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Southampton budget 'commended to the dustbin' by protesters
Councillors' contempt for workers exposed
"There are now three unelectable parties in this city"
Gavin Marsh, Southampton Socialist Party
"He's done a Damascus!" shouted a Unite activist from the visitors' gallery. Unfortunately he was not referring to a dramatic change of heart by the labour leader of Southampton city council, but the phoney radical phrases being spouted by councillor John Hannides, mover of the Tory budget.
His colleague, Royston Smith, tore into council leader Richard Williams: "You have no credibility and no integrity.
"Perhaps if you were here a little more and spent a little less time watching cricket in India you would know what is going on".
Labour's strategy was likened to that of "the ostrich ... burying your heads in the sand". In fact they were more like a sitting duck and it was all too easy to score cheap points off such a soulless and passionless bunch.
Earlier in the day over 200 young people, youth workers and local authority workers had protested noisily ahead of the much anticipated budget setting meeting.
After braving the wind, rain and cold everyone crowded into the visitors' gallery to watch events unfold.
First up was a delegation from Youth fight for Jobs, supported by youth workers and young people.
A youth worker took the opportunity to publicly thank Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, the two "Labour Councillors against the Cuts", and the Socialist Party, for support given during their campaign.
Then it got down to the nitty gritty with council officers setting the scene. They stated that Keith and Don's budget amendment was "incapable of implementation" and "illegal", warning that the council "can only do what the law allows us to do".
They added that there was "a clear financial regime, set in stone". The legal officer indicated that the council would be in a tricky situation if it even discussed it.
Keith Morrell replied to this:
"The big guns have been brought to bear on us, but this is a crisis of such proportion that we need to think outside of the box.
"I respect the time and consideration that officers have spent with us looking at our proposals, but at the end of the day they are using their professional judgement on a political situation. We feel that this can only be resolved by putting it to the test".
At this point the mayor (a Labour councillor) ruled the amendment out of order, prompting an eruption from the gallery: "You're a bureaucrat and nothing more"; then: "Let them speak, let them speak" rained down on the chamber as well as comments about the lack of democracy.
Cuts budget moved
Simon Letts, Labour Cabinet member for resources then moved the Labour budget. "I take no pleasure in moving this ..."; "Sit down then", someone interrupted.
Heckles, one-liners and interruptions came thick and fast, one wag saying: "You are the first turkey that ever voted for Christmas".
He tried to regain composure and talk up how Labour was using the unexpected "windfall" of £6.1 million to lessen the impact but it didn't win any friends. "Pissing in the ocean" was the retort.
Some of the barracking was insistent and the mayor threatened to clear the gallery on more than one occasion. Simon Letts snapped back at one protester, labelling him a "Marxist or communist".
Struggling to finish his speech over the noise, he ended: "We have listened with sincerity to the people and I commend this budget to the house". "I commend it to the dustbin", someone replied.
Next up "with a heavy heart" was Sarah Bogle, Cabinet member for children's services who invited us to see the "silver linings in this situation". "80% of youth workers are losing their jobs", interjected someone from Newtown youth centre.
Finally, councillor Warwick Payne (Cabinet member for housing and leisure services) informed us that the archaeology department had been saved - albeit with job losses and no funding - and that this "slimmed down look" was a "perfect example of our way of doing things ... our brand of socialism!"
No cuts budget
After the merry-go-round of the collective cutters, Don Thomas and Keith Morrell had the opportunity to speak. Don said:
"I remember being on the campaign trail with my fellow councillors (at that time), we warned residents that the re-election of a Tory administration would devastate local services. It's ironic that it is not Tories carrying this out but a Labour council.
"It is nothing but dishonest and your budget will be judged at the ballot box across the city. We are not puppets of the government.
"The Coalition is peppered with U-turns and if a campaign was waged to fight them to give us our money back we could force another one.
"The money is there, a 50% tax on bankers' bonuses, closing down the loopholes on corporation tax avoidance and cancelling Trident for example.
"You should not vote for cuts today. Our campaign to save services starts in earnest tomorrow".
Keith Morrell, Southampton rebel councillor, photo Socialist Party
Keith Morrell followed, adding:
"The Labour budget represents a continuation in the direction of travel of the previous Tory administration.
"The council believes that it is held in an iron grip by the Coalition and laws of local government.
"Labour has not stood up for Southampton but surrendered and raised the white flag. Labour councillors have become agents of a Conservative government.
"The 'weasel words' you use, that tough decisions have to be made, in fact means cuts to frontline services. In three years' time this council will be struggling to provide statutory services only.
"The ruling class of this country has embarked on a sustained assault on wages, living standards and working conditions, behind a smokescreen of deficit reduction.
"But this government is weak and they would fail if met with organised resistance from the labour movement.
"Our budget is not a silver bullet to magic away all our problems, but an option rather than caving in. The strategy of 'keeping your heads down' isn't good enough. The fightback could have begun today but you have not acted. You have surrendered the field but we will not give up."
In contrast to the other speakers, Don and Keith were listened to intently and loudly applauded afterwards.
Immediately after, with no discussion, the respective budgets were put to the vote with Labour winning an outright majority.
A youth worker from the gallery, interrupted: "Can I just ask a point of clarification? Did you just vote on these proposals? Is that it? I have to go back to my club and tell the young people what has happened".
The mayor, with an irritated huff, replied: "... yes we have just passed the Labour budget".
A chorus of disapproval rose up from the gallery. "There are now three unelectable parties in this city" shouted out one worker. "I'd like to piss on them from a great height", said another.
As protesters rose to leave, a young woman called out to the Tory leader: "You are on facebook and twitter, you weren't even listening". This charge could also be levelled at Labour councillors who were busy doodling, tweeting, and looking at photos and magazines throughout the proceedings.
A youth worker caught this shameful lack of respect on his mobile, threatening to send it off to the local paper.
"Labour you are shit" and "the fight goes on" were left ringing in the ears of councillors as we finally departed.
Outside the chamber the debate continued with councillor Sarah Bogle being confronted by youth workers, understandably angered by the contempt that had been shown to them. "If I was talking and some young people were messing around with their phones, I would say "put them away". You need to feed back to your colleagues that this is very disrespectful".
Another councillor tried to apologise for doodling during the youth deputation by saying: "It helps my concentration". "Well I've just lost my job", was the reply.
In the pub afterwards, in between remembering the favourite heckles we had heard earlier, there was a real sense of optimism. "It feels like a battle has been won even though the wider issues still need to be fought. The doors of the youth clubs will still be open as opposed to boarded up".
The council has been forced through relentless pressure by Save Southampton Youth Services campaign to draw back from complete closure and that in itself is a significant success. "We have got the message across to the next generation that if they stand up for what they believe in, they can win".
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 14 February 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.