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Councillors do have a choice over cuts
Nick Chaffey, Secretary, Southern region Socialist Party
Just weeks from the elections in May, as councillors and MPs prepare their smiles for the cameras, council budget cuts are hammering away at communities and council workers, leaving them struggling under the impact of austerity.
Amongst the wreckage of the Con-Dem austerity budgets, council budgets have borne the biggest cuts. Unite the Union estimates a 43% real terms cut in funding in the five years to 2015, over £6 billion. Urban areas across the country have been hardest hit. Liverpool city council, for example, faces a 62% cut in funding between 2010 and 2017.
Food banks riddle our communities, cuts and closures to Sure Start, youth and day centres have left wastelands.
Tory Prime Minister David Cameron talks about his commitment to the elderly, yet 40% of council cuts made between 2013 and 2015 were to adult social care.
But what of Labour's opposition? As we fight the latest round of cuts in Southampton, Labour councillors are evicting the elderly from their homes and day centres like Woodside Lodge and Kentish Road Day Centre into the hands of the greedy profiteers in the private sector.
Let's be blunt, these cuts are killing our elderly. They are dying of the cold, lack of food and care.
In the face of government attacks, the task fell to Labour to mount effective opposition. But, with the help of their right-wing allies in local government trade unions, far from opposing the cuts, Labour councils have shamefully swung the Con-Dem axe.
Worse still Labour has attacked, suspended and expelled the handful of courageous councillors such as in in Hull, Leicester, Warrington and Southampton who have dared to stand up, speak out and vote against the cuts.
Budget proposals to defend jobs and services have been denounced as 'illegal' and fear has been spread that government commissioners will simply take over the running of councils and carry out the cuts.
Despite this, there is a growing army of resistance to these cuts across the country, communities defending their libraries and Sure Start centres. Trade unionists have joined protests outside council budget meetings.
The Socialist Party stands in opposition to all cuts and demands the restoration of government funding to local authorities. The money is there.
Austerity has been of enormous benefit to the 1% and the friends of Cameron. The richest 1,000 people in Britain have seen their wealth doubled with tax cuts for the rich and big corporations.
UK corporations are sitting on huge cash piles in excess of £600 billion, uninvested as the stagnant economy leaves them no profitable outlet for investment. What a scandalous waste!
A socialist government would carry though a 50% wealth tax on these resources to fund a public works programme, channelled through local councils that could transform communities.
But across the country communities have battled to save libraries, Sure Start and youth centres, care homes and day services with groups of council workers taking industrial action.
There has been wide scale opposition to cuts in the communities. What has been missing is a determined fighting leadership in the trade unions to carry that struggle forward and link up with the community.
In reality, many small but important victories are being fought for and won as libraries, youth clubs, swimming pools are saved from immediate closure - such as the Moorways sport complex and pools in Derby, or play centres and libraries in Cardiff.
It is a glimpse of what could be possible if one council set a no-cuts budget, or the council trade unions nationally linked the local cuts into a single battle and organised a united fightback.
Any attempt to use commissioners under these conditions would be fatal for a government. Had Labour and the unions taken such a step in 2011, the cuts could have been halted and the coalition bought to its knees.
In Southampton, the basis for a fightback was laid in the mass council strikes of 2011, in opposition to the Tory council cuts. The Tory council was thrown out in the elections of 2012 but Labour took up their axe and continued the cuts.
Following the victory of the council strikes, then-Labour councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, defied the cuts, voted against the budget and proposals to close their local swimming pool, Oaklands Pool.
Closed due to a lack of £40,000 to repair the pool, the leader of the council said: "It's closed, get used to it!" Led by the rebel councillors, a campaign with the community and the council trade unions, Unite and Unison - who donated £1,000 to the campaign - the council was forced to find £1.5 million to refurbish and re-open the pool.
Building on their success, to a packed public gallery, Keith and Don then proposed a no-cuts budget to the council. They outlined how the use of reserves and borrowing powers could immediately stop cuts while support could be mobilised to fight the government for the return of funding stolen from the city since 2010.
Denounced as an "illegal budget" by councillors - which it wasn't - and shamefully as a "fantasy budget" by 'left' council trade union leaders, these representatives bent their knee to the advice of the Chief Financial Officer that it was an 'imprudent' budget and gave their support to cuts.
The Southampton Chief Financial Officer sought a counsel's opinion to scrutinise the no-cuts budget proposals. They rightly feared that it provided a model for councils to follow in defiance of government cuts. However, they had to recognise that a no-cuts budget did not break any laws.
But nothing can be won in the council chamber that hasn't been fought for in the struggle of council workers and the community. This is precisely the lesson of the victories, where money was found by councils, in the face of mass opposition. In Southampton, Labour reversed some of the proposed wage cuts because of the strikes that put them into office.
This was the same with the Oaklands Pool victory. It is the balance of class forces that ultimately determines the possibility of victories. The mobilisation of our communities and council trade unions could deal a knockout blow to the austerity agenda of the Westminster parties.
What remains of council services are the bricks and mortar of past gains fought for and won by the working class, past generations of socialists and trade unionists, not handed down by benevolent governments.
Such advances were built out of struggles like the Poplar council in 1921 for fairness in rates (a predecessor to council tax) and fair funding, which went hand in hand with the election campaigns of the emerging labour movement.
Equally, Liverpool council in the 1980s - with mass support from the working class of Liverpool - refused to make cuts and won millions of pounds of extra funding out of Margaret Thatcher's Tory government. This also saw rapid growth in support for Militant, the predecessors of the Socialist Party, which led the council.
It's on these traditions that we stand and fight for our future.
The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. All TUSC council candidates pledge to:
- Oppose all cuts to council jobs, services, pay and conditions.
- Scrap the Bedroom Tax now.
- Support all workers' struggles against cuts and privatisation.
- Reject increases in council tax, rent and service charges to compensate for government cuts.
- Vote against the privatisation of council jobs and services, including the transfer of council services to 'social enterprises' or 'arms-length' management organisations.
- Vote for councils to refuse to implement the cuts. We will support councils that use their reserves and prudential borrowing powers to avoid making cuts. But the best way to mobilise the mass campaign necessary to defeat the dismantling of council services is to set a budget that meets the needs of the local community and demands that government funding makes up the shortfall.
In The Socialist 18 March 2015:
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