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‘Don’t blame us, guv!’ Can councillors resist the cuts?

Do councillors have no choice but to deliver the cuts hammer blow, or can they fight back? Michael Calderbank investigates

February 11, 2011
14 min read

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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‘It’s heartbreaking for people like me who’ve got to say to staff … that there are no jobs for them any more at this council,’ Blackpool council leader Peter Callow told Public Finance magazine recently. ‘It’s a terrible situation. I didn’t come into politics for this.’

The sentiment is widely shared by councillors across the country – it is surprising only in that Callow is leader of a Conservative administration. But he is not alone. The leader of the Lib Dem group on the Local Government Association (LGA), Richard Kemp, has written to Nick Clegg informing him that either government ministers ‘really do not know how serious the situation is that they have created . . . or they are deliberately trying to distract attention from the problems.’ Whether the government is deliberately lying to the public or simply in denial, the reality is finally beginning to dawn on councillors of all parties that over the next few weeks they will be setting budgets to determine where the axe will fall.

The hardest-hit councils include some of those with the highest levels of deprivation, among them the London boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, and northern cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Far from being ‘fair’, as local government secretary Eric Pickles claims, the cuts will be most severe where the need for local public services is greatest. The most deprived quintile of local authorities face average budget cuts of 12.9 per cent next year, well above the overall average of 10.7 per cent. Particularly brutal was the decision to completely axe the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, which directed £450 million towards the most needy communities. And with the LGA predicting that 140,000 public sector workers will lose their jobs as a result of the cuts, the discomfort of local councillors is as nothing to the anxiety of those whose quality of life depends on retaining properly funded public services.


If councillors feel angry at being put in such a position, their mood is also generally one of powerlessness in the face of the coalition juggernaut. Whether the cuts are delivered with relish or with apologies does little to alter their effect. So, as local authorities meet to set their budgets for the coming year, anti‑cuts groups are seeking to pressure their councillors to take every possible step to resist being simple delivery mechanisms for the coalition’s attacks.

Such demands inevitably recall the rate-capping rebellion of the 1980s, when Labour councils in Liverpool and Lambeth ultimately defied the law and refused to be forced into setting budgets that broke the pledges on which they had been elected – resulting in councilors being surcharged and debarred from office. But the struggles of the early 1980s followed a decade of intensified class conflict and trade union militancy, which saw a new generation of left activists in a more influential position in local Labour parties, including in elected positions.

Much has changed since then. Labour’s base in local government has also been seriously eroded in the 13 years since Tony Blair first took office, and while the party retains outright control of large metropolitan districts such as Manchester, Glasgow, and Nottingham, and won back control of a slew of London boroughs last May, the political culture of Labour groups today bears little relation to that of the 1980s.

This is certainly the conclusion of the Preston independent councillor and SWP member, Michael Lavalette. One of the very few local representatives elected on an avowedly socialist platform, before Christmas he tabled a motion calling on the city council ‘to commit itself to a policy of “no cuts in services, no privatisation and no job losses” and to construct policy and budgets accordingly’.

For Lavalette, the political situation excludes the possibility of compromise: ‘We face a simple choice: do we fight the logic of the cuts or do we set about implementing them?’ Not a single Labour councillor was prepared to defy the party whip and vote for the motion as tabled (including those who had spoken at anti-cuts rallies), which Lavalette feels to be indicative of the ‘managerial’ culture that has displaced political debate within Labour groups. ‘The councillors seem more inclined to take at face value the advice of officers or their group leaders than to fight for the interests of the communities they represent,’ he says. Recent incidents such as the anti-cuts protest disrupting the council budget-setting meeting at Lewisham – where Labour councillors were left translating Tory ‘in-year funding cuts’ into cuts in local services – suggest that political opponents of the coalition will not be immune from local anger at the cuts they are ‘forced’ to make.

