Hilary Wainwright addresses the Welsh Labour Grassroots event
Wales is particularly vulnerable to the UK government’s public spending cuts, as it has higher levels of deprivation, economic inactivity and benefit dependency than the UK as a whole. The Labour-led Welsh Assembly, which lacks any financial autonomy – having neither tax-raising nor borrowing powers – has seen its budget cut by more than £2 billion in real terms over the three years of Osborne’s comprehensive spending review – the biggest cut imposed on any of the devolved administrations. It, in turn, has handed down budget reductions to Wales’ 22 local authorities, as well as to the NHS.
Voters punished the Tories and Lib Dems in the Welsh council elections of May 2012, which saw Labour take overall control of ten authorities and become the senior coalition partner in another four. Among the hundreds of new or returning Labour councillors are dozens of left-wingers, many of them elected for the first time, including numerous members of Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG), the network of left and centre-left activists, which campaigns for socialist policies and for greater democracy.
With most Labour groups run by comparatively conservative politicians with, at best, a somewhat fatalistic attitude to the cuts, WLG decided to hold a day school to help socialist councillors consider how best to defend their communities from austerity.
The event was held in Cardiff, 26 January, and was attended by more than 40 WLG members, including councillors from at least three unitary authorities and a couple of town and community councils. Mick Antoniw, Assembly Member for Pontypridd, got the proceedings off to a good start with a frank and thoughtful assessment of the challenge of the Tory cuts for Wales and the difficult decisions facing the Welsh Government and Labour councils. The next session sought to provide some historical context, by recounting the stories of rebel councils from the 1920s to the 1980s – taking in ‘Poplarism’, Clay Cross and the anti-ratecapping struggle – in each case, defying central government to protect the living standards of their communities.
The meeting then heard from two English Labour councillors with different experiences of defending their communities. Charlynne Pullen recounted an impressive record of achievement, in difficult times, since Labour regained control of Islington council in 2010. This included the establishment of a Fairness Commission, the introduction of free school meals, the partial restoration of Education Maintenance Allowance and the bringing back in-house of previously outsourced services.
Greg Marshall described how he had campaigned and won office in Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, in 2011 on a clear anti-cuts platform. He and two fellow councillors have maintained this position in the ruling Labour group, winning some important concessions from the majority while also campaigning alongside unions, the local trades council and community groups to defend services.
The final guest speaker, Red Pepper co-editor Hilary Wainwright, addressed the broader question of the nature of power and of how socialists who win public office can use their position to promote participatory democracy and anti-capitalist policies. Hilary explained how the rise of Syriza in Greece has demonstrated the potential for the left to use electoral success not simply to administer state power but to transform the character of government by enabling ordinary people to drive the formulation and implementation of policy. In this respect, it echoes previous radical experiments, like the Greater London Council in the 1980s and the Brazilian Workers Party in Porto Alegre.
The stimulating ideas presented by Hilary and the other speakers throughout the day were matched by the lively and thoughtful contributions of the WLG members who attended. WLG hopes that these discussions will have helped arm our comrades – especially those in Welsh council chambers – for the coming battles to protect jobs and services. Already, as Labour-controlled councils begin to announce their budget proposals, controversial cuts are highlighting the difficult choices facing councillors who want to remain true to their principles and loyal to the people who voted them into office. If the event has at least helped to open up the debate around these issues, then it will have been worthwhile.
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