In what has become a case of national significance for the labour movement, last Friday it was announced that Labour-run Birmingham City Council had been forced into a dramatic climbdown from attacking the wages and conditions of local bin workers.
The case had been unresolved for nearly six months, resulting in needless insecurity for the council’s workforce and chaos for Birmingham’s residents.
The key area of dispute surrounded 113 grade-three jobs called “leading hands” which were being scrapped and downgraded to a grade-two – losing workers up to £5,000 a year! Not only would this cut deeply into the salaries of already low paid workers, but it was also a considerable risk to health and safety – downgrading safety critical roles.
The bin workers united against these attacks and undertook sustained strike action against the council, and now it seems they finally have victory within their grasp.
The Labour council, by contrast, played a shocking role, and using every dirty trick in the book to break the striking workers. They smeared the bin workers in the press and they resorted to bullying and intimidating individual workers.
This is the sort of behaviour you would expect from a Tory council, not elected representatives of the labour movement. The risk this poses to the continued electoral support for Corbyn’s Labour is considerable.
Howard Beckett, the assistant general secretary of Unite who personally had played a leading role in supporting the bin workers, summarised the issue:
I will say clearly to all in the West Midlands who claim to be Labour but talk like Tories: if you act like a Tory, Unite in the West Midlands will treat you like a Tory.
If justice and socialism is not the drive for Birmingham councillors to behave as Labour, then perhaps next May’s city council elections will be.
Because Unite in Birmingham will not support any Tory, even those who are labelled Labour.
Clearly the feeling among workers and trade unionists is that, whilst there is much to celebrate in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, much still needs to be done to reshape local government.
The Unite union was due to meet members on Saturday to discuss the terms. But given the Birmingham Labour councils’ recent track record it may be a case of wait and see.
It also means that a High Court action over the dispute – which has cost the council £6.6 million – will be withdrawn. £6.6million which could have been spent on providing vital and often life-saving services has instead been used to fight workers.
Labour councils must fight the cuts!
To avoid the political and electoral suicide of alleged anti-austerity councillors carrying out vicious attacks on workers, Corbyn and his supporters must call on Labour councils to go on the offensive and refuse to implement Tory cuts.
In the short-term, the financial reserves of Britain’s many Labour councils could be pooled, and redistributed according to need. This money could then be spent to prevent cuts to services during the formative stages of a nationwide fightback.
And it’s not like Labour’s councils do not have the resources to make this a reality. According to a recent report:
Labour councils’ combined spending power is greater than the total state budgets of 16 EU member states. If Labour-led councils declared that they will use their borrowing powers and reserves to stop all cuts – in the expectation that they would be reimbursed by a future Labour government which may be just months away – what could the Tories do?
Such a campaign has the potential to mobilise disillusioned voters behind the Labour Party, and act to reverse the social devastation already caused by Tory austerity.
Widespread support for no cuts budget
This position has already been adopted by the trade union movement – GMB, the Welsh TUC, and Unite and UNISON’s local government service groups. It has also been taken up by many campaign groups.
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Even within the Labour Party itself the idea that the time to fight is now is hardening. At a recent Bristol local campaign forum meeting, in the face of opposition from the Labour Deputy Mayor Craig Cheney, the following motion was passed by 16-12:
“17 libraries, precious services for adult dementia and disability services, neighbourhood groups, parks, lollipop crossings and public toilets are all avenues that ensure equality. We oppose these cuts categorically. We are proud of our services and we want them kept as they are, within the council’s jurisdiction and not tendered out to charities or businesses. We would like our Labour mayor and Labour councillors to suspend the £4.7 million cuts to Bristol services right NOW by using reserves or their borrowing power: people’s lives are in danger.”
Following last week’s Tory budget, this message will grow louder and be taken up more and more insistently.
Support for no cuts budgets is also the position of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), of which John McDonnell is the current President. In an Executive statement written in December 2015, the LRC called on
“[Labour] councils to exhaust all available avenues under the law, including extensive drawing-down of reserves and use of prudential borrowing powers, to forestall the latest round of cuts while an effective mass campaign of resistance is built.”
But unfortunately most Labour councillors continue to 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 completely wrong and, for the most part, belies their lingering commitment to the austerity-lite politics of New Labour.
When Labour councillors 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).
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.
Since 2010, the Tories have slashed funding for local government in half. 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.
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).
A more recent joint study by Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, has put the total fatalities owing to austerity politics since 2010 at 120,000 – what they quite rightly refer to as “Economic murder”.
What will it take for Labour councillors to fight back? When a government is systematically murdering its most vulnerable people and opposition councillors hide behind fatuous legal arguments to make excuses for doing nothing, you have to wonder whether they even have it in them to fight.
Cuts are not abstract. It is not enough to argue against them. Whether councillors carry them out enthusiastically or with a tear in their eye, the objective consequences are the same: death and misery!
One thing’s for certain, if our local Labour councillors do not fight them, then democratic processes must be utilised to ensure that others can take their place.
If Labour councils insist on acting like Tories, Evolve won’t hesitate to report on them like Tories.
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