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Labour councils should be setting social budgets……

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to cause quite a Twitterstorm by suggesting that Labour councils should not, in fact, be implementing this governments cutbacks. The usual arguments were thrown about; it was ‘unrealistic‘ and ‘irresponsible‘. Amazingly, I didn’t even mention the words ‘illegal‘ and ‘budget‘ but it was still assumed a priori that’s what I meant. Personally, I would be prepared to go that far in what I advocated but can understand some of the objections and problems with this; however, it’s quite clear to me things do not have to go that far. The response shows a depressing lack of imagination and willing to ‘push the envelope‘ in some comrades thinking.

Let’s set the scene first. Labour is expected to do well in the next set of council elections in May 2011. I suggest this will be especially the case in north where the Liberal Democrats are staring at their own annihilation as a force in local government. Obviously, the councils where Labour is likely to do best and find itself controlling are those that are going to be hardest hit. It also has to be remembered that, outside of the council chamber, we have a growing resistance movement. This is important because it’s high time Labour councils remembered that they are part of the opposition to this government, and also that it is their democratic duty to be political centres of opposition. Resistance from councils to the centre’s agenda would fan the flames of, and be supported by, the other resistance movements.

It seems that Labour’s local strategy is to express this opposition by playing the blame game which is of course, a justified response, but that doesn’t mean it goes far enough. People will not be impressed with an opposition that does nothing to protect and them and does not express itself in practical actions. So, let’s assume we don’t like, or can’t make, illegal budgets for the moment. What options for action exist?

One obvious one is for councils to increase their borrowing. The government itself has clearly provided for this; with councils being allowed to borrow against projected (as opposed to guaranteed) extra income from large-scale projects. Reducing the pay of top council executives and pooling Mice Money etc, are other options. Exploitation of the Big Society agenda and the acquisition of the financial sweeteners the blinkered government is providing should also be considered. The point is that options exist short of  setting an illegal budget. However, being honest and realistic, it is probable that the options will eventually be reduced to making a straight choice between setting an ‘illegal’ budget  and making cutbacks because that is what central government ideologically wants to force Labour councils to choose between.

When weighing those two options comrades, should remember that they have a greater democratic legitimacy (and conversely duty) than any representative of this current government will ever have. They should also not assume that local people will turn on them for merely mounting a defence of them, especially given this new climate of resistance. Councils that resist and rally local communities in their favour effectively will have the support of the people whereas those that don’t risk losing that support rapidly as they will be seen as accomplices of this government and its ideologically driven attack on the whole spectrum of society.

5 Comments

  1. PATRICK SPENCE says:

    One idea: negotiate with council workers to reduce their working hours to say an average of 4 days\week plus a strict no redundancy policy. That could save 20% on the wages bill. Alongside, reduce opening hours of local services such as swimming pools and libraries rather than closure. Schools could do the same. We would all have more time then to fight the Tories and protest on our days off.

  2. Darrell says:

    Patrick,

    Some good reasoning there; not sure people would be that keen on the wages though with prices shooting through the roof! :) Although the opening times reduction would also free up some more protest time again not sure how the service users would feel about it.

  3. Darrell says:

    should have read…*wages loss…

  4. Mike says:

    The problem with setting illegal budgets is that it requires the cooperation of the Council’s finance officer, who under the laws the Tories introduced in the late 80s doesn’t have to obey any instructions issued under such a budget, can declare the budget illegal and therefore the Council to have no budget in law, and effectively can’t be sacked.

    So this line can be pursued only if (a) the finance officer is a committed socialist (unlikely) or (b) the Council has the long-term cooperation of the whole workforce, including all the administrative and financial staff, who are prepared to work according to the budget irrespective of management and of legal threats.

    This would require working out a shared strategy closely with the Council Unions over a longer term. It is a high-risk strategy so would require significant commitment not only from Councillors but also from the Union Branch leaderships and the kind of solid support from Union members that only comes from democratic involvement at all levels.

    And since one Council can fairly easily be picked off, the movement would have to make links at a national level and at least some democratisation and radicalisation of Union structures would have to take place as part of it.

    Obviously it would be good to see all these things, and the Left should work towards them – but it’s not as simple as just setting a budget!

  5. Eleanor Firman says:

    “acquisition of the financial sweeteners the blinkered government is providing…”

    Does Darrell Goodliffe mean the Homes and Communities £70m fund available to councils to distribute as grants to landlords holding empty property speculatively, with the proviso they let their refurbished property to tenants on council waiting lists for a few years?

    So councils hand out cash to private sector whilst setting bailiffs on the poorest who can’t pay bedroom tax, the shortfall in council tax benefit after a decade of social rent convergance to ‘affordable rent’.

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