Suffolk Tories in retreat?

Roger MacKay
Ipswich & District TUC

An article in the Guardian on 5 May proclaimed that “a Tory local council has halted controversial ‘virtual council’ plans to outsource all its services, after public opposition to spending cuts and a collapse in staff morale triggered a political revolt by backbenchers.”

The article later refers to Suffolk as the “first big Tory rank-and-file mutiny over unpopular spending cuts in local government”. However, a closer examination of the facts seriously questions such statements.

Without a doubt, public opposition to Suffolk county council’s (SCC) New Strategic Direction (NSD), as the cuts programme was grandly titled, has been consistent since last summer.

There has been a weekly collection of signatures on petitions against the cuts in Ipswich, regular public meetings, local media attention, pickets of council meetings and in November, a march of 1,000 people. The government’s attacks on young people and then SCC’s announcement of the closure of 29 of its 44 public libraries made instant headlines.

With support from the civil servants’ union, PCS, the teachers’ union, NUT, public sector union, Unison and particularly from Unite, eight coaches took campaigners from Ipswich and the surrounding area to the massive TUC demo on 26 March.

When the ex-London banker Tory leader of SCC as well as two other leading executive officials resigned in the middle of April, at the same time as the suspected suicide of a third, the new leader-elect, promoted as ‘a good old Suffolk boy’ spoke of the saving of “the school crossing patrols and a pause to… give an opportunity to review everything.”

The local press then began a campaign calling for the NSD to be “dumped in the dustbin of history”!

Further announcements from top Tory councillors maintained they were listening to the public and changes were to be made – the NSD was in tatters, the press wrote!

On 5 May, the local free paper proclaimed: “Libraries are saved after another u-turn”. However, further down the same article it said “the council is to set up a ‘community interest company’ to organise the running of the county libraries”. That sounds like an ‘arms-length company’ to us, or privatisation by ‘sleight of hand’ as Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite told the Glasgow May Day rally.

Then we read the ‘small print’ and learnt that no actual decisions would be made until 26 May – a good three weeks after local election day. In other words, with plenty of time to plan for any eventuality!

If this is an example of how the Tory party and the media played its hand across the country leading up to polling day, then it’s little surprise the Tories were being congratulated on a brilliant campaign as they retained their core councils in the South and left the Lib Dems to pay the price for Tory cuts elsewhere.

In Suffolk we expect the NSD to be renamed, the programme to be repackaged and Andrea Hill, the notorious top earning council chief executive, to be made the sacrificial lamb.

But the campaign against the cuts will continue – we’ve seen off one lot of Tory leaders, now it’s time to take on the next. Our public sector workers will be leading the way this summer.