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Bring a new politics into local democracy

stop the cutsThe following statement has been issued by the Labour Representation Committee

On the basis of a hasty and highly selective reading of the letter sent to Labour councils by Jeremy Corbyn, together with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett, some right-wingers are claiming that the leadership has endorsed their existing strategy towards implementing the cuts. Likewise some sectarian elements on the left have already begun to accuse the leadership of having made a demoralising climb-down on the issue.

In fact, it is a mistake to see this letter as closing down the debate. Instead, it represents an implicit critique of the failure of the previous leadership – under then Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Hilary Benn – for failing to ensure that Labour councils across the country engaged “community campaigners, council staff who are under duress as a result of Tory spending cuts, local citizens and others in defending local services”. The letter opens up the whole question of introducing a new and more overtly political approach instead.

It is simply a matter of fact that in the absence of such a mass campaign any attempt to introduce an illegal budget would be liable to be overturned, with councillors debarred from office and spending decisions taken over by the council officers or the Secretary of State. But the letter precisely goes on to advocate building such a mass campaign. The role of the LRC and the Labour left is to pressure our local councils through CLPs and wider campaigning groups including Momentum, to make sure that the call for such a mass campaign is made into a reality, and develops to an extent which makes a bolder course of action possible.

The election of a radical left leadership, with an overwhelming mandate from members of supporters of the Party, has changed the situation which the LRC faces. We are now not only defending the rights of individual councillors to raise the need for no-cuts budgets, and supporting them in the face of disciplinary measures – which we will continue to do. Rather, we now have the chance to develop and implement a strategy for the whole of Labour’s local government base to resist the cuts in practice. But only by mobilising significant sections of our communities will this become a practical option.

In no sense should the existing legal situation be used as an excuse to implement Tory cuts. If Labour’s new commitment to being an “anti-austerity” party is to be credible, we need to be demonstrating at a local level that we are willing in practice to challenge the imposition of these cuts. It does not automatically follow that setting a legal budget means simply passing on the cuts to our communities. Since they have a disproportionate impact on women, disabled people and minority ethnic communities, cuts which would further widen existing inequalities must not be passed on. The LRC calls on councils to exhaust all available avenues under the law, including extensive drawing-down of reserves and use of prudential borrowing powers, to forestall the latest round of cuts while an effective mass campaign of resistance is built.

In the spirit of the decision to respect the genuine difference between MPs by giving them a free vote over the bombing of Syria, we also call for a radical overhaul of the Councillors’ Contract to ensure that individual councillors have the freedom to express their views over issues much closer to home. If the Party can relax the whip on issues of life and death, surely it might be relaxed on questions like cuts to essential social care?

At the same time we recognise the dangers of council leaders and officers interpreting the leadership’s letter as a green light for continuing with the cuts. Some Labour councillors appear to need reminding that they are political representatives and not just competent and compassionate administrators. If Labour fails to respond to the challenge of building a mass campaign of resistance to Tory-driven austerity at a local level, the whole question of our credibility as an “anti-austerity” party will be undermined. We will look like the kind of party who makes promises in opposition but fails to deliver on them in power. Worse, if we fail to build a mass campaign against these Tory cuts, we will have failed to create the political basis in public opinion for throwing out this government and getting a radical Corbyn-led Labour government elected.

We cannot stress enough the urgency of building a broad, united campaign against the Tory cuts which actively mobilises our communities behind mass resistance. This would open up new possibilities, including expanding and democratising the whole budget-setting process by introducing forms of community participation and deliberation over the needs of their own communities. This is not the end of the debate, it’s only the beginning. It’s high time that Labour brought a new politics into local democracy.

5 Comments

  1. MS says:

    Your recommended reading list includes only one female author. This is problematic for many reasons not least that it perpetuates the myth that the views of men are more authoritative than those of women. Any left future would need far better gender equity.

  2. Paul says:

    While I still don’t like some of the non-Corbynist vitriol in this statement, I think it still reflects a major step forward in thinking and proposed practice for the LRC.

    I can forgive the revisionism around the “fact” that setting illegal budgets just takes the setting of budgets outside of democratic control; it’s not a “fact” I heard accepted at the (few) LRC meetings I attended, but it’s great if it has now been taken on board. I was pilloried by LRC people in 2011 when I took much the same position as it now takes, but time moves on, and I think the coming together of minds on this is a reflection of the hope offered by the Corbyn leadership.

    What this statement does do is open the way for the development of consensus – between the so-called ‘hard left’ and dull social/associative democrats like me – around what “mass resistance” and “democratizing the whole budget-setting process” looks like in practice.

    I offered some thoughts on how this practice might be forged, in a way which goes beyond the ‘traditional’ resistance methods of demos & leaflets, back in August as the Corbyn win became obvious.

    They are here http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2015/08/25/on-building-associative-democracy/ and reference the potential for the revitaliation and re-purposing of Trades Councils as an early step.

