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'Stop council cuts budgets' demands GMB congress
Kim Hendry, GMB conference delegate (personal capacity)
In a landmark debate, delegates at the GMB union congress in Bournemouth last week voted overwhelmingly to call on Labour councils to refuse to implement any more cuts to local budgets and services. This is now official GMB policy.
The motion (text below) from London region, was submitted by GMB organised staff who work for PCS, the civil servants union. It demanded that Labour councils set legal, "no-cuts" budgets using a variety of financial measures, including spending the billions of pounds of general and capital reserves they hold "for a rainy day". The motion recognises, of course, that these are short term measures, and are designed to buy time to build a national anti-cuts campaign "linking councils, trade unions and communities in a fight against the Tories' austerity programme".
The seconder of the motion, the branch secretary of one of the GMB council branches at Barking and Dagenham council, spoke powerfully of the attacks on pay and conditions of workers, and moves towards privatisation, of the Labour council. And he called for the council to use its reserves to keep workers on, not pay them redundancy.
Attempt to bar motion
This important motion was only debated after delegates, in an almost unprecedented move, overturned the national standing orders committee recommendation to bar the motion from the main agenda.
During the four days of the main congress, delegate after delegate moved motions which called for action to oppose, or offset, austerity cuts. Many of these cuts are being imposed by Labour councils that are slashing services, making GMB members redundant and attacking their terms and conditions. The "no cuts" motion therefore strongly resonated with exasperated and angry delegates.
The national central executive committee (CEC) reluctantly supported the motion, qualifying it by arguing that one of the recommendations (that councils can legally pool reserves) could lead to shared services and job cuts. The CEC also claimed that councils are already dipping into reserves. These objections - which are not meaningful concerns, in my view - do not weaken the strength of the motion nor its instructions.
It is now for branches and activists to lobby the new general secretary, Tim Roache, asking him how he intends to implement these demands.
The local government conferences of Unite and Unison, as well as the Welsh TUC, have recently passed very similar motions, so it's clear there is a mood developing amongst trade union activists to directly challenge those Labour councils that are doing the Tories' dirty work for them.
As mover of the motion, I made the point that waiting for a Corbyn government in 2020 will be too late. By that time there will be few services in our local communities left to defend. Adult social care, children's services, Sure Start, council housing, schools, young people's services, parks and swimming pools, refuse collections, libraries, street lighting, roads - all these services are being cut, privatised or lost for good.
On Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn told delegates: "Tory austerity cuts are a political choice, not an economic necessity". The London region motion argued that Labour councillors also have a choice. Setting no-cuts budgets is entirely legal, and Labour councils have £4.5 billion in general reserves alone. Even Tory Local Government minister Eric Pickles has referred to these reserves (albeit for cynical motives) as "piggybanks" which councils can use if they don't want to implement cuts. The motion also referred to other measures such as prudential borrowing powers available to Labour councils.
GMB congress, motion PS8
This motion was originally on the Public Services section conference agenda and can be found on p206-07 of the Final Agenda (motion PS8). However, as a result of the London region successfully 'referencing back' this motion at the start of congress, it was transferred to the national agenda.
Local council budgets
This conference notes that:
- Council workers in their heroic fight against the Tory government have during their campaign highlighted reserves held by the council in excess of £300 million. English councils control £114 billion. The combined budgets of the 58 Labour-led councils come to £32.7 billion. They hold around £4.5 billion in general fund reserves and another £1.36 billion in Housing Revenue Account and capital receipt reserves. This does not include the vast reserves held by Labour controlled councils in London.
- There is no legal impediment stopping Labour councils pooling reserves.
- Local Authorities have significant borrowing powers. This includes "Prudential" borrowing (unsupported borrowing) alongside capital borrowing. Local Authorities have and continue to use these powers.
- Under the Localism Act, Local Authorities have a "power of competence" to do "anything apart from that which is prohibited".
- Even with the above procedural points, a campaign is needed to unite service users, communities and trade unions in a fight against the Tories to protect local government. Otherwise, by the next General Election in 2020, local services - and the jobs of GMB and other local council workers - will be so badly damaged that it will be like we are living in a different country.
- The factors above show that councillors do in fact have options.
This conference therefore agrees our position is:
1. To call on Labour councils to set legal no-cuts budgets, use reserves, capitalise eligible general fund expenditure and borrow prudentially to generate resources so that no Labour council need make cuts. These are short term measures to buy time to build a national campaign.
2. That the financial measures must be combined with a national campaign, linking councils, trade unions and communities in a fight against the Tories' austerity programme.
3. To call on the GMB's political officers/department to prepare a concrete strategy to take the points on this motion forward urgently.