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Demanding councillors not set budgets will weaken the anti-cuts movement

Liverpool Town Hall

Liverpool Town Hall

Refusing to set a cuts budget is a tactic that can work. It did, for Liverpool, in 1984, a fact most commentators choose to ignore because of Militant’s influence on the council at that time but which was noted by a Times leader which began “today in Liverpool municipal militancy is vindicated“. The following year, it was a strategy that had very broad support — a fact that Labour bloggers choose to forget — including notably David Blunkett, Labour’s then council-leader in Sheffield, Margaret Hodge, his equivalent in Islington, Labour Party conference and even the Liberal local government spokesman, a certain Simon Hughes, now risen to (slightly) greater things. The context though, when the strategy was planned, was the miners strike, and the prospect of a “second front”, which the Tories were keen to avoid. The context now is very different. It won’t happen this year, and demanding now that it should will serve only to weaken and divide the anti-cuts movement.

The call comes, no doubt, in many places (including even here) but one such was the Labour Representation Committee conference this month at which several resolutions were carried, most wholly supportable. The call came strongly in one from Ted Knight’s union branch which argued:

Labour councillors have a clear political duty to resist these unprecedented attacks on working people. They cannot allow themselves to become the local agents of this anti-working class Coalition government. Instead, Labour councillors should:

  1. Explain to local communities why they are not willing to become accomplices of the ConDem government, spelling out how the cuts will devastate services and jobs if implemented.
  2. Where they are in control of the council, refuse to draw up or endorse budgets for 2011-12 that implement the draconian cuts demanded by the government; where Labour councillors are in opposition, refuse to vote for a single cut.
  3. Work with representatives of community groups, local authority workers and trade unions, trades councils, Labour Party members and other political activists, to block council officers or government commissioners from seizing control and implementing the cuts.

The problem is that lecturing Labour councillors on what is their duty is (let alone heckling them like a small minority of the LRC conference audience) will alienate, even ostracise them, even when they oppose the government’s cuts and could be persuaded to support the campaign. the opposition to the cuts will be smaller and more divided than otherwise.

Perhaps this would be justified, as it certainly appeared to be for some time back in 1985, if refusing cooperation was capable of forcing a situation in which the government would be forced to intervene and run the risk of alienating its own supporters. But that cannot happen now. There will be no government intervention, none is necessary. The council’s own senior officers will undertake the task of making the cuts, as they are legally obliged to do.

The only prospect of bringing down the government, or forcing a change of policy, is that we create such a broad base of support for campaigns against the cuts, that we create divisions within and between the Coalition parties. And if we fail to do that, the benefit of creating that broad base of support is that we will maximise the opposition to the coalition parties when an election comes, as well as the pressure on the Labour Party’s leadership to pursue an alternative economic strategy rather than simply a slower, milder version of the current policy.

When

11 Comments

  1. Darrell says:

    Jon,

    How then do you think community groups who are part of this movement being forced to fight Labour councils will effect it? This will start to happen. Not exactly going to strengthen it either is it?

    I take some of your points on board. Having said that if calling for them not to set budgets is one extreme of the argument this piece which is basically advocating a ‘do nothing’ approach is the other. Maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with some alternative options because while your right ‘demanding’ in an exclusionary way may weaken the movement so will the different components of the movement starting to fight each other.

    And, if the councils take your road that’s exactly what is going to happen…

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Whether or not councillors set a budget, they are capable of opposing government funding cuts, explaining the damaging effect of cuts on services and on service users, urging service users to lobby their MPs, demanding a change of government policy, demonstrating, meeting with Ministers (alongside community representatives), and demanding that Labour shadow ministers adopt a policy of reversing cuts, and pursuing an economic strategy for growth and investment.

      It is similar with council workers. If they decide to take strike action to defend their jobs and our services, we should support them, as indeed we should they do if they chose other forms of protest or action. But if they decide not to do to strike, can they and their trade unions not do the same things. Would we not want to work with them?

  2. oldpolitics says:

    How would you feel about ‘majority opposition’ in those Councils where, say, a large Lib Dem opposition group behaves disingenously and tries to blame the Labour administration for their Government’s cuts?

    I can see it would be unattractive to Cabinet Members in authorities which pay high allowances, and might risk allowing a more regressive set of cuts (though the majority would still enable amendment / veto if necessary).

  3. P spence says:

    Jon you overlook the scale of cuts on a magnitude many times that of the 1980s. If the line is not drawn at 20-25% cuts then where is it. Are councillors politicians or managers? I say let the officers step in and see how they justify and explain cuts: we have to show that coalition has no mandate. Councillor ought to be leading the resistance not twisting themselves up in knots by facing both ways. We cannot wait 4 years for a new government.

