TUSC launch in 2015. Photo: Paul Mattsson
TUSC launch in 2015. Photo: Paul Mattsson

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is standing 280 candidates in the 2 May council elections – the sixth-biggest stand nationally. Dave Nellist is a Socialist Party National Committee member, Chair of TUSC, and a former Labour MP. He explains why the Socialist Party is taking part in the TUSC stand, and how socialist councillors could use their platform to fight for working-class interests.

Can you explain why the Socialist Party, part of TUSC, is standing candidates in this May’s council elections?

Fourteen years of Tory austerity have drained local councils. Several, including Birmingham and Nottingham, have declared a form of ‘bankruptcy’. By not fighting back, local councils have cut over half a million jobs, closed vital services such as a third of all libraries and nearly 800 youth centres, and shredded the safety net of social services. The well-meaning charity workers in food banks can’t keep up. In every town and city, desperate people are sleeping in shop doorways.

Most people think none of the major parties will make a difference. Barely 3 in 10 people will vote on 2 May. It’s unsurprising that working people switch off when the main parties refuse to discuss the real problems they see affecting their communities.

In Coventry, for instance, the Labour council, backed by the Green Party, has this year endorsed £20 million in cuts, switching off street lighting at night, raising care home fees in council-run PFI homes, raising fees for school buses for 16 to 18-year-olds with disabilities, axing crèches for adult education classes, cutting grants for local charities, and reducing council tax benefit. The council tax is rising by 5%; people are paying more and more for less. However, the Labour local election leaflets do not mention one of those issues. The Socialist Party ones do!

To a greater or lesser extent, that could be repeated in every town and city where elections occur. A general election should be the chance to reverse that and fund local authorities sufficiently to provide decent services. But Labour, which seems to be on course to win the general election, isn’t promising to do that. The Socialist Party is campaigning for representatives who will be shop stewards for our communities and will fight against austerity and the cuts from this government – and the next.

But councils have been starved of funding due to Tory cuts. Surely there’s nothing they can do?

Government funding for local councils has fallen in real terms by over 50% since 2010. However, local councils are not impotent; collectively, they are still a significant economic power. Local authorities in England and Wales have substantial reserves and borrowing powers that they could use to offset the need for cuts while working with local trade unions and communities to campaign for central government to increase local funding.

The Tory government is weak and divided and can be forced into giving concessions. The government has access to financial measures that could quickly aid local councils. For example, in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the government wrote off £13.4 billion of NHS debt to allow hospitals to focus resources on responding to the pandemic (it was not enough). A similar amount of extra funding for local authorities could make a substantial difference, not only in beginning to restore essential local services but also in developing a serious programme of improvements, for example, council house building.

What bigger pressure on an incoming Labour government than a cohort of councils winning popular support by funding services and presenting Keir Starmer with the bill?

Just one, or only a handful of councillors, would be a minority and unable to dictate policy – how could the position be used?

Even a single councillor or small group can have an impact. For example, between 1998 and 2012, the Socialist Party had three members of Coventry City Council. In 2003, we held the casting votes between the larger Labour and Tory parties.

All local authorities allow people to submit petitions. Some can lead to council debates. (Coventry Labour councillors set the benchmark at 15,000 signatures to stop local people having such influence). Some allow the lead petitioner to address the council. A socialist councillor can, as I said earlier, act as a shop steward in individual cases with council managers and action is taken. The main task is linking any council procedures to campaigns in communities outside the council chamber.

No dispute or issue affecting working-class commuties in Coventry, whilst we had Socialist Party councillors, was not reflected somehow through the council – through motions for debate, through petitions to cabinet members, through hosting meetings, organising lobbies outside the council house – and through those actions gaining publicity for the campaigns in the local media.

Even one councillor can use the council platform to reach a wider audience, gain publicity, and give confidence to working-class campaigns. One of the main political events this year was George Galloway’s election as MP for Rochdale. While his interventions in Parliament have rightly attacked the main parties, the most significant aspect of his victory has probably not been inside Parliament but outside, where it has given confidence to people that establishment politicians can be challenged at the ballot box.

Socialists elected to public office can certainly have an impact. However, that impact will only last if it helps bring about a new party nationwide, rooted in the organisations and communities of the working class.

Fundamental change in society will come about when millions of people support a socialist programme that calls for transforming today’s capitalist society into a socialist one. Making such a call from the platform afforded to an elected councillor can undoubtedly reach more people.

We say:

  • Councils must refuse to pass on Tory cuts, instead set no-cuts budgets, based on the needs of the 99% not the 1% – no to increases in council tax and local charges
  • End low pay. Support striking workers! End the cost-of-living squeeze!
  • Renationalise energy companies and the other privatised utilities
  • Restore youth services, jobs, reopen libraries, and reverse social care cuts
  • We need a future for young people – free education and training, well-paid jobs for all
  • A mass council house building programme to solve the crisis – reject rent and service charge increases
  • Fully fund the NHS – stop and reverse privatisation
  • Combat climate change, which should include a free-to-use, expanded, renationalised public transport system. Don’t make workers pay for the bosses’ climate crisis
  • Fight for united, working-class struggle against racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression
  • Take the wealth off the 1%. We need socialist change!