Protesting outside Newham Labour Council's cuts budget meeting. Photo: James Ivens
Protesting outside Newham Labour Council's cuts budget meeting. Photo: James Ivens

Pressure pushes alternative budgets that challenge cuts

Outrageous arrest of local activists

James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

A 50/50 split in the Labour Group, two alternative budgets backing local campaign demands – and the midnight arrest of anti-cuts activists. The pro-austerity Labour administration in Newham is in turmoil, and lashing out under pressure from union, community and anti-war campaigns.

Political developments in the east London borough and wider society have ramped up this pressure. The ‘Newham Independents’ group of councillors now has three seats, expressing local anger at crumbling council services and Labour’s defence of the war on Gaza.

Newham Trades Union Council, the coordinating body for local unions, put forward a detailed anti-austerity ‘people’s budget’. The leader of the Independents, Mehmood Mirza, is an officer of the trades council. The trades council called on the Independents, and all councillors opposed to cuts, to support that budget, as part of campaigning to win the needed funds from Westminster.


Sweating in the face of a growing challenge, the local authority’s ruling Labour Group was split down the middle in advance of the meeting. Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz’s initial budget proposal was defeated on the casting vote of the chair. The budget finally moved, however, kept the headline attack of £22 million cuts, including to SEND education.

The Independents joined the trades council’s lively protest outside the budget-setting meeting on 29 February. Councillor Mirza announced an alternative budget, including no redundancies of ordinary council workers, municipal takeover of Stratford’s suddenly closed indoor market, and a rent freeze for stallholders at Queen’s Market. All are demands of local union and community campaigns.

Under pressure from the council’s finance officer, the Independent budget also included concessions such as a council tax hike of 3.99% – one point less than Labour’s. Lois Austin of Newham and East London Socialist Party spoke to oppose any rise in austerity taxes, but support the challenges to other Labour attacks.

A second alternative budget from the two Green councillors also mixed demands from local campaigns with concessions to the austerity framework. Nonetheless, the rising counter-pressure of working-class anger is evident.

Mayor Fiaz opened the council meeting with a tirade against anti-war protests “crossing the fine line” into “bullying and intimidation” of warmongering politicians, citing a meeting she had held with Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak. She then drew parallels with those opposing Labour budget cuts.

Not allowed to speak

In the debate over the budget, the Labour chair cut off Councillor Mirza just as he reached the no-redundancies point. The mayor had been allowed to speak over time. The public gallery loudly demanded “let him speak!” – forcing the chair to do so.

All Labour councillors were roundly heckled for their flimsy attempts to defend austerity. The chair used this as a pretext to clear the gallery and continue the budget debate without that pressure. With the public expelled, Labour alleged that the gallery’s heckling amounted to an antisemitic attack on Councillor Josh Garfield, who had got up to defend the austerity budget.

Following these allegations, two members of Newham Socialist Labour – Jeremy Corbyn supporters forced out of Labour by the party’s right wing – were arrested in their homes at five to midnight on 1 March, and a third at 8am.

They were kept in custody for over 24 hours on suspicion of “antisemitic hissing” from the gallery, which all three deny. In reality, this is a political attack.

Labour fears movement

Newham Labour feels it has scores to settle – and more importantly, fears the growing political boldness of the anti-austerity movement. It is following Rishi Sunak’s lead in trying to clamp down on democratic protest and political alternatives to austerity, war and racism.

Newham and East London Socialist Party opposes Newham Labour’s austerity budget, and these arrests of anti-cuts protesters. The right to protest, and the struggle against war and austerity, would be greatly strengthened by a united stand, in Newham and nationally, in the general election, as a step towards a new mass party of the working class.