  4. Darrell says:

    @Jon,

    Not really. Your asking for us to treat the voters like fools. I think they may well legitimately ask how we can oppose cuts that we, in the next breath, implement. You see I think these voters will want a little more than fine words and will probably want some of the doing thing. You also avoid the question of how Labour councils implementing these cuts will divide and weaken the movement by turning different parts each against the other – unions and community groups will soon be going to open war with Labour councils and your line will lead to that.

    I’m very tempted to let officers do it because they have no mandate. If it comes to a straight fight I think local people will side with their local council and democratically elected representatives that is at least taking their side against the officers and might even to start to not cooperate rightfully with a council run by these mandarins.

    I have said I am happy to work with Labour councillors who take an understandable attitude. I want to open a dialogue with them and criticised the heckling at the LRC conference. Nonetheless if it comes to a straight choice then I know where my loyalties lie and so should Labour councillors.

  5. Steve Kelly says:

    That’s the problem Darrell.

    The Thatcher Government made it easy for Cameron and Co do carry out what they are doing now. They probably would have done it then except other events intervened.

    The Tories have always known (from history) how to control the masses. They know how to divide, rule and conquer and not setting budgets will just allow them to run riot.

    When Thatcher was in power there was precedent but there is now. And we will all lose.

    What we should be doing is developing new strategies about destroying this Government now by organising people collectively.

    This Government is also doing something else not been picked up. My wife realised it before me. They know what they are doing is both wrong and likely to cause mayhem. But the Tories believe if they can cause as much havoc as possible at the same time, then the opposition will not know what to oppose. But by coordinating properly we can defeat them.

    This coordination is taking shape but for me it’s taking far too long.

  6. Darrell says:

    @Steve,

    Possibly. But I also think when your say the Thatcher government knew how to control the masses that has an element of truth and in that truth is also the truth that until the end Thatcher had a reasonably sensible view of her own limitations and the limitations of how far the government could go towards her undoubted ideological ends. I dont think this lot have the same common sense.

    But Steve we will be divided either way as I keep pointing out. Do you honestly expect the unions to take job losses on the scales being mentioned lying down? Labour council or no the answer has to be no surely?

    I agree with the last bit and share your frustration…

  7. Jason says:

    Interesting article. The big question for me is – if by making difficult choices (by reducing services that do not impact on the most vulnerable) we could make the cuts less harmful. If we could keep investment in VCF organisations, save services to the most vulnerable – then surely that is worth it.

    I would argue there is no contradiction between trying to reduce the impact of the cuts, and fighting the cuts. The question then becomes whether councillors think there is any possibility of making cuts less harmful, or whether it makes little difference whether they or officers are in charge.

    If the latter, then it is really unfortunate…

  8. Darrell says:

    @Jason,

    I think thats a fair and valid point. In a lot of cases the scale of the cuts make the chances of softening the blow are in my eyes non-existent because of the sheer scale of the cuts…

  9. P Spence says:

    For me the scale of the cuts is the nub of it. They are unprecedented and designed in part to lower peoples expectations of state services, and in part to treat public services as a profit centre for capital by outsourcing an the like.

    Further, do we honestly believe the cuts will be reversed once a labour government returns to power. Waiting 4 years and mitigating the worst effects locally simply does not allow for the magnitude of service reductions likely to result from 25% plus budget cuts. It will be too late.

    From a marxist view, this is an exercise in devaluation, following a crisis, necessary to allow the surplus value accumulation cycle to kick in again: why are Labour councils collaborating in that process?

  10. Jon Lansman says:

    @P Spence
    I don’t disagree with you about the enormous scale of the cuts. Unfortunately, the majority of the public still do not see any alternative even if they are unhappy (or will soon be) with some of the cuts. We do not have a movement anything like we had in 1985 when we still lost and the consequence was that councillors sought to protect services through “creative accounting” – a tactic which increased the cost of services and ulimately led to further cuts – an effect not unlike that of PFIs.

    Unfortunately, councillors have been depoliticised, they have become more like managers than politicians. They lack even the capacity to lead campaigns which Margaret Hodge and David Blunkett had in 1985. However, that does not mean that they cannot be drawn into broadly-based community-led (or indeed Labour-led) campaigns, or national initiiaves like the TUC-led demo. And the exclusion of them will lead to more splits down the line, and the eventual marginalisation of the campaign.

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