Friday, 8 February 2013

Organised fightback needed to save council services

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From The Socialist newspaper, 6 February 2013

By Nick Chaffey, Socialist Party Southern regional secretary

"Multiple failures" is how the government's own financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, has described the crisis facing council budgets across the country.

It is estimated that by March 2015 councils will have had £9 billion cut from their budgets by the Con-Dem government of millionaires. The 'posh boys' are seeking to further enrich their friends in big business through mass privatisation of our services.

At the sharp end the poorest and most vulnerable are being asked to pay more through cuts. With a staggering 200,000 council jobs lost since 2010, leaving remaining workers with a huge increase in workloads and having seen a three year pay freeze, there is huge anger at the failure of the government's austerity agenda and the prospect of further cuts in jobs and pay.

For working class people, the answer is clear - these cuts are unacceptable. When a lead has been shown by the trade unions, the response has been immense - millions of workers took strike action against attacks on public sector pensions in 2011. And industrial struggle is not the only weapon available to workers. There is an increasing struggle taking place to force action from inside the council chambers around the country.

Pressure on Labour

Labour MP David Blunkett has warned of disorder or disillusionment in the face of the cuts. This reflects the hapless position of the Labour Party leadership when what is urgently required is courageous leadership to channel the anger in an effective national campaign to halt the government's plans and protect jobs and services.

Labour council leaders from Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester wrote to the government warning that vital services will no longer be protected. Even Tory councils have joined in, quailing in the face of the anger their party's cuts have invoked.

While just a few councillors have been prepared to take a stand, they are a beacon to those who want to fight and a painful embarrassment to those Labour councillors who wring their hands but 'reluctantly' carry out the Con-Dem cuts.

Every attempt is being made by Labour and their allies in the unions to wipe an alternative to cuts from the political map.

But who can doubt that the resources exist to fund local council services when a handful of bankers in the city of London were rewarded with bonuses in 2011 of £13 billion? This is more than the council cuts nationwide over five years.

The potential exists to channel the growing anger into a movement that could halt the government's cuts. This would mean councils refusing to implement the Con-Dem cuts and putting forward 'needs budgets' to meet the demands of the local community.

Such budgets could be put together by council unions, the wider trade unions and local communities to create jobs, build affordable council housing and provide services for the young and old.


Labour hides behind claims that such a stand is 'illegal' and Eric Pickles, minister for local government, will send in commissioners to implement the cuts. In fact changes to legislation make it easier for councillors to take a stand. Councillors can no longer be surcharged unless they are found guilty of financial crime for personal gain.

Huge support for defying the cuts, with mass demonstrations backed up by strike action, would make it incredibly difficult for Pickles to remove democratically elected councillors. And a movement on this scale would be able to stand again and replace those who were removed if needed.

Across the country this month, council budgets will be set. Labour councils are set to do the Con-Dems' dirty work again. But in Southampton, Hull and Stoke, cracks have begun to appear, with individual councillors refusing to vote for cuts. Under extreme pressure, facing mass opposition, how many other councillors may seek to join the fightback?

This could take place side by side with an increase in industrial struggle too. With the wider attacks on the NHS and benefits, the battle of local authorities could be a means of uniting opposition to all cuts and mobilising the trade unions for national coordinated action in the form of a 24-hour general strike.

If any Labour council utilised the powers at its disposal to protect jobs and services, it would gain the backing of millions of working people, desperate to score a blow against austerity. If a future Labour government committed to restoring reserves and borrowing by councils which averted cuts, the destruction of local authorities could be stopped.

But given that Labour has now fully embraced capitalism and stands in the bosses' interests, such a stand is very unlikely.

Like the Unison members in Stoke who have suspended their payments to Labour, trade union members entering the fray will look beyond the excuses of Labour councillors and seek out a road to fight and a political voice for that struggle. The Socialist Party is prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with all who do and will argue for any alternative to Labour to adopt a socialist programme.

Trade unionists, campaigners and socialists have to stand against councillors who are not willing to stand up to the Tories. And those councillors who are, face being gagged and expelled from the Labour Party.

Such developments raise the urgent task to unite all those opposed to cuts to offer a clear political alternative to austerity. The continued development of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an important step towards this.

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