Few would deny that a profound shift took place in the social and political make-up of Labour councilors under New Labour. There never was a golden age, however, when the Labour leadership supported radical councils in opposition to central government. From Herbert Morrison’s denunciation of George Lansbury and the Poplar councilors, whose stand against rent increases led to their imprisonment in the 1930s, to Neil Kinnock’s vilification of the radical left in the 1980s, the official party line has emphasised compliance rather than confrontation. Indeed, Lavalette compares the line taken by Labour councillors today with the ‘dented shield’ approach promoted by Kinnock in the 1980s. This argued that it was better for Labour councils to cushion people from cuts as best they could until a general election offered a chance to kick out the Tories, rather than leave them with no protection at all.

More than gestures

Despite the obvious limitations of the ‘dented shield’ approach, public sector workers and service users at the wrong end of the cuts are looking for more than oppositional gestures, however radical. If there is to be a re-politicisation of the role of local councillors, it will only be in response to the pressure of a movement capable of linking winnable, practical short-term demands with a strategy for actively winning the debate in workplaces and communities where the organised left is relatively marginal at present. But winning the debate means recognising the terms in which it is framed by government and in the media. The unions’ opponents want to paint them as self-interested defenders of ‘producerist’ interests, dogmatic in their refusal to even consider change. While conservative sections of the trade union leadership will exaggerate this fear to justify inactivity, the experience of Newcastle (as reported by Hilary Wainwright in her book Public service reform…But not as we know it!) suggests that unions can respond in much more imaginative and creative ways, linking up with groups of service users in the community and with progressive public service managers to challenge neoliberal dogma.

Critically, the Newcastle example shows that it is possible to re-politicise the role of elected representatives by equipping them with the argument that ‘reform’ and more ‘efficient’ commissioning does not simply mean outsourcing the provision of services to the private sector, but can instead be implemented by involving service users and workers in delivering improvements to services owned by and accountable to the local public. As Kenny Bell of the Northern Public Services Alliance (NPSA) suggests, such an approach has the merit of building practical unity between councillors, local authority management, service users and public sector trade unions in developing an alternative to the mass privatisation of services and a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ in terms of pay and conditions.

As Red Pepper has reported (‘Community coalition’, RP Dec/Jan 2011), this approach is informing the demands that the NPSA has been able to make of the Lib Dem controlled Newcastle City Council. The council has signed a protocol agreeing to avoid compulsory redundancies and maximise re‑deployment opportunities, and to avoid privileging private-sector tenders in commissioning and procurement processes. After successfully getting the council to sign up to these demands, the NPSA is now mobilising against employers who refuse to do likewise and threatening potential strike action. This workplace strategy overlaps with the political strategy to build alliances with elected representatives and with efforts to link up with community groups and service users to improve the design and delivery of public services and to defend those services from cuts and sell-offs. But crucial to developing the confidence of the movement is winning the argument that alternatives to the cuts agenda are viable.

Recognising that we are unlikely to see any council move towards a direct, potentially unlawful confrontation with the coalition, the unions and broader anti-cuts movements need to identify further concrete steps that councillors can and ought to take. Inevitably, given the current climate, many of the key tasks facing councillors opposed to the coalition’s agenda will be of a defensive nature.

From the point of view of the workforce, the avoidance of compulsory redundancies is at the top of the agenda. Also of great concern is the coalition’s abandonment of the ‘two‑tier workforce’ codes that – however imperfectly – helped to prevent the private sector driving down the wages and conditions of workers employed in outsourced services (and thus undermining those in the public sector). Labour councillors must fight not only to insist that the rights of their existing employees are fully protected if their jobs are ‘outsourced’ but also voluntarily implement the ‘two‑tier’ codes to ensure that all private sector contractors match as a minimum the existing public sector pay and conditions for the same job. Further, they should campaign for the adoption of a ‘living wage’ policy, which would be a clear signal that there was to be no green light given for a race to the bottom.

Information and accountability

But as the opposition Green Party group on Brighton council is discovering about the local authority’s adoption of a new commissioning model, ‘One of the key things is that the providers of service will not be accountable in any way to the elected members.’ According to a source close to the Green councillors, ‘As it is we have a hard time getting any information out of our current external providers, let alone stipulating good employment conditions and sustainability as conditions in their contracts. It’ll only be worse as more services are outsourced, rendering councillors redundant.’

