Birmingham council lobby 25 September 2023. Photo: Brum SP
Birmingham council lobby 25 September 2023. Photo: Brum SP

Clive Walder, Birmingham South Socialist Party

On Monday 25 September, ‘Not For Sale’ signs were displayed on the public notice board outside Birmingham Council House. This was the main slogan of Unison, Unite and GMB members as they lobbied an emergency meeting of Birmingham City Council. This meeting was held to approve an immediate freeze on all ‘non-essential’ spending in the wake of the council declaring ‘effective bankruptcy’ with a Section 114 notice.

The lobby was bigger and more militant than the previous week’s demo. Speakers blamed council incompetence, not women workers wanting equal pay, for the financial problems.

Full details of the cuts, increased charges and potential tax hikes have yet to be announced. On top of the £87 million shortfall for the current financial year, the document voted on by councillors states: “There will need to be an extended period of rigorous spending control and tight financial constraint” – code for ongoing and increased austerity!

In addition, the council agreed to review assets, including public buildings, that could be sold off to help cover the £760 million equal pay bill resulting from chronic underpayment of women workers. The council is negotiating an ‘exceptional financial support’ loan from central government, most likely with strings attached.

Council workers are not going to let the most vulnerable people in the city pay for financial incompetence, councillors refusing to fight for the resources needed for the city, or a ‘rescue package’ devised by unelected commissioners.

Union officials vowed to fight every cut, building closure and redundancy. They deserve full support in this. The council will hold a meeting to approve the detail of cuts and sell-offs in late October – this should be met with a mass demonstration!

With austerity measures clearly on the horizon, unions can fight for their members’ jobs and the services people rely on. Clay Cross council saw off commissioners in the 1970s by not co-operating with them (see ‘Clay Cross: When Labour councillors fought the Tory government’) and Liverpool council in the 1980s prepared their struggle so well that the government didn’t even suggest bringing in commissioners (see ‘Council ‘bankruptcy’ crisis: Take the Liverpool road, make no cuts’)

Birmingham needs to follow in these traditions, with councillors prepared to stand up for residents, to refuse to implement the cuts and launch a mass campaign of unions, workers and residents to demand the resources from the Tory government. Socialist Party members, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, have stood in council elections on this programme and welcome workers, community campaigners, students and more to stand with us.

Birmingham District of the National Education Union (NEU), representing teachers and teaching assistants across Birmingham schools, discussed how they can defend working conditions and public services in light of the council declaring effective bankruptcy. The motion below was passed overwhelmingly:

Birmingham NEU notes that:

  • Birmingham City Council says it is “effectively bankrupt” and has issued a Section 114 notice halting all ‘non-essential’ expenditure
  • There have been sharp cuts to council funding from Westminster since the austerity drive in 2010, with total council funding across England cut in real terms by more than 50% over the decade to 2020. The Local Government Association estimates English councils face a funding gap of almost £3 billion over the next two years just to keep services standing still
  • Birmingham council has had its funding from government cut by £1 billion since 2010
  • Birmingham council still had £668.4 million in reserves as of March this year, and extensive borrowing powers that could be used to buy time while fighting for the funding our city needs

Birmingham NEU believes that:

  • There should be no attempts to make our members and other workers in Birmingham pay for this crisis
  • There should be no attempts to divide the council’s workforce, by ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. All should get equal pay for equal work, and a decent pay rise
  • We need a mass campaign involving unions and community organisations to fight back against cuts to frontline services, to pay all workers fairly, and to stop our city being run by unelected commissioners

Birmingham NEU agrees

  • To call on Birmingham Labour council to refuse to make cuts to services, and instead to use its reserves and borrowing powers, and mount a campaign with the trade unions and community for the funding necessary
  • To demand that Keir Starmer immediately pledges that an incoming Labour government will underwrite any borrowing necessary by Birmingham City Council so that there are no further cuts to jobs and services
  • To continue working with Birmingham Trades Union Council and sister trade unions to oppose any cuts to jobs and services

This motion shows the fighting approach by council unions needed to stop our public services and working-class communities paying the price for Blairite and Tory austerity with further cuts and privatisation.

We invite everyone who wants to discuss what this would look like to come to our public meeting, featuring socialist former MP Dave Nellist and local trade union activists:

7:30pm, Monday 2 October Top floor, The Wellington, Bennetts Hill, Birmingham City Centre, B2 5SN