Unison committee rules out conference motion campaigning against cuts

Unison must take up the fight against council cuts

Paul Couchman, Secretary, Surrey County Unison (personal capacity)

This year, public sector union Unison’s conference comes as councils are facing a historic situation. The crisis in local authority funding, after over a decade of savage austerity cuts, has led to a series of councils effectively ‘bankrupt’, issuing ‘Section 114’ notices, and many more warning they face the same. Breathtaking cuts are posed in Birmingham, Nottingham and elsewhere.

Unison is the biggest union in local government and should be leading the way, bringing together all the affected branches in order to mount a national campaign, calling on councils to refuse to make the cuts, and demanding emergency funds from the Tory government. Unison should also demand of Keir Starmer that a Labour government will underwrite any debts incurred by councils acting to prevent cuts, and will fully fund local government services.


Woking Borough Council is in Surrey and has the highest debts of any council in the country – close to £2 billion (with an annual turnover of around £24 million). The previous Tory council borrowed billions from their friends in government for gambling on real estate ventures which have since gone bust.

The new Lib Dem-controlled council is meekly following the unelected commissioners which have been sent in by the Tory government to make unprecedented cuts in local services. Everything from public toilets to children’s parks, from community and day centres to accessible local transport, from the arts to sports venues and leisure centres – everything either faces the axe, or being sold to the private sector, or handed over to the community to be run by volunteers on a shoestring.

The four commissioners are being paid over £1,100 per day each to oversee the cuts. The government has told them to remain in Woking for at least five years, working at least 150 days per year. The recent decision to increase local council tax by 10% will only just cover what these bureaucrats are being paid!

Unison’s role

Our Unison branch submitted a motion to June’s local government conference calling on the union to coordinate the campaigns against cuts. The Unison South East Region Local Government AGM passed the same motion to go to conference.

But it has been ruled out by the standing orders committee! Its crime? Calling on the union’s Service Group Executive to: “Encourage branches and regions to organise campaigns opposed to cuts in funding, support those councillors that make a positive stance against cuts, and seek to gain support of local councillors for anti-cuts campaigns”. Apparently, having this on the agenda of conference could bring the union into “legal jeopardy”!

A general election looms. The bureaucracy and right wing in the union want to keep it safe for a Labour government, and are prepared to sacrifice jobs and services to do it. But the left-led National Executive Council (NEC) of Unison should stand up to this. 

The Socialist Party has always said that the trade unions should resist the cuts. Supporting councillors and councils to set budgets using reserves and borrowing powers, in the first instance, to stave off cuts, to give time to build a campaign alongside the community to fight for the money back. Labour councils could have pooled reserves and united across the country and defeated Tory austerity. They didn’t – instead they made catastrophic cuts and many used up reserves without mounting the necessary fight to get the funding back.

Unison could have spearheaded this fightback over the last decade – they could have put demands on Labour councils and organised workers to fight to defend jobs, services and pay. But Unison through most of that time was led by the right wing under general secretary Dave Prentis. Undemocratic measures by the leadership kept the debate about fighting cuts off the table at conferences.

Left-led NEC

By the 2021 union elections, members had had enough. Although ‘continuity candidate’ Starmer-supporting Christina McAnea won the general secretary position, members voted for a left-majority NEC, with the ‘Time For Real Change’ (TFRC) grouping in the lead.

The NEC must mount a serious national fight against cuts and on pay, or members won’t see any change.

My branch is working with several other Unison branches to organise a fringe meeting at the Unison local government conference, to argue the case for this approach – and we will be appealing to conference to challenge the decision to rule out our motion.