We need a coalition of resistance against local council cuts

1st January 2013

Ted Knight argues that Labour councillors should be leading a struggle against government cuts

As the new year dawns, councillors around the country will start drawing up budgets for 2013-14. Sharp and continuous reductions in government grants totalling 30% will result in severe cuts to balance the books. By law, they have to do this. Town halls can’t run deficit budgets, unlike the government.

This is the point at which Labour councils should be saying no, in a loud and clear voice, with support from their national leadership. We won’t make your cuts. We will not pass on the burden of the calamitous economic and financial crisis of capitalism that we did not create. We will defend our communities.

As matters stand, however, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and Labour councils in other towns and cities are preparing to announce thousands of redundancies and the elimination of key services. Virtually every section of the community will be affected.

The leaders of Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield warned this weekend: “The unfairness of the government’s cuts is in danger of creating a deeply divided nation. We urge them to stop what they are doing now and listen to our warnings before the forces of social unrest start to smoulder.”

Yet, despite their dire forecast, the leaders of these and other Labour councils intend to make the budget cuts as demanded by the government. In my view, this is absolutely indefensible.

The hollow argument used to justify implementing the cuts is one that’s been around since I was leader of Lambeth council during its momentous struggle with the Thatcher government. Neil Kinnock, then Labour’s leader, told councillors that they should abandon defiance that might be considered illegal and instead maintain a “dented shield”.

Better to have a Labour council administering cuts in a “caring” way than the Tories, went the argument. In any case, resisting central government might encourage the Tories to do the same if Labour were in office. I heard the same tune again recently when Steve Reed said councillors were finding “practical ways to limit the pain”. For his loyalty, Reed was rewarded with the safe seat of Croydon North, and left his post as Lambeth council leader.

Back in the 1980s, David Blunkett (Sheffield), Margaret Hodge (Islington) and Graham Stringer (Manchester) initially took stands against rate-capping and budget cuts. One by one, they were persuaded by Kinnock to drop their opposition. All subsequently became MPs.

Ed Miliband’s pseudo-Tory “One Nation” politics does not allow for meaningful resistance to coalition austerity policies. It’s not difficult to fathom why. As many are aware, New Labour prepared the ground for many of the coalition policies through the expansion of PFI, contracting out, academies, tuition fees and other market-orientated measures.

Ed Balls and Gordon Brown between them set the bankers free to run riot with other people’s money. Now local government workers and service users are being made the scapegoats for a crisis that New Labour had a political hand in making. Pensions have already been reduced and wages frozen – with the backing of Labour’s front bench.

The biggest coalition in recent times is emerging against this government’s policies. Families with children at nurseries and schools, single parents, the disabled, carers, pensioners, students, redundant workers, part-time workers, people struggling to make ends meet, those whose homes have been repossessed, those on ever longer waiting lists and a million young people unemployed – all dependent at some point on local authority services which are now being snatched away.

This coalition is the basis for a co-ordinated campaign of resistance to council cuts and would provide the platform for exploding the myth, repeated as gospel truth by all the major parties since 1979 that there is no alternative. Public sector trade unions should take the initiative and call local assemblies of community groups, anti-cuts campaigns and other activists. These assemblies could draw up, or even commission, work on policy alternatives to an unsustainable, divisive capitalism that promotes inequality.

Let’s draw on the experiences of Occupy internationally, UK Uncut and the assemblies’ movement that has swept Spain. Why not mobilise communities to keep open services earmarked for closure, even if on a temporary volunteer basis like at Friern Barnet library?

In the 1980s, Labour councils like my own did organise a fightback. A price was paid, councillors were surcharged and forced from office. But resistance, far from being futile, mobilised communities. We won additional funds so that budgets could be set without cuts. Labour councillors today have the same choice – they can either lead a struggle against a vicious government or stand aside for those who will.

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