Up and down the country, Labour-run councils are overseeing unprecedented cuts to jobs and services. Playgrounds, libraries, leisure centres, emergency services, mental health services, community centres, homelessness shelters, women’s refuges –if it relies on council funding, it is at risk of closure.
The majority of Labour’s councillors are, or at least claim to be, apologetic cutters – they vote for cuts, but take no pleasure in doing so.
Even the Labour councillors who, prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, spent years explaining the necessity of “balancing the books”, now claim to oppose austerity. This is a step forward, but hardly a spectacular development: even the bourgeois economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – one of the pillars of global capitalism – now agree that austerity does more harm than good.
But whenever campaigners or community groups plead with Labour councillors to stop voting for Tory cuts, they are told flatly that there is no choice.
Peter Soulsby, head of Leicester City Council, is emphatic:
we are losing from central government the best part of £150 million, and that’s every year… no amount of illegal budgeting… will make that go away.
The leader of Southampton City Council, Simon Letts, agrees, but goes further in spelling out what would happen if Labour councils were to oppose the cuts:
If Southampton City Council refused to set a budget or set an illegal budget then Labour councillors would be thrown out of office and civil servants from Whitehall would come down to the city and cut services enough to set a balanced budget.
So, even though Labour councils are opposed to austerity, there is nothing they can do stop it. If a council was to vote against all cuts, the Tories would send in commissioners to take over.
This is the line we are given anyway.
The truth is quite different. When Soulsby and Letts talk about “illegal budgets” they are talking about “deficit budgets”, i.e. budgets where spending exceeds income. But no one is asking them to propose deficit budgets!
Rather, what is being suggested is that Labour councils make use of prudential borrowing powers, reserves, and capitalisation as a way of temporarily stopping the cuts, but also buying time to build a popular campaign to defeat austerity. In each city where this budget has been proposed, it has been approved by the council finance officer as legal (the budget proposals can be read here).
It is perplexing, then, that Soulsby and Letts should make such a basic error, especially because legal no-cuts budgets were proposed by socialist opposition councillors in both of their cities in the last year!
It’s almost as if they are looking for reasons not to oppose austerity.
Anti-Austerity Labour Councils
But what if Labour activists were successful in forcing their councillors to fight back?
The trade union movement would rally behind Labour councils should they choose to take on the Tories over austerity. GMB, one of Britain’s largest trade unions, has already voted to support no-cuts budgets at their conference earlier this year. The same goes for the Wales Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Unite and Unison’s local government service groups.
Many more would follow if Labour councils took the lead.
A fighting Labour Party could also inspire the millions of downtrodden workers across the country whose palpable anger against austerity has yet to be properly channeled. In the face of such as movement, the Tories would have no choice but to end the misery of austerity.
One of the clearest indicators of the importance of no-cuts budgets is that the Blairites are doing what they can to block them. In typically Stalinist fashion, they have resorted to rule changes which mean that any councillor who votes against, or abstains on, a Labour group policy decision will face disciplinary action.
But this can be sidestepped by calling on councillors to argue for no-cuts budgets before cuts become policy at Labour group meetings. At any rate, councillors should oppose cuts on principle – even if they suffer disciplinary action. Even the loss of their positions would be a small price to pay if it helps to build a concrete fightback against austerity.
What is now becoming abundantly clear is that the Labour Councils across the country can no longer get away with carrying through attacks to their communities and simply point their fingers at Tory funding cuts. Labour Party members, workers, and the broader public are now vocal in demanding more from their Labour councillors. And if Labour councillors see no option but to carry through Tory cuts to jobs and services, then perhaps they should step aside and allow themselves to be replaced by other Labour councillors who will be willing to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their constituents.
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