The Socialist 30 March 2006 |
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Local council services are still worth fighting for
POLITICAL PARTIES in Britain are gearing up to win seats in this
May's round of local elections. This contest could help decide Tony
Blair's future as leader of New Labour. But previous governments - Tory
and New Labour - have gradually destroyed so much of local councils'
power, through an unrelenting barrage of cuts and privatisation, that
many people wonder whether local government is really worth a vote.
ROB WINDSOR, Socialist Party member and Socialist Alternative
candidate in St Michael's ward on Coventry city council, explains why
socialists still take part in local elections.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT emerged for two reasons. The first was the inability
of individual private enterprises to deliver basic co-ordinated services
like clean water, sanitation and a safety net for the poorest.
These much-needed reforms did not come about because our employers
and rulers suddenly felt benign, but through necessity. The capitalist
class needed first of all to look after its own health interests and
then, to ensure an impoverished but reasonably fit workforce for the
factories and mines and finally when capitalists in different nation
states fell out, to fight in wars.
Even then, these basic services did not come easily. For example, it
took the noxious stench of raw sewage in the river Thames making MPs ill
to force the creation of the much-needed London sewerage system designed
by Joseph Bazalgette. This was held back due to costs despite a cholera
epidemic - well over a century later, it still remains London's sewage
The second reason for the growth of democratically elected local
government was the struggle of working-class people to change society.
In the early part of the 20th century, rent strikes led to the
beginnings of council housing.
This gathered pace after World War One when thousands of workers
returned from the carnage, many conscious that in Russia the first
democratic workers' state had been established. They were unprepared to
return to the days of foul conditions and tugging the forelock to the
IN THE 1920s when unemployment started to bite, more struggles
occurred in local government. In Poplar in East London, a radical left
council was elected. Immediately it began building new housing,
wash-houses, parks and schools. It increased wages for council workers.
Its better treatment of unemployed workers (at this time councils
were responsible for paying unemployment benefits) caused a bitter
struggle with the government which led to Poplar councillors being
jailed for refusing to cut unemployment relief.
These councillors' slogan was "Better to break the law than to
break the poor." They had mass support and were backed by marches
of thousands. After their release, central government finally started to
provide more generous support to councils in poorer areas. In the 1930s
more housing was built.
It was after World War Two that council services increased at a
greater pace in tandem with the establishment of the welfare state.
Again this did not happen due to the goodwill and generosity of
government and the capitalist class.
The improvements came about because the ruling class was running
scared in the face of workers returning from the front who, again, would
not be prepared to tolerate lousy conditions. This was linked to
Labour's landslide victory in 1945. The frightened capitalists had to
give concessions and were more able to do so in the post-war economic
But even then Marxists predicted that the ruling class would attempt
to take these concessions back - with interest, especially in an
During this period of post-war economic boom, a massive house
building programme was developed and new services, like Social Services
came into being and grew alongside the NHS. Later came democratically
controlled comprehensive education and free further education.
In the early 1970s, the end of the post-war boom resulted in the
first major cuts to be proposed in local government. The Tory Housing
Finance Act sought to double council rents over three years. One small
council, Clay Cross in Derbyshire, refused to implement the increases.
Again councillors were supported by their predominantly working-class
community. For this, they were surcharged and removed from office.
Their struggle, combined with the mighty struggle of the miners,
forced Heath's Tory government out in 1974. However, the mechanism of
surcharging (ie heavily fining) councillors and undemocratically
removing them from office using unelected District Auditors, fully
backed by the state, remained.
THE ELECTION of the various Tory governments led by Margaret Thatcher
produced the biggest wave of attacks on local government. Councils were
financed in three ways, by locally collected business rates, by council
rents and household rates (a property tax similar to, but less costly
than, the council tax) and finally by government grants for both
services and housing.
It was these government grants that Thatcher slashed in big towns and
cities where Labour's vote was strongest. They aimed to force through
massive spending cuts or big rate rises that would financially devastate
A movement of councils developed against these measures and against
the government policy of "capping" the rates of those councils
who raised them to make up for government grant cuts. But it was in
Liverpool with a Marxist-led council, where the leading figures were
supporters of Militant, the Socialist Party's forerunner - that a
different struggle developed.
Councillors refused to make cuts or to raise the rates beyond a
certain level. Instead they demanded back several years' worth of
under-funding from the Thatcher regime. In addition to this, they
improved services by developing 17 new community comprehensive schools,
nursery schools, sports centres and parks.
Most of all, they built over 5,000 new council homes and created
thousands of jobs. They also won some £60 million in extra funds from
Thatcher's government through their fight.
Liverpool could have, alongside the striking miners, beaten Thatcher
but the political bankruptcy of the Labour leadership at the time led to
that council, along with Lambeth council in London becoming isolated.
Eventually 47 councillors were surcharged hundreds of thousands of
pounds and undemocratically removed from office.
They were also thrown out of the Labour Party despite getting the
best-ever election results and being backed by tens of thousands in
marches, protests and strikes in the city.
After this, Thatcher really went to town. The requirement to put
council services out to private tender increased privatisation. But the
biggest attacks were through the Housing Act and the Local Government
Finance Act 1988 that included the hated poll tax.
The Housing Act scrapped secure tenancies, replacing them with weaker
agreements such as 'assured tenancies' where evictions would be easier.
It also introduced the proposed privatisation of council estates through
ballots or by government decree through Housing Action Trusts (HATS).
There was a massive campaign against HATS in London, in Sandwell in the
West Midlands and Leeds.
In London, the then housing minister David Trippier was literally
rendered speechless by the anger of a meeting of 1,000 tenants in Tower
Hamlets. Many ballots for privatisation failed miserably despite massive
Tory cuts in housing grant.
