Three questions to ask your councillor
One of the keys to effective local action is making sure that campaigners think ahead and get decision-makers to respond to them, rather than waiting for decisions to be announced and then complaining. In that spirit, here's three questions to ask your local councillor:
1. What have you done to make sure your council obeys the laws on promoting equality?
Some anti-cuts campaigners have been urging councillors to defy the law and set illegal budgets, to which nearly all councillors have responded by explaining why it is important to obey the law.
But obeying the law doesn't just mean supporting enough cuts to balance a budget. If these cuts are decided on "without due regard to the statutory equality needs in the performance of its functions as required by s71 Race Relations Act 1976, section 76A Sex Discrimination Act 1976 and section 49A Disability Discrimination Act 1995", then they can be quashed by a judge.
As a general rule, any decisions about funding cuts should be supported by a full equalities impact assessment. Councillors don't have to carry these out themselves, but they need to ensure that council officers have done this properly. This applies both to councillors in power, who need to make sure that they are not complicit in breaking the law, and to those in opposition, who should use these laws to scrutinise decisions effectively.
I think this is a much more fruitful approach for anti-cuts campaigners to adopt - rather than urging councillors to act illegally, we should instead urge them to obey the law. Councillors have a decent argument that it would be harmful for them to set an illegal budget. They have absolutely no good excuse for waving through cuts without considering the impact on equalities.
2. What are you planning to do about the government's plans to increase council tax for millions of low paid households?
After years of pious talk about how unfair they think council tax is, the Tories and Lib Dems plan to impose council tax rises on up to 5.8 million of the poorest people in Britain in 2013. They have announced that they will cut the budget for council tax rebates by 10%, while leaving it up to local authorities to set their own criteria for eligibility (which goes against their plans to simplify the benefits system).
So local councillors will get the choice - do they cut services even further in order to prevent tax rises on those least able to pay? Or they could start work now to get the government to abandon these proposals (and maybe even get our shadow ministerial team to take an interest).
3. How will you work with anti-cuts campaigners to win council tax referenda?
From 2012, any rise in council tax beyond the amount set by central government will have to be agreed in a referendum. Although there is a vocal minority who are protesting against cuts, recent surveys have shown that at present a majority of people favour deeper cuts to many local services such as housing and homelessness and adult social care.
If councillors don't want to preside over a system where each year they get to make deeper and deeper cuts and provide an ever more restricted range of services because they would lose a referendum on raising council tax to maintain services, then they need to work together with anti-cuts campaigners. There will never ever be a majority for a referendum on raising council tax, but with the right preparation there can be a majority for maintaining decent services rather than cutting them even further.
Many of those who have turned up to anti-cuts protests are exactly the people who councillors should be desperate to work with - people who are passionate about local services and who want to see them defended. There is a big danger that they get disillusioned by taking part in ineffective protests and just give up. Instead, councillors need to develop a strategy to build relations with them and involve them for the future. I'd hope, for example, that some of the young people whose first political experience was protesting at a Town Hall over the past couple of months would be standing for election for Labour at some point over the next few years.
This strategy involves trying to listen and find opportunities to reverse cuts to services like youth clubs which have got people engaged in anti-cuts campaigning; identifying people who are passionate about their community and helping them to be effective in campaigning for new services; and finding ways of developing joint campaigns with anti-cuts campaigners, for example on the changes to council tax benefit mentioned above.
One of the frustrating things about seeing increasing antagonism between councillors and anti-cuts campaigners is that there is so much where they are on the same side. Hopefully, these three questions are the start of a dialogue which reminds us how much unites, not divides, us.