Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Labour councillors and cuts

In recent days, there has been some comradely discussion between lefties about what local councils, and specifically Labour councillors, should do in response to the cuts.

Leftie activists make helpful and informed points such as “on a point of principle, Labour councillors should resign rather than make any cuts and if you don’t agree then you are a sell out”, and Labour councillors make inclusive and coalition building points such as “you don’t know what you are talking about and I know better than you about why these cuts have to happen and aren’t my fault”.

Let’s try and find some consensus.

The leftie activist case argues that the duty of local Labour councillors is to resist the cuts, through a variety of strategies such as increasing borrowing rather than making cuts, transferring assets to community groups, resigning en masse and forcing central government to make cuts, and building a mass movement of resistance. This is inspired by the example of Poplar, Liverpool, Clay Cross and other past socialist heroes.

The councillors’ case is that the law is quite clear. Councillors have to set a legal budget, or the council’s designated section 151 officer will do so. Refusing to get involved with making cuts won’t stop them from happening, it will just ensure that there are bigger cuts which reflect the priorities of an unelected bureaucrat. People who are angry about the cuts shouldn’t be shouting at or denouncing councillors, but should focus their anger on the Tory/Lib Dem government which is responsible for these cuts.

In summary, the activists are Wrong but Romantic, the councillors Right but Repulsive.

The law is indeed quite clear, and was written to stop all the clever wheezes which Labour councillors came up with in the 1980s to avoid making cuts. In addition, councils don’t even have the option of raising council tax in the short term. The timescale is also very tight. Councils won’t know their final funding allocation for next year until December, and will have to have a budget in place by around February. It’s easy to talk about “building a mass movement to fight the cuts”, but setting one up in twelve weeks is going to be a bit of a stretch, and it is much harder to build a national anti-cuts movement against cuts in local government spending then against, say, student fees – by definition the issues in each area are different.

There is no point in denouncing Labour councillors for making cuts this year. Sweeping moral statements about the immorality of making cuts achieve literally nothing except antagonising people. The position of calling for “no cuts” is not credible – is it really the case that lefties should oppose every single cut to the number of senior managers that a local council employs, for example?

This is not to let councillors off the hook, however. The specific solutions which leftie activists call for might not be credible, but they are articulating real and important concerns. Labour councillors need to do more than just work out how to minimise the impact of the cuts and then vote for a budget which adds up. Being a councillor is a political role, not a bureaucratic one.

Specifically, councillors need to make sure that they don’t get caught up in the town hall bubble. Local government finance is a very, very dull subject, most people don’t really know the difference between, say, a councillor and MP, and lots of people are going to be furious when they feel the impact of these cuts. There’s no particular reason in the abstract why people will understand the need for cuts, or understand why councillors chose to make the cuts which they did.

So councillors need to be out in the community, explaining their decisions to people, listening to their ideas and concerns, making sure that anyone can understand the dilemmas which they faced and – crucially – helping to organise people who are angry about the cuts to help them do something productive.

Some specific ideas:

- Labour Groups should allocate time in their group meetings to discussing their political and organisational strategy for responding to the cuts. This can include ensuring that they organise speakers at residents’ associations and community groups, agreeing lines to take, making sure leaflets explain what is happening and why. Develop allies – a message that the council isn’t to blame for these cuts and people should focus their anger on the government is much stronger if made by people who are not councillors and who are well known as anti-cuts campaigners, champions for elderly people and so on.

- As part of the budget, a paper should be published which shows the difference between a 20% cut in local government funding (as proposed by Alastair Darling), and the 28%+ cuts imposed by George Osborne. This shows exactly which services are being cut as a result of the Tories and Lib Dems. In Ealing, for example, the council would have been able to reduce spending by 20% over three years without any cuts to front line services. But because Labour lost in May, millions will be cut from front line services.

- If possible, the cuts which would be required by the section 151 officer if the council refused to make cuts should also be set out. This is a powerful argument to make against those who say that councillors should resign rather than make cuts (“if we didn’t take these decisions, here’s what would have happened”). But also, it is a point of accountability. The argument “we had to make these cuts because otherwise the section 151 officer would have done these terrible things” rather disappears if it turns out that Labour councillors were voting for a budget which would have been identical to the one imposed by law.

- Labour councillors need to try to create more opportunities to share ideas and learn from each other, and to adopt good ideas from party members, supporters and others. There’s probably scope for a website which could help with this – I note that the LGA, which presumably should fulfil this role in part, isn’t doing so.

- Above all, give people hope and a chance to be involved. If Labour councillors make the argument “we had to do what we did, these cuts are inevitable, here’s why your alternative ideas are nonsense, if you want to oppose the cuts you should go and deliver my leaflets”, then they shouldn’t be surprised if people choose instead to join up with local anti-cuts campaigns and denounce them as sell outs. Councillors need to show how they are on the side of people angry about cuts, and work as equals with them on organising to build an alternative. Be prepared to make concessions, show people how their priorities are reflected in the decisions taken, help set up clever and interesting ways to organise anger against the cuts.

I know that there are all sorts of examples round the country where Labour councillors and activists are working well together and doing all the above and more. But I hope the above principles are ones which both leftie “no cuts” activists and councillors who have been working for months to minimise the impact of cuts can see the advantages of.

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