|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 175 February 2014
Fighting the next round of council cuts
During February and March councils are meeting to decide budgets for the year ahead. Google ‘council job cuts’ and you will get a map of Britain with endless stories of local services falling apart at the seams. It is clear that council workers and communities face another wave of damaging cuts. What are the prospects for a fight-back from council unions and the community? What alternatives are being posed to cuts?
The ConDem coalition is out to decimate council services. Cuts to the local authority budget have been the biggest of any government department: Unite the union estimates a 43% real terms cut in funding (over £6 billion) in the five years to 2015. Urban areas have been hardest hit, with Liverpool city council facing a 62% cut in funding between 2010 and 2017. In the current financial year, councils have received 73.6p for every £1 of central government funding they had in 2010.
Increasing numbers of councils are struggling to find services left to cut, with 28% of unitary authorities in a state of ‘high financial stress’, according to the Audit Commission’s, ‘Tough Times’ report. Andrew Johnson, cabinet member for Wolverhampton council, is just one of many raising the prospect of Detroit-style bankruptcy: "We are now realistically looking at the prospect of becoming insolvent unless we make very deep and very fast cuts to address this enormous budget deficit which has been forced upon us by government". Even Tory Local Government Association chair Sir Merrick Cockell talks of cuts stretching "essential services to breaking point in many areas".
Rather than mobilising opposition to the government cuts, councils – including every single Labour council – have turned to cutting jobs, services and terms and conditions, as well as privatisation, to balance the books.
Since 2010, 400,000 council jobs have been cut – 20% – with those left in work struggling to maintain services on less pay, many with cuts to their terms and conditions. Local government workers have suffered a £3,544 cut in pay since 2010. Over one million local government workers earn less than £21,000 a year. Just over half a million of these earn less than £15,000 a year.
Adult social care services, youth services and libraries have been decimated and are continuing to face cuts. Whole communities have nothing left but the local school, which is likely to be under threat of privatisation to academy status. Councils report increases in demands for looked after children as well as an increase in homelessness, in part due to the hated bedroom tax. The financial pressures on families whose incomes have been squeezed and costs increased, have meant growing demands for food banks, as well as increases in rent arrears, evictions and court summonses for council tax.
Enormous anger is set to boil over among council workers and service users. No wonder a recent Guardian poll showed huge anger among voters, mainly over broken promises
made by politicians. That means falling turnouts in council elections, where just 30% typically come out to vote. While politicians have attempted to calm the waters and paper over the cracks of the crisis, the Met Police’s request for the use of water cannon on the streets of London by this summer shows an awareness of the real mood in society.
In the face of a combination of Labour’s failure to oppose cuts locally and nationally, and the lack of a national fight-back led by council unions, Unison, Unite and the GMB, the Tories have been encouraged to go further still. A further 10% cut in council funding is reward for their obedience.
What is the alternative? Writing in The Guardian on 7 January, Andy Sawford, the shadow local government minister, spelt out Labour’s position in black and white: "The next Labour government will not be able to stop the cuts or turn back the clock". Wringing their hands, pleading for sympathy with the difficult choices they have to make, Labour councillors have dutifully carried out the austerity cuts. It is an abject failure to provide leadership to the millions looking for a way to defend themselves and their families from the brutal cuts.
Attempting to justify their pitiful surrender, Labour councillors and their supporters in the unions, are adamant they have no choice. They are determined to silence and dispel any support for an alternative. In the run-up to budget meetings it is essential that these myths are challenged and a clear case is made for what councilors can and should do.
Firstly, council union branches and activists must redouble the demands for Labour councilors to refuse to vote for cuts. Is there any doubt that taking such a stand would get enormous support? Under pressure of boiling public anger, Labour has called for the scrapping of the bedroom tax and received support for doing so. The same with its minimal proposals on energy-price caps. Indeed, a campaign to resist local government cuts, to save jobs, libraries and Sure Start centres, and to build 500,000 council homes, would be the basis for driving this government into retirement ahead of schedule.
Shamefully, Labour’s cowardice hides the fact that such demands are inherently modest. Local authorities have reserves of £14.2 billion and actually increased their reserves by £1 billion last year. This is a scandal and such reserves should be used immediately to protect services. While council funding has been stripped to the bone, and wages and benefits are squeezed, the super-rich friends of the ConDem government have been rewarded with tax cuts and a tax regime that sees over £100 billion uncollected and evaded every year. Not only is that enough to avoid cuts but it could also begin to tackle the urgent needs of our communities in building affordable council housing, creating jobs and providing services for the young, elderly and vulnerable.
While Labour councilors today cower in fear of this weak and unpopular coalition past battles were fought and won in the teeth of previous tough times: for example, in Poplar council in the 1920s, Clay Cross in the 1970s, and the epic victory of the socialist Liverpool 47 councillors from 1983-87, where Socialist Party members, then supporters of the Militant newspaper, played a leading role. On the issues of rents, jobs and public housing these battles built the fight-back.
The Southampton rebel councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas have shown what every Labour councillor could do. They put forward a clear balanced budget to Southampton Labour council in February 2013, proposing to use the council’s legal powers to access borrowing, financed by reserves, to fund the budget deficit and protect all jobs and services. Such a defiant stand would be certain to get enormous support and, having bought time and not implemented cuts, lay the basis for a huge campaign to force another government U-turn and restore the money stolen from the council since 2010.
To date the union leaderships of Unison, Unite and the GMB have completely failed to harness the anger of members and the community into a national campaign over cuts and pay. This has left local branches isolated, fighting one by one but also in many cases hamstrung by full-time officials unwilling to sanction ballots for industrial action.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that opposition will not develop, despite the role of the trade union national leadership. This latest round of cuts could propel local branches, under the pressure and anger of their members, into taking action, as the current strike of residential carers and Unison members in Glasgow shows (with Socialist Party Scotland members in the leadership of the local branch). Developing the possibility of linking such struggles together could be the basis for building a single national campaign. This could also develop around the mounting pressure on national pay, which could feed into a battle on cuts as well.
In the communities, battles on the bedroom tax and campaigns to save libraries, Sure Start and youth centres are mobilising opposition and blooding a new generation of activists. On top of the growing housing crisis, where rent rises and evictions are on the increase, up to 500,000 people have been summonsed to court for council tax arrears. How many of these are council workers themselves or trade union members? It is clear that the council unions, coordinating with the trade union movement as a whole, could build city-wide anti-cuts committees to mobilise mass resistance.
With huge anger mounting against the ConDem cuts, and the pitiful compliance of Labour councils, is it any wonder that voter turnout is so low at council elections, and is falling further? As it becomes clearer that Labour will not fight back, support will grow both within the unions and among the communities for a fighting alternative. It is this space that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is fighting to at least partially fill on 22 May.
This is especially important due to the probable growth of support for the right-wing, populist UKIP at the euro elections, which could spill over into the local council elections taking place the same day. TUSC aims to stand 625 candidates this year, building a national profile for the first time. It is around the experience of battles over the latest round of council cuts that candidates will come forward and support grow for TUSC. Based on a clear case for opposing all cuts and a confident explanation of the powers open to councils to refuse to implement them, the next few months will be an important period in the fight-back to save local council jobs and services.