glenny, in the June 2016 Briefing, urging the formation of an alliance of the ‘anti-austerity left’ to include the SNP. This is because the source of our council cuts is the SNP Scottish government!

In particular, when we heard the SNP were doubling up cuts of 5% to Scotland from Westminster to cuts of 11% to Scottish councils, it was obvious that particular political choices were being made, in Holyrood, by the SNP to decimate council services. In Edinburgh this has resulted in a cut to the City Council budget this year of £85m and the potential loss of 2,000 jobs. In the City Council Labour are the majority partners in the coalition which comprises 21 Labour and 17 SNP in a 58 councillor authority.

Scottish comrades feel frustrated when they hear from prominent English left commentators, such as Paul Mason, that we ought to be considering some sort of progressive alliance with those who we see clearly as the enemy up here. Indeed, some are suggesting that we move, in the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), to supporting independence. Our experience of this sort of ‘alliance’ in Edinburgh council is that our coalition partners are not interested in resisting government cuts. Indeed, they are handicapping our attempts to place the blame where it should lie.

The problem we have is that swathes of working class voters and union members up here still have illusions that the SNP are bravely trying to defend Scotland from Tory austerity.

The current task for us in Scottish CLPs is to build links with council workers and community campaigners to explain that the source of the cuts is the SNP and to forge a campaign that will support Labour councillors who begin a campaign of resistance to them. Local union branches are dominated by SNP members who define the principal political issue facing workers as the national question, not class solidarity.

They are aided and abetted by Green supporters who are also in favour of independence. So you can see the uphill battle we are facing to confront the Scottish government over cuts.

When we in the Edinburgh CLPs learned at the end of 2015 of the scale of the SNP cuts across Scottish councils, most of the city CLPs passed motions - initiated by Scottish Campaign for Socialism/ Momentum Scotland supporters - calling for a Fight Back Conference on cuts which would reach out from the Labour Party to unions and community groups in the city. This resulted in an Edinburgh all-Labour Party members’ meeting in May which agreed to call such a conference on 1st October. This one day conference attracted 150+ delegates from CLPs, union branches and community activists. We had prominent Scottish level speakers from Unite and Unison as well as Neil Findlay MSP (Corbyn’s campaign manager in Scotland) and Kezia Dugdale, leader of the SLP.

There was overwhelming support at the conference for the Edinburgh Labour Party to draw up a ‘needs budget’ for the election and to draft a manifesto based on providing the services that will restore the cuts and provide what the citizens of Edinburgh deserve. There was support for a debt amnesty, using council reserves, reviewing the crippling PPP contracts that the council has entered into plus a tourist tax and a supermarket tax. These latter changes will require a campaign in Holyrood, led by our MSPs. As part of this campaign Kezia Dugdale promised at our conference that no Labour MSP will vote for budget cuts. Indeed, the Party’s 2016 election manifesto proposed using the tax raising powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise the rate of tax for those earning over £150k to 50%, in order to defend services. This will continue to be the SLP’s position in next May’s election.

We have started a process for building a campaign of resistance in Edinburgh. The challenge is now for comrades in other cities to follow suit.

Edinburgh Pentlands Constituency Labour Party