Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lessons from Hackney

Last night Hackney Council passed a budget with £44 million of cuts, amidst protests from anti-cuts campaigners. Having looked at their budget, I think councillors have done very well in extremely difficult situation - unlike in many other councils, no youth facilities will be closed, no libraries shut, no reduction to key services like recycling or street cleansing, no restrictions on care to be provided to our oldest and most vulnerable of residents, and the council is maintaining services such as support for victims of domestic violence and youth crime intervention work which the national government had cut funding for.

There is an irony in watching protesters who say all political parties are just the same with one breath, while with the next protesting against the Tory/Lib Dem decision to end Labour's policy of giving more money to the most deprived areas.

Hackney councillors will face an even harder job next year, with a further £26 million in cuts needing to be made. I think it is worth revisiting an article I wrote in 2009, in response to Hackney's decision to freeze their council tax.

There are good reasons for trying to keep council tax low - particularly in poor areas where it was historically amongst the highest in the country. But it is one of the few ways that local councils can raise money, as the following example shows:

If Hackney Council had decided in 2006, instead of freezing their council tax, to raise it by 1% per year, then they would have raised roughly £900,000 per year, at an extra cost to the average household of £10 per year (more for people in higher value properties, less for people in lower value properties, and nothing for people eligible for council tax benefit).

Over four years, this would mean that the average household would be paying an extra £50 per year, and the council would have an extra £3.65 million to spend on local services. This year and next year, it would also have received an extra £90,000 from central government in council tax freeze grant.

If, instead, councillors had raised council tax by 2% per year, then the average household would be £2 per week worse off (more for wealthier households, nothing for the poorest households), and the council would have approximately £7.5 million in extra revenue, including council tax from residents, extra council tax benefit and council tax freeze grant.


Now, obviously, an extra £3.5-£7 million in revenue wouldn't prevent all the cuts, and higher council tax would make life even tougher for many people, particularly lower paid workers and pensioners who are just above the threshold for receiving benefits. But, crudely, the overall impact of small annual increases in council tax would be that young professionals in the trendy bits of the borough would now be paying more taxes to provide services for people with long term illnesses to receive social care, young people to be able to go to enjoyable and safe activities on the estates, and victims of domestic violence to get support when they need it.

Labour councils are still boasting about having taken the "tough decision" to freeze the council tax. I think most councillors are doing their best now in desperately tough times, but a really tough and correct decision would have been to raise council tax while Labour was in power, in order to help protect our communities when this bunch of sub-Thatcherite extremists took over.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is there a "new politics of identity"?

The Searchlight Education Trust's "Fear and Hope" research is very interesting, and points out a number of challenges and areas where further investigation would be useful. I'm less convinced, however, by the claim that there is a "new politics of identity". Or, rather, I think the case is not yet proven.

For their research, the authors commissioned an opinion polling company to ask people a whole load of questions about identity politics. The shock horror finding reported in the press was that 48% would definitely or would consider voting for a party which would "defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the
building of mosques and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George's flag or Union Jack."

But before answering that question, people had been asked more than fifty questions on immigration, what they think about different religions, the extent to which different religious groups cause trouble, the extent to which different religious groups are similar in terms of habits, customs and values, freedom of expression, national identity and much more. This will have put people in a particular frame of mind when they got round to answering the question about support for a new non-violent far right party.

For example, we don't know how many people found the questions on identity really boring and stopped completing the survey part way through, or starting clicking answers at random (I've done this with YouGov surveys on brand awareness). If a large number of people who started the survey dropped out part way through, then it would suggest that claims about a "new politics of identity" are somewhat overstated.

This is not to dispute that the findings are interesting, but to measure the impact of the 'framing' of the questions, it would have been interesting to compare how many people would support a non-violent far right party if asked about it as the first question, rather than after answering several dozen questions on related subjects. We can see, for example, that the poll found that more people identified with the Tories than with Labour, and higher levels of identification for UKIP, BNP and the Greens then other polls have found.

An interesting comparative piece of research, which someone like the TUC might consider commissioning, would be to conduct a similar kind of poll but with a different set of questions.

For example, I wonder how many people would express definitely or possible support for a party which pledged to "defend ordinary working people, crack down on bankers' bonuses, protect British manufacturing from unfair competition, withdraw from the European Union, reduce excessive spending cuts by taxing the rich and renationalise the railways" after being asked lots of questions about bankers' pay, whether ordinary people get a fair deal, whether Britain benefits from the EU, whether they support spending cuts such as closing libraries and whether they think privatisation is appropriate for public services.

I reckon you could get at least 50% support for that party (let's call it the Bony Tenn Party) if you'd asked the right questions, which could then be used to argue that the time has come for the return of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

Searchlight might well be right that identity politics is increasingly important and that Labour is "marooned" in its response. But they need to do more than one big opinion poll to make that case convincing.

Shorter version of this post - what Yes Minister said.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

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.