We are told that Labour is an anti-austerity Party. This might be an aspiration, but on the ground, particularly in local government, it is a party which is cutting jobs and services and in the case of the most right wing Labour groups attacking the rights and working conditions of its employees. Nottingham City Council has spent £300,000 appealing against legal decisions in favour of workers who had their annual increments stopped by the Labour council. Birmingham Council appears to have made payments to strike breakers. Reading is outsourcing some of its services, Birmingham is privatising its nurseries.
In December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and John Trickett wrote to Labour councils telling them not to set no cuts budgets. They pointed to the fact that 1992 legislation gave councils a legal obligation to set a balanced budget. Should councils not do so the Section 151 Officer would intervene, issue them with a notice, which would oblige them to bring the budget back into balance. If not then the Secretary of State would intervene. “It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities.”
The argument essentially, although unstated, was that Labour councils would have to make cuts or else the cuts the Tories would impose would be worse. This appeared to be an updated version of Neil Kinnock's concept of the “dented shield”; “better a dented shield than no shield at all”.
However, the letter promised a national campaign.
“That is why we aim to build a national campaign and to work alongside Labour councils to mobilise local campaigns in their areas to expose the devastating impact of this government’s cuts to local council spending. We wish to work with Labour Councils in forging strong alliances with local community campaigners, council staff who are under duress as a result of Tory spending cuts, local citizens and others in defending local services.”
Three years later there has been no national campaign. Experience amply illustrates that you cannot “build strong alliances” with workers you are making redundant nor people whose services you are cutting. Faced with unprecedented decimation of services “pinning the blame on the Tories” will not increase Labour's support. It is no substitute for mobilising resistance to the actions of the Tory government.
Even if you accept that setting a deficit or needs based budget is a wrong tactic, unless you come up with an alternative strategy, then all that is left is for Labour councils to implement the cuts and passively wait, and hope for, a Labour government. In the meantime councils are decimating the social infrastructure, and some are returning to the outsourcing and privatisation of the Blair years. Is this the “new politics”? How does this encourage the victims of austerity to support them when Labour councils are not supporting them? If Labour is to be “a social movement” why isn't it building such a movement against the cuts?
There is, of course, a gulf between the new/returned membership of the Labour Party and some Labour councils. Many of the councillors have their roots in the Blair/Brown years when the Party was privatising and deregulating, transferring council housing to housing associations and so on. The 2015 letter was a gift to these small c conservative forces. They see themselves as administrators rather than political leaders. Whilst there are some signs of an influx of new councillors who more reflect the composition of the Corbyn-led Party, they have as yet no perspective for challenging the dominant electoralism and passivity which the majority of Labour councils exhibit.
For those in the Labour party and unions who want to challenge this passivity and administering of the cuts, what can we propose? Recently 80 Labour councils wrote to the government asking them to stop the extra £1.3 billion cuts which are expected in 2019. What happens when the government refuses?
If local government is collapsing as the Labour Group in the LGA says then what are they going to do beyond writing the letter? We fear that it will be business as usual and we will be expected to wait and hope for a Labour government. Those forces in the Labour Party and the unions that want a break from the status quo must challenge this do-nothing passivity. We need to try to do two things;
Develop a strategy for tackling the government's austerity agenda in local government in the here and now.
Develop a clear programme which we want a Labour government to implement if elected.
One way in which you could set a balanced budget and take radical action which would enable councils to spend more would be to develop a coordinated tactic of stopping paying off debt and interest on loans held by the Public Works Loans Board. This will no doubt be looked at askance by many. However, English councils overall paid £3.2 billion to the PWLB in debt payments and interest charges in 2017-18 (£4.264 billion for GB – the previous year it was £4.7 billion). They have outstanding debt of £56.855 billion. The figure for Great Britain is £70.1 billion.
Refusal to pay the interest and principal on this debt would undoubtedly lead to a political confrontation with the government. However, it would provide a framework in which to forge “strong alliances” opposing austerity. Whilst the government could pick off individual councils it would have more of a problem if the action was coordinated by many councils. Otherwise the only alternative is for Labour councils to continue to decimate services and jobs. This proposed action would show the victims of austerity that Labour councils were taking a stand in defence of their jobs and services, a stand around which council staff and service users could be mobilised in support of such councils.
Is such a proposal feasible? It can only be tested out by taking a debate to CLPs and Labour councils and mobilising communities to demand a change of course. What is unacceptable is that we base a policy on waiting for the election of a Labour government whilst austerity is simply administered by Labour councils. We have to challenge the practice of Labour councils and pose an alternative. Otherwise the layer of new councillors standing at the next local elections will have no perspective for fighting against those authorities intent on just administering austerity.
Labour's local government programme?
At the same time there needs to be a debate about what radical action a Labour government should take if elected. Given the scale of the crisis which is taking desperately needed social services away from people in need, at a time when the DWP is operating a “hostile environment” for claimants, we need Labour to commit to an emergency programme to rescuing local government and the millions who depend on its services. Cancelling Local Authority debt would provide councils with an extra £4 billion annual spending power enabling them to dispense with austerity. In 2013 the Tories broke the link between grant and an annual assessment of local needs. Labour would have to reinstate that. Funding must be linked to an annually uprated assessment of social needs.
There is no question that austerity has impoverished millions, is ruining many people's lives, and killing some of them. If Labour is to be the anti-austerity party in reality rather than in words, there needs to be a local government rebellion organised. Refusing to pay the debt would challenge central government and provide a focus for building a national movement in defence of jobs and services as opposed to Labour councils implementing austerity. If the Party supports the victims of austerity it would stand more of a chance of winning their support. At the same time, a commitment from Labour to cancel local government debt would offer the prospect of putting an end to the decimation of local government services and open up the possibility of beginning to rebuild them.
What can we do?
What can we do to challenge the status quo? I would suggest that the Labour Representation Committee endeavours to organise a national meeting bringing together Labour councillors, trades unionists and community activists to discuss how Labour's words against austerity can be turned into action. We need a national campaign through which Labour councils challenge the government's starvation of local authorities of the funding they need to provide services based on social needs in each locality. I have suggested one idea. Other people may have others. But we need to try to bring together those members and supporters who recognise the need to challenge implementation of austerity by Labour councils.
Note: anybody wishing to discuss the ideas raised in this article should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
is the Secretary of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group