So local democratic representatives face the urgent need simply to demand information about the commissioning process and help to inform the workforce and wider community about what decisions are being taken, and to make the case for retaining service provision ‘in-house’ where appropriate. Similarly, trade unions will be unable to play a sufficient role in monitoring changes in procurement practice and commissioning if the paid ‘facility time’ available for union officials comes under attack, so defending democratic rights in the workplace is essential. And even requiring councils to maintain an audit of the social and economic effect of cuts, perhaps via equalities impact assessments, would be valuable both as a political resource and, potentially, as the basis for legal challenges.

Of course, some important services might be protected by reprioritising spending areas away from ‘white-elephant’ capital projects and into protecting the most vulnerable. So, for example, Norwich Green Party is arguing that the millions of pounds that are going into a road-building scheme should instead be directed towards protecting social care services for vulnerable adults or in retaining public transport services. Essential here is the effort to inform and involve the community about what decisions are being taken and allow space for alternative proposals to be tabled. Clearly, though, there is a risk that efforts at participatory budgeting against a backdrop of massive reductions in overall funding will mean that equally valid campaigns find themselves competing with each other rather than resisting the basis of the wider attacks.

So, as important as defensive measures undoubtedly are, anti-cuts groups will rightly want to know what councillors can do to actively resist the logic of the cuts. Unison’s Scottish region recently voted in favour of drawing up alternative ‘needs budgets’ that reflect the shortfall between the level of funding necessary to protect jobs and services and the local deficit created by the coalition. This would provide a campaigning focus for local groups to work with councillors to demand more resources from central government.

In the case of Lewisham, the Socialist Party, which had representation on the council until May last year, argues that in the short term the council should be using its prudential borrowing powers to make extra funds available and avoid damaging cuts. Similarly, some councils could attempt to draw on their reserves and balances in the short term – but there is no ready mechanism for fending off cuts on the current scale for long and any borrowing could be subject to legal challenge.

As councillors across the country prepare to unveil their budgets in the face of howls of public protest, they should be aware that people will not absolve them of responsibility if the powers they have at their disposal are not explored and utilised in full. Monitoring their actions will be a critical task as local budget proposals are announced. At the same time, local anti-cuts movements should identify areas where they can work alongside councillors to deliver real and practical, if limited, objectives, while continuing to build a campaign for radical alternatives to the coalition’s cuts agenda.

A view from the town hall

Anti-cuts groups and Labour councillors must be prepared to listen to each other, argues Cllr Paul Cotterill

It would be good if, when protesting in whatever way is appropriate or possible, the movement does recognise that, at a personal level, Labour councillors are unlikely to be the scum of the earth, desperate to cut services to the poor; that is not, generally, why they became Labour councillors.

To facilitate such understanding, it would be good if members of the movement can, probably via links established with the local trade unions, engage in some of the detail about the budget. This doesn’t mean the movement should seek to become quasi-councillors, but it might at least seek to check out the extent to which Labour groups are, for example, making appropriate use of reserves and balances where these are available to maintain services.

Where necessary, it should be pressing for more radical action to conserve services, and taking up the standard for those most in need. Such pressure might include seeking invitations to lobby the local Labour Party membership, which in theory at least (practice is mixed) should be able to hold its councillors to account either directly or through its local government committee.

In ideal circumstances, such pressure from the local party on councillors might actually be interpreted as solidarity support for those councillors to take a more radical approach than they might otherwise feel comfortable with. If this is to happen, though, arrangements will obviously need to be made quickly so that the various party discussions can take place in late January/early February.

Frankly, if Labour groups are unwilling to open up to this kind of dialogue with an important potential anti‑government ally, then they deserve whatever ‘sell out’ accusations may be levelled at them. Similarly, Labour‑led councils (and there are some) that are not engaging properly and rigorously with the trade unions about their budgeting plans for this and subsequent years deserve any mud that gets thrown at them.

Ultimately, then, the movement should not (and I’m pretty confident will not) hold back from legitimate protest and action in the face of cuts being proposed in February/March by Labour-led councils, though a prior understanding of the somewhat different dynamics within the controlling group will be useful. In such circumstances, working with the trade unions, who will have more of a feel for those dynamics, will be vital.

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Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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