Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/525/3912
It's not that councillors can't fight...it's that they won't!
"OUR PROPOSALS are bold and will require a campaign over the next year for more resources to meet the needs of the people of Lewisham.
"But they can be afforded with the resources Lewisham council has today. Cuts can be avoided today. Council tenants' lives can be transformed from today. Councillors have a choice".
With these words councillor Chris Flood presented the Socialist Party's proposals to Lewisham's annual budget-setting meeting on 3 March.
The ruling New Labour councillors - without an overall majority but backed by the Tories - had put forward an 'efficiency package' which included over £4 million of job losses, cuts and increased charges.
Social worker posts would be cut in adult social care assessment, adolescent mental health, and child protection services. Youth workers would go, including in the youth offending team.
The voluntary sector grants budget would be cut and there would be increased charges for adult social care, after-school clubs, burial services, and pest control. New Labour also proposed an above-inflation council rent rise of 5.44%.
The Liberal Democrat and the Greens' proposals 're-ordered' New Labour's cuts but did not challenge the idea that, in the words of one Green councillor, "difficult decisions have to be made". The Greens proposed to sack community wardens to make 'alternative savings'.
This approach led New Labour councillor, Robert Massey, to praise the "responsible attitude of all the opposition parties - except the Socialist group who want us to repeat what Liverpool did in the 1980s".
This refers to the Militant-influenced Labour council which in 1984 set a spending budget that met Liverpool's needs. But, rather than raise local taxes (rates) to compensate for cuts in council grants, they organised a mass campaign that successfully forced Thatcher's Tory government to meet the deficit. (The Socialist Party is the successor organisation of the Militant.)
New Labour's attack was answered by Socialist Party councillor Ian Page, who pointed out that we were not proposing a 'deficit budget' but to use some of the council's £10.6 million reserves to avoid cuts this year. That would give the New Labour-led council a 'breathing space' to launch a campaign to get more money for next year from what, after all, is their own government!
The other difference with the 1980s, he said, mimicking Neil Kinnock's infamous attack on Liverpool council, was that Lewisham really was "a Labour council, yes, a Labour council, going round the borough giving out redundancy notices, cutting services and raising charges".
Decent Homes funding
Our other budget proposal was for Lewisham to borrow £13 million to begin 'Decent Homes standard' works on council properties in New Cross Gate, after tenants had voted to reject New Labour's plans to sell-off 1,800 homes to Hyde Housing Association (see The Socialist Issue 515, 10 January).
All councils borrow money, at cheaper rates and more securely (because they are public bodies) than commercial organisations like housing associations. £13 million would have added just 3% to Lewisham's overall borrowing plans.
By comparison, Chris Flood pointed out, the ruling councillors borrowed £29.4 million in 2006-07 to pay off Hyde's debts from a Lewisham-Hyde 'partnership project' to refurbish just 149 homes on Lewisham's St John's estate.
There were no serious arguments made against the Socialist group's proposals but they were voted down anyway. Instead, scandalously, the mayor has announced a new stock transfer plan for 600 New Cross Gate homes!
This shows that New Labour want to hand over council homes to housing associations, not because this is the best way to improve them, but because it is the best way to privatise them. Council housing as originally fought for - with protected rents and under local democratic control - interferes with 'market forces' in housing and, therefore, the wider economy.
This is shown by the recent comments of the Bank of England monetary policy committee member, Professor Blanchflower, who argued that increasing the market-rented sector is more important now in creating 'flexible labour markets' (ie insecure, more easily exploited workers) than anti-union laws or weaker employment protection.
That's why every housing transfer ballot lost is a blow to New Labour's pro-market agenda. And it was a double blow in New Cross Gate because the Socialist Party councillors were prominent in the 'no' campaign.
In almost one in three transfer ballots tenants have voted 'no'. Sometimes councils have returned a year or two later with new privatisation proposals. But there is no precedent that we can find for a council coming back with new transfer plans after two months! The battle to defend council housing in Lewisham goes on.
The budget meeting showed it's not that the New Labour councillors can't deliver decent council homes or fight the cuts; it's that they won't. They need to be removed.
Stop press: A local head teacher in New Cross Gate, opposing the plan to hand over Monson primary school to Haberdashers' Aske's Academy (see The Socialist No.518, 31 January), is asking parents to sign a petition which ends with the words: "I will be voting against Labour at the upcoming local elections".
In The Socialist 19 March 2008:
National Union of Teachers Conference
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party news and analysis
Post Office closures
Socialist Party congress 2008
International socialist news and analysis