Bristol was dealt a huge blow this week as the council agreed a budget with over £80m cuts to jobs and services. However, the budget meeting we were gave a tiny glimpse of what a determined opposition could have achieved.
Despite a shocking lack of detail, the budget proposed by the 'independent' Mayor and his cross-party cabinet made for chilling reading. At stake were up to 1000 jobs and vast swathes of council services including libraries and care services. But the seriousness of the situation was lost on most councillors. They laughed and joked or fought staged skirmishes around the edge of the budget, while 95% of the cuts went virtually unchallenged.
Confusion reigned in large parts of the meeting as councillors tied themselves in knots trying to face both ways at once. The Labour, LibDem and Green groups all announced their intention to vote against the budget. Panic set in as they realised this would mean the budget being rejected. Clearly this was intended as a gesture to try keep themselves 'clean', it wasn't meant to actually stop the cuts!
The Conservative group leader berated the others for "grandstanding" when they hadn't proposed significant amendments to the budget and all had members in the cabinet that was recommending it. He was right but of course, the Tories weren't about to offer any real opposition. On the contrary, he was keen to see his party's policies implemented and not above lying to achieve it, falsely claiming that the budget had to be agreed that night by law.
The meeting was adjourned and frantic horse-trading began to try and get the budget through. Despite being told for months that level of cuts was necessary and unchangeable, suddenly an extra £1.3m could be rustled up in just half an hour. This was the cost of buying Labour's support. It was a small improvement but the cuts they prevented were dwarfed by those they voted for. This was a cosmetic concession, £1.3m out of an £83m cuts budget, when the council is sitting on £200m in reserves! The overall effects will still be disastrous for the city.
Nevertheless, it shows that austerity is not the immovable object our councillors would have us believe. Despite all their crocodile tears about the 'tough decisions' they're being forced into, they do have the power to oppose cuts.
Imagine how much more could be done by principled and consistent anti-cuts councillors. The night before the budget meeting the Council House held a very different event. In a meeting organised by Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts, Southampton anti-cuts councillor Keith Morrell gave the example of how councillors can fight cuts. He was expelled from the Labour Party for voting against cuts but was successful in campaigning to save a swimming pool in his ward.
Keith explained how the council’s budget should reflect the city’s needs, not Tory demands for cuts. He and colleague Don Thomas had put forward an alternative budget that used borrowing and reserves to protect all jobs and services for a year while a campaign could be built to win back the money stolen by the Tories.
Campaigns for needs budgets could force this unpopular government back but we’d be far stronger with political representatives that were willing to take a stand. Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts will be standing in every seat in Bristol in May to offer a genuine anti-cuts alternative.