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Winning the argument on councils resisting the cuts

8th February 2011

In response to the LRC’s leaflet calling on Labour Councillors to refuse to make cuts, we received the following from an activist:

“What you are arguing for is for Pickles to take personal control of Labour councils. In [my borough], that would mean that they would scrap the policy of universal free school meals and probably reduce the anti-poverty initiatives that we have found extra funding to support.

It would also mean that, during the period until a legal budget is set, local authorities would lose their ability to collect council tax.  This would further endanger the services that councils provide and would probably mean a greater number of redundancies to union members.

That is before we even get to the danger of judicial review, followed by contempt proceedings. Councillors could also be suspended by standards committees, raising the prospects of Tories and Lib Dems able to form opposition majorities on formerly Labour Councils.

I think that the party should be far more forceful in its campaigning against cuts to local councils. But what you’re suggesting is a re-hashing of a tactic that didn’t work very well 30 years ago, and has now been made impossible by legislative changes.”

Pete Firmin, joint secretary, responded on behalf of the LRC:

The issue of what (Labour) Councils and Councillors should do in response to the cutting of their funding by central government is an important (though not the only) part of fighting the government’s assault on jobs, conditions and services. It is an issue which most Councillors and Labour Parties are agonising over, and which local (and national) anti-cuts campaigns are having to come to grips with. It is a serious issue requiring serious thought and we would reject the idea that the LRC has flippantly decided on the policy of non-implementation.

What is the alternative to non-implementation? And, before you object that these are hypothetical, they are all happening in Brent, where I am the chair of the local anti-cuts campaign and, no doubt, in most other places.

  • The Labour Council gets the blame for making the cuts. Not everyone is on top of how Council finance (and politics) work. They see the Council taking a decision to close their facility and blame the Council. This can also be cynically exploited by local Liberal Democrats and Tories for party political purposes. Even where people are aware of how the system works, they think the Council should stand up to government more.
  • The Council retreats even more than usual into administrative mode, refusing to deal with the issue politically. We see this in the real lack of protest from Councils at the decisions (they feel) they are being forced to make.
  • When a campaign arises around a particular facility, the response of the Council is to say “if we don’t close this, what should we close instead”, effectively encouraging campaigns to compete with one another, rather than link up in opposition to all the cuts in services.
  • The Council ends up encouraging “big society” responses – the take over of what should be public services and resources by volunteers, with all the problems that go with that. This again deflects from the political pressure which should be directed at the government. And in Camden the Council has decided to appeal to the local rich to donate to save services.
  • Councils resort to special pleading – London/our borough/sports facilities/whatever are being disproportionately hit. Again, this amounts to urging competition between different parts of the country or services rather than building opposition to all the cuts in every area.
  • Councils say they are limiting the damage to front line services (or in your case to anti-poverty initiatives). Yet the scale of the cut in funding means this is not the case and cannot be the case, even with the best will in the world. Saving one “front line service” means cutting another. And we all know front line services depend on “back room” support to function.

[As an aside, when a delegation from Brent Fightback meant Sarah Teather, MP and minister, last Friday she told us the effect of the cuts would be much worse if she wasn’t in the government. How many layers of protection do we need?]

  • Councils are making staff redundant. Many have now moved on from `voluntary’ to compulsory redundancies, but in many ways it is irrelevant whether the redundancies are `voluntary’ or compulsory, since voluntary redundancies only work when there are volunteers, otherwise they become compulsory. It is also irrelevant whether the redundancy is in a front line service or not – the person made redundant is unemployed and dependent on benefits whatever they previously worked as
  • Councils which make cuts are forced to make decisions if their is resistance. What do they do if there is an occupation of a library, for instance? Do they call the police, take the occupiers to court? What if staff take industrial action against job losses or a reduction in terms and conditions? Do they encourage strike breaking? Do they call the riot police on anti-cuts protestors as Lewisham Council did?

All these are real dilemmas faced by Councils/Councillors deciding to make the cuts.

I very much agree with you that we need more forceful campaigning by Councils against the cuts. There is very little sign of this from Labour Councils and no sign at all of them coordinating this, which could have a serious impact on the public perception, at least. This may, of course, stem from the fact that the national Labour leadership refuses to campaign against the cuts. That is something we have to change.

There is also a serious concern that, if Labour does campaign against the cuts it will be a “Labour Party only” campaign – i.e. will refuse to link up in a common campaign with the unions, users groups and other political groups already campaigning against the cuts. It would not be a campaign aimed at defeating the cuts, but at encouraging people to vote Labour at the next possible election (local or national). By which time, of course, services will have been lost/privatised completely and jobs lost. There is no commitment that Labour would reverse anything. Again, this is not hypothetical, there is already talk of such a campaign in Camden and Brent, and no doubt elsewhere.

The policy of non-implementation is in fact the only policy which offers any serious chance of challenging the cuts and keeping Labour Councils and Councillors on the right side of the opposition to the cuts, rather than being seen as some kind of agents/bailiffs for the government. It is also a policy which can significantly strengthen rather than weaken that opposition movement.

In opposing this policy, you view it completely passively – Labour votes not to make cuts, Pickles steps in, more cuts are made. But that leaves out of the equation any linking up with trades unionists, service users, tenants etc. Councillors refusing to implement the cuts could be key to building a massive campaign of resistance. Any attempt to move in commissioners could be met by occupations, strike action, blocking their entry to Council offices, certainly not simply a passive “let them take over”.

What is the worst that could happen to Councillors refusing to make the cuts, since the law was changed and they can no longer be imprisoned or surcharged for refusing to set a balanced budget? They could end up not being Councillors. If threatened with suspension, disbarring from office, whatever, there is no reason they could not resign and other labour anti-cuts candidates stand in the subsequent bye elections. Again, a mobilisation of the local working class could block action against them and/or ensure their replacement by equally committed substitutes. If, in you worst case scenario, the Lib Dems and Tories took over the running of the Council, you again assume there would be no resistance.

You say the tactic of non-compliance didn’t work very well 30 years ago, but you don’t say why. Surely primarily because very few Councils/Councillors were prepared to go through with it. In some ways it was never tested except in a couple of areas. If it had been seen through by a significant number of Labour Councillors (rather than be shunned by the national leadership) it could have brought the Thatcher juggernaut to a halt.

For us, non-implementation by Councils is the only realistic policy – the one most likely to have a chance of actually defeating the government’s cuts programme rather than (at best) making a noise about it while carrying it out. As the old saying goes, if you don’t fight, you definitely lose, at least if you fight you have a chance of winning.

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Their Crisis Not Ours!


Across the country working people are losing their jobs and their homes. Meanwhile the bankers who plunged us into this crisis have been bailed out with billions of pounds of our money. It’s time to fight back. Their Crisis Not Ours! is the LRC’s campaign to bring together workers, pensioners, the unemployed, students, those facing repossession and all those suffering because of an economic crisis that has been imposed on us. The campaign is supporting the demands of the People’s Charter. [continue...]

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