After poll tax
THE POLL tax, which Thatcher tried to introduce as a replacement for
local government rates, proved to be her undoing. This legislation
tried, in a leading Tory's words, to make a dustman pay as much for
local services as a duke. It was piloted in Scotland.
A movement of Scotland's big Regional Councils especially in
Strathclyde, Lothian and Tayside (encompassing Glasgow, Edinburgh and
Dundee) could have crushed the tax throughout Britain. But again
Labour's leadership refused to fight.
It was left to the Militant in Scotland, then in England and Wales to
organise the mass campaign of non-payment that would finally defeat
Thatcher and her hated tax that millions just could not afford to pay.
Despite Thatcher's humiliation, the changes that were made to local
government funds provoked more cuts and remained alongside the new
council tax. Business rates were collected by councils but paid to
central government who were then supposed to re-distribute them, plus
government grant to councils based mainly on population.
But any slight rise above strict spending limits would provoke huge
rises in council tax or lead to big cuts. 15 years after the abolition
of poll tax we have seen both but under a so-called Labour government.
When New Labour were first elected in 1997 many people thought that
local councils would be better funded and that services would be safe.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The steady betrayal of workers
in struggle under Neil Kinnock's leadership of the Labour Party paved
the way for Blair to ditch any semblance of socialism and turn Labour
into another party supporting capitalism.
New Labour began and is continuing the near total sell-off of council
housing. Its method is to starve tenants into voting for a new private
landlord by making huge cuts in housing repair funds. Criminally, it
earmarked billions that could have been spent on repairs to be given
instead to banks that were "owed" money (mostly interest) by
councils from up to 70 years ago for building homes.
In most areas where the whole housing stock has been privatised,
services for repairs are no better and local housing offices have been
shut. Rents have gone through the roof as have court cases for eviction.
In addition thousands of homes have been demolished with no replacement
rented homes being provided. This policy is right now stoking the fires
of a housing crisis in the near future.
New Labour also introduced "Best Value" which is basically
the Tories' 'compulsory competitive tendering' in drag. Each council had
to review services and consider whether or not privatisation would be a
better option. An army of aggressive consultants grew which swept into
councils to 'hint' at the benefits of "outsourcing" services.
Services like Social Services are prime targets for privatisation and a
whole industry of private providers and lobbyists has been created to
In addition council workers' pay and conditions have been undermined.
Not a week goes by without attacks on these public-sector workers who,
through collective action, have secured better pay and conditions
compared to private-sector workers.
The latest disguised attack has been the "Single Status"
scheme which in many areas slightly increases the basic pay of
lower-paid staff but at the expense of workers on slightly higher
grades. The council officers implementing such attacks are subject to a
different grading scheme and do not have to face the pay cuts of between
£2,000 and £10,000.
Workers in Coventry for example are facing attacks through this
scheme. Unfortunately, the New Labour-supporting leadership of a number
of unions initially supported this. Only Socialist Party members in the
unions warned how it could be used to cut pay.
The idea of such a scheme, in the long run, is to push workers out of
the public sector as any perceived benefits of public-sector work are
stripped away. This would then leave the field even more open for the
complete privatisation of local services.
IN REALITY this is what Blair and Brown and the rest of New Labour
want and every time New Labour councillors vote for such proposals they
are like turkeys voting for Christmas. Like the Tories before them, New
Labour would prefer American-style boards running councils.
Already the cabinet system of local government - where a small cabal
of ruling party councillors make the decisions and committees of
'lesser' councillors allegedly scrutinise them - places decision-making
in narrower hands.
Both Thatcher and Blair's "model" would be a board of 10 or
12 "senior councillors" meeting a few times a year in order to
select and renew contracts for various private companies who would run
what is left of local services.
Other "sub-boards" consisting of "partnerships"
between councillors, business "professionals" and carefully
screened local "worthies" would rubber-stamp decisions whilst
giving an illusion of scrutiny.
This is already happening in many so-called 'regeneration schemes'
where land is given to developers for virtually nothing and they dictate
what happens. Such schemes usually propose the 'social cleansing' of
working-class communities by demolishing affordable rented housing and
local facilities and replacing them with overpriced housing and other
This is worth billions of pounds to the big companies involved who
have seen a whole new lease of life for "vulture capitalism"
as they circle to devour the result of chronic under-investment in
SO SHOULD socialists still participate in local government? The
answer is a resounding yes. Firstly for a political reason, socialists
need to use every platform to show that there is a different way of
Socialists on councils fight to hold onto public services, hence the
successful campaigns to save council-run day centres in Coventry or for
funds for housing repairs in Lewisham.
Socialists need to be the best representatives of all members of the
communities that they represent and must fight on the ground in
communities just as much, if not more than in council chambers. A key
task is to build the strength and combativity and organisation in local
communities to resist New Labour's attacks.
Despite small numbers, Socialist Party councillors have scored
victories against cuts and privatisation and the slide towards the
destruction of local councils. For a greater voice, more forces are
In addition to socialists there are now a whole host of independent
councillors who could be won to socialist ideas. That is one reason why
the coming together of such forces in a new mass workers' party is more
crucial than ever.
An article in a future issue of the socialist will deal with the
campaigning record of Socialist Party members as local councillors.
The Socialist Party is fielding candidates in this May's local
Details will be in next week's the socialist
Liverpool - A city that Dared to Fight
by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn
Published 1988, 500 pages hardback
Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) played a leading
role in Liverpool city council's battle against the Thatcher government
1983-87. This book presents both commentary and penetrating political
£14.95 + 10% p&p.
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