Since 2010, the Tories’ vicious austerity program has resulted in a colossal 37% drop in funding for local government. Vital services, often the last line of defence between people and complete financial or social ruin, have been cut to the bone, when not amputated altogether.
Playgrounds, libraries, leisure centres, community centres, emergency services, mental health services, public transport, meals on wheels, social care, homelessness shelters, women’s refuges – these are just some of the services which the Tory government considers to be optional extras in a civilised society.
The only thing this proves is that there is nothing “civilised” about the Tories vision of society.
It is difficult to posit an exact figure, but the human loss in all of this has been massive. One recent academic report stated that in 2015 alone, the death rate in Britain leapt up by nearly 30,000 (the biggest increase since the Second World War).
It’s not for nothing that socialists refer to life under capitalism as a “war” between different classes. The number of casualties certainly seems to vindicate this view.
Labour-led councils have been in the unfortunate position of having to dole out these murderous cuts. They hold their nose and vote for austerity because, they say, there is no other option.
Campaigners and unions (GMB, the Welsh TUC, and Unite and UNISON’s local government service groups) who have asked them to desist, to find some other alternative, have been told in no uncertain terms that it is not possible. Labour councillors claim that to refuse to carry out government cuts would be illegal and would result in the Tories sending in commissioners to take over the running of councils.
This is just plain wrong. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has argued consistently that Labour councils can set legal no cuts budgets to stop the cuts.
The proof of this? TUSC councillors in Southampton, Leicester, and Warrington proposed anti-austerity no cuts budgets in 2013, 2014, and 2016 respectively, and the council finance officers, on each occasion, approved them as legal.
It is hardly surprising that Labour councillors are so meek when it comes to opposing Tory cuts. Before Corbyn’s election in 2015, the official Labour Party position was to support a more restrained, but no less deadly, form of austerity.
Many of Labour’s current councillors would prefer us to forget this fact.
But it seems that some Labour councillors are beginning to wake up to the catastrophic implications of being seen to carry out the Tories’ dirty work.
This is why, just last week, a Labour-led council in North Ayrshire claimed to pass a budget which used its reserves to stop the cuts. Council leader Joe Cullinane was quoted in the Morning Star:
“I have proposed the most radical, anti-austerity budget seen in North Ayrshire for many years and I am absolutely delighted that it has passed. It stops the cuts and invests in our future.”
If true, this would have been fantastic news. But a closer look at the details of the North Ayrshire council’s budget reveals that it is not the genuine no cuts budget that Cullinane and the Morning Star claim.
Part of the reason that the North Ayrshire council have been able to fend off some of the worst cuts is because of 3% hikes in the council tax and rent increases of 2.79% for council tenants.
A no cuts budget which is paid for by further taxing the poor – an austerity no cuts budget, if you like – is hardly worthy of the name.
Worse still, the budget which Cullinane claims to be the “most radical, anti-austerity budget” North Ayrshire has ever seen, actually contains significant cuts!
Although the Labour administration plans to invest an additional £12.3 million in the local community and stop some of the planned cuts being passed onto councils by the Scottish Government, the Labour council are not reversing the £4.8 million cuts agreed by the previous Scottish National Party (SNP) administration for 2017/18. (North Ayrshire changed from SNP to Labour control as a result of a recent by election).
Far from being an anti-austerity no cuts budget, then, the North Ayrshire council are passing on a cuts budget.
So why mention it? From a socialist perspective, the developments in North Ayrshire are important for four main reasons.
First, it adds weight to the argument put forward by advocates of genuine, fighting no cuts budgets, and the policy passed by Unison and Unite local government unions, that councils have significant financial powers to stop cuts.
Second, North Ayrshire’s approval of a “no cuts budget”, in words if not in reality, reflects the growing pressure from trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners for Labour to fight back against the cuts, whether from the Tories or the SNP. Fighting, anti-austerity ideas are clearly beginning to gain an echo in wider society.
Third, if Labour-led councils claim to be carrying out no cuts budgets, does this mean we can finally put to bed the idea that they are illegal? Or should we expect government commissioners to burst into North Ayrshire council any day now? Alternatively, will the Labour-led council in North Ayrshire be willing to admit that they are lying about setting a no cuts budget?
Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, is the fact that Labour councillors in North Ayrshire clearly believe that their best chance of being re-elected is by adopting a “radical no cuts budget”.
Following Labour’s shameful display during the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, it is likely that North Ayrshire Labour will be trounced in the upcoming council elections this May. Their fake no cuts budget proposal is a transparent attempt to mitigate their losses ahead of these elections, helping them to pose as a genuine socialist alternative to SNP (and Tory) austerity.
This is important not so much because the North Ayrshire councillors are lying, but because it demonstrates what the Labour councillors believe is necessary if they are to stand a chance of winning in the May council elections. Clearly they believe that their best chance is to make themselves appear as radical as possible – absolutely 100% opposed to austerity – although they lack the fortitude to carry through on these claims!
Labour councils across the country can learn a lesson or two from this.
Labour councils should 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.
If Corbyn’s Labour were to adopt such a fighting strategy, they would have the backing of the trade union movement and the thousands of anti-cuts campaigns that have been built around the country.
The trade union movement and the wider public are becoming more vocal in their demands for Labour to fight back against Tory and SNP cuts, now not later! To ignore these demands, as one Labour council leader recently stated, would be to commit “political and electoral suicide.”