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Editorial from the Socialist 845
Councils at breaking point: the strategy to fight back
Councils up and down the country are setting budgets, once again forcing through tens of millions - in some cases hundreds of millions - of pounds of cuts.
The headline figures, regularly exposed in the pages of the Socialist, are bad enough. They come on top of similarly savage cuts since 2011. Graeme McDonald, director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers has said that cuts "will push some authorities to breaking point".
These cuts have appalling human consequences. As well as the 'obvious' results - library closures, roads full of potholes, no one answering the phone at the council offices - there are devastating results behind the scenes.
For example, recent newspaper headlines have highlighted the numbers of young people being stabbed in some areas. What they don't mention is the complete stripping out of youth services, including the destruction of youth offending teams. When social work teams dealing with early intervention in families are expected to take on work with young people up to age 19 and troubled families, with no extra resources, it doesn't make the headlines.
Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and those that remain have faced big pay cuts. The public sector pay freeze applies to council workers. Councils also administer the cuts to housing benefit and council tax rebate, and drag people through the courts to enforce payment of council tax.
Disgracefully, these cuts are the case no matter which capitalist party runs the council. The tragic case of the man in Newham, East London, who committed suicide because of cuts to his housing benefit and demands for impossible payments from the council, was the result of a Labour local authority carrying out the Tory/Lib Dem demands.
The first austerity cuts budgets under the Con-Dems in 2011 were met by big protests. Hundreds of people marched in each town and borough, and even invaded council chambers in the hope of persuading Labour councillors not to vote for cuts.
Scandalously every single Labour council pushed through the cuts.
Then, Labour councillors said they were opposed to cuts but it was the Con-Dems' fault. Now, the excuses have run out. At one recent anti-cuts meeting in Haringey, north London, a local trade unionist who is also a Labour Party member asked: "Why is this Labour council voting for a three-year cuts budget when they expect a Labour government in May?"
Why indeed. The Socialist Party has argued that councils should, instead of making cuts, use their reserves and prudential borrowing powers, in the first instance, to give them time to mount a mass campaign. Now, with the general election only two months away, why not use that stopgap and demand that an incoming Labour government underwrites any debt?
Fighting the cuts in Tower Hamlets, East London
What this betrays is the reality of the new government in May - whoever wins. Labour councillors know full well that if Labour wins in May the cuts in local government will continue.
Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and shadow local government minister Hilary Benn, have all been explicit - there will be no more money for local government.
In May, at the same time as the general election, there will be council elections in the majority of England. While the main press attention is on who will form the next government, in fact councils will be one of the main battle grounds over services, jobs and pay.
But as austerity intensifies, and as British politics begins to break up, with more voters looking for alternatives, a few Labour councillors are starting to feel that they can stomach what is being demanded of them no longer, and that the possibility of changing Labour has gone.
The principled stand of the Socialist Party and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates, in arguing that councillors should not vote for cuts, has helped this process along.
The TUSC conference in January this year brought together rebel councillors from Leicester, Warrington, Hull, Southampton, Harrow and Walsall.
Councils should follow the road of Liverpool Labour council in the 1980s, led by supporters of the Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party.
Liverpool council refused to make the Tories' cuts, set a budget to meet the needs of the city, and mounted a massive trade union and community campaign to win the necessary funding.
The campaign involved thousands of local people in mass demonstrations, a city-wide strike, and real consultation on the services they needed. They attempted at all times to link up with other councils to fight against the government's cuts.
Even just one rebel council, acting in this way, could spearhead a national campaign. The number of rebel councillors could snowball.
This May, as well as 100 general election candidates, TUSC will be standing up to 1,000 council candidates arguing for this approach. Rebel councillors and councils, joining up with community campaigns and linking up with vital national coordinated trade union action, could defeat austerity policies - no matter who wins the general election in May.