Local councils are reaching breaking point after years of cuts. But a mass movement by Labour councillors and trade unions could topple the Tory government and end austerity.
Alongside the arrival of spring, April heralds the start of the new financial year. In what has become an annual tradition since the election of the Tory-Liberal coalition back in 2010, this also means the latest round of cuts for Britain’s 418 local authorities. In 2019, councils up and down the country have yet again introduced significant cuts, regardless of the political party nominally in control.
Alongside benefits, the Tories have consistently singled out local government for the biggest cuts in their slash and burn programme of austerity. By 2020, local councils will have seen their funding cut by 60% in what amounts to more than £16 billion in lost spending.
Of course, these cuts have been hardest felt in working-class areas, which have larger populations more reliant on council services. As with everything else the Tories have done, the reality is that workers are being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause.
Even without further cuts, local councils estimate there will be a £7.5 billion gap between the cost of current services and funding by 2025. After eight years of so-called ‘efficiencies’ and ‘easy’ cuts – resulting in a 25% reduction in staff – councils have reached the absolute limit of what is possible without engendering a deep social crisis. Those services that working class families depend on, such as children’s centres, youth services, libraries and adult social care, are now threatened with closure as billions of pounds of cuts are implemented.
In some areas funding has already reached crisis proportions. For example, the government has had to make six major emergency funding interventions since 2015 to stave off the complete collapse of Adult Care Services.
While local government as whole teeters on the brink of catastrophe, one council has already fallen over the edge. Last year government appointed commissioners (earning a tidy £1,500 a day) were sent in to take financial control over Tory-run Northamptonshire council, as it faced a £70 million deficit. Under the watchful eye of these commissioners, Northamptonshire’s budget hasn’t so much been cut as stripped back to the bare bones, with only the basic legal minimum of services being provided for.
But what is happening in the more than a hundred or so Labour-controlled councils across the country? The sad reality is that even though we now have a Labour leadership committed to fighting austerity, Labour-controlled councils have continued to faithfully implement Tory austerity. This is because local government remains a stronghold of the Labour right, who are totally committed to the discredited ‘dented shield’ strategy.
These Labour councillors argue that the law means they have no choice but to implement the cuts and adopt a legal budget, otherwise Tory appointed commissioners will be sent in to enforce the required reduction in spending. This is essentially the same line put forward by former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
In the face of Thatcher’s destructive cuts, Kinnock argued that Labour councils should obey the law at all costs so that they could keep the Tories out and provide ‘a dented shield’ to protect the most important services.
This was a failed strategy then – and it remains a failed strategy now. How can you persuade working people to come out and vote Labour when they’re suffering at the hands of Labour implemented austerity? The dented shield didn’t help Labour win in 1992 or 2015, and it won’t help in the impending general election. Meanwhile, workers continue to suffer the consequences.
Fight the cuts
Unfortunately, despite the past failures of this strategy, Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have chosen to support it. They have given their backing to Labour councillors implementing cuts, insisting that councils should adopt legal balanced budgets.
But this attempted appeasement of Labour’s overwhelmingly Blairite councillors will not help. Like their colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the bulk of Labour councillors are totally opposed to Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s anti-austerity position. But the overwhelming majority of Labour party members and supporters oppose austerity.
Labour councillors should be made to reflect this by refusing to implement cuts. They should commit to fighting austerity, or be replaced with ones who will.
The question that must be posed to Labour councillors is: when it comes to implementing cuts, where do they draw the line? When does the ‘dented shield’ cease to be a shield at all? At what point do they stop wringing their hands while faithfully passing on the cuts and start to fight back? Are Labour councillors going to carry on cutting away until there’s nothing left? Or are they going to fight to defend the interests of those working class people that elected them?
Break the law, not the poor
Past Labour councillors have a proud history of struggle in defence of their communities. In 1921, during the Poplar rates rebellion, George Lansbury declared that it was “better to break the law than to break the poor”. In 1972, the Clay Cross councillors refused to implement the Housing Finance Act. And, most recently, there was the valiant struggle of the Liverpool City Council in 1984-5. It is these struggles that show the way forward in the fight against austerity.
Labour members up and down the country are looking to this militant history as an example of how to fight the cuts today.
In Enfield North CLP, in London, a motion calling on Enfield council to implement a ‘no cuts budget’ was passed recently. The motion clearly sets out a number of concrete steps the council should take to build a mass movement to defeat austerity. It calls on the council to convene a borough-wide conference, involving the whole labour movement and community groups, to discuss and agree practical measures needed to support the council and resist austerity.
In response, Labour councillors have said that instead of attacking them we should look to a Labour government as the only way to halt Tory austerity. But the truth is that the fight against austerity and the fight for a Labour government are one and the same. As the Enfield motion correctly notes, one council refusing to implement the cuts can only be the start of a national mass campaign.
If councils across the country were to refuse to implement cuts and build resistance in their communities, this would act as a focal point for the creation of a truly mass movement. And with a bold lead from the trade union leaders, public sector workers and those in local councils could come out in support of such a campaign by mobilising and taking strike action against the cuts.
In the face of millions of workers roused to struggle, what power would this weak Tory government have? Theresa May can’t even control her own MPs – how could she hope to defeat such a movement?