  3. swatantra says:

    Excellent article and the argument that Councils cannot take illegal actions otherwise they will be taken to Court and ruled ultra vires. They must work within the letter of the Law of the Land.
    The fight against Austerity must continue outside City Halls, ie in the Community and in the Streets, through Demonstrations and Protests and the Lobbying of Tory MPs and the Lords to make them change their minds just like the fight against cuts to Tax Credits won by Labour and the Coalition of Sense. But its no point in preaching to the converted ie you and me, its those dyed in the wool Tories that need to be convinced and educated.

  4. David Pavett says:

    The sentiments of this article seem to me to be worryingly ambiguous.

    On the one hand it says, wisely in my opinion, that “in the absence of such a mass campaign any attempt to introduce an illegal budget would be liable to be overturned, with councillors debarred from office and spending decisions taken over by the council officers or the Secretary of State”.

    But on the other hand it speaks of “the rights of individual councillors to raise the need for no-cuts budgets”.

    How does that work? First, it is said to be unwise to introduce illegal budgets in the absence of a mass campaign to oppose the cuts but second, it is said to be the “right” of individual councillors to “raise the need for no-cuts budgets”.

    If illegal budgets are unwise in the absence of a mass campaign how do “individual councillors” have a “right” to “raise the need for no-cuts budgets”? What are such councillors supposed to do in the absence of a mass campaign? Do they still have this abstract “right” independent of a lack of popular support? We are told that “only by mobilising significant sections of our communities will this become a practical option”. This clearly suggests that the right to oppose cuts budgets is conditional on generating a mass campaign.

    So what is a councillor to do in the absence of such a campaign (apart from trying to get one going)?

    We are told further that “In no sense should the existing legal situation be used as an excuse to implement Tory cuts”. But that is exactly what the previous argument implies: if you haven’t got a mass campaign going then there are no grounds for illegal budgets.

    The ambiguity of the article develops into incoherence with “It does not automatically follow that setting a legal budget means simply passing on the cuts to our communities. Since they have a disproportionate impact on women, disabled people and minority ethnic communities, cuts which would further widen existing inequalities must not be passed on”.

    So now, the recommendation is that with or without a mass campaign cuts which widen existing inequalities (virtually all of them do so) “must not be passed on”.

    The incoherence is patched over by saying that if there is not a mass campaign then the cuts should be opposed anyway (contradicting the earlier points) by spending reserves while a mass movement is developed. There are no calculations here on how long such a strategy can last (before reserves are exhausted) and neither on the legal requirements, or even the practical value, of maintaining reserves. And what exactly is “prudential borrowing” in such circumstances? Some explanation is surely called for?

    I entirely agree on the need for local Labour Parties to conduct campaigns against the cuts and to make local populations but what is to be done where that has not yet taken off? Is it safe to assume that it will take off? What are the “rights” of individual councillors to argue for non-cuts budgets in such circumstances? Do we not need to take stock of the fact that so far anti-cuts campaigns have involved only a tiny proportion of the electorate? At what point does it become safe to assume that a future mass movement will become so powerful that either the government will back down or a change of government will be brought about with an incoming government committed to a clear alternative to cuts?

    Let’s be honest. It is yet accurate to describe Labour as an “anti-austerity Party”(as in the Corbyn, Trickett, McDonnell letter). For that it would have to have a clear alternative to the cuts and a clear economic programme to finance that alternative. Is there anyone who thinks that is already the case?

    if we fail to build a mass campaign against these Tory cuts, we will have failed to create the political basis in public opinion for throwing out this government and getting a radical Corbyn-led Labour government elected.

    Quite so but which comes first, the anti-cuts programmes or the mass movement to demand that? If they are to develop simultaneously then what are the indications that this is realistic? Of course a successful campaign would “open up new possibilities” but don’t we need to have some signs of possible support from the majority of the electorate? Is it not the case that without that a fierce campaign, like that of the miners’ strike of ’85 will result in a massive defeat and set-back with respect to the very things we want to achieve.

    Am I alone in detecting more than an element of fantasy politics in this article? Besides it also shows a misreading of the letter from Corbyn, Trickett and McDonnell which could not have been clearer:

    The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, said in September, ” … the situation councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them any more.” As you know, councils must set a balanced budget under the Local Government Act 1992. If this does not happen, i.e. if a council fails to set a legal budget, then the council’s Section 151 Officer is required to issue the council with a notice under Section 114 of the 1988 Local Government Act. Councillors are then required to take all the necessary actions in order to bring the budget back into balance.

  5. James Martin says:

    “At the same time we recognise the dangers of council leaders and officers interpreting the leadership’s letter as a green light for continuing with the cuts.” The question is then why was it written to allow for that interpretation, as my own reading of it was exactly that, another bankrupt version of ‘wait for a Labour government and everything will be ok’. Well things are not ok and we can’t wait. We’ve been having discussions on refusing to implement cuts for years now, are we to continue for more years, until there is no one left to make redundant and no service left to cut? Because the real question is if we are not going to refuse to implement these cuts, as we didn’t refuse to implement the last ones, then what is the difference when it comes to whatever cuts are made in the future when any fighting ability the local authority workforces might still have will be long gone? The article talks of a broad based campaign. Yes, we need one, but a central and vital component of one with be the town hall unions who I suspect will look on bemused at any campaign that is launched by the time most of their members and activists are already signing on.

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