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Posted on 2 January 2013 at 13:04 GMT

'The Eight Consultations of Christmas' in Southampton

Gavin Marsh , Southampton Socialist Party
The two anti-cuts councillors, Keith Morrel and Don Thomas, photo Southampton SP

The two anti-cuts councillors, Keith Morrel and Don Thomas, photo Southampton SP   (Click to enlarge)

In true panto style Southampton city council recently embarked on a touring production which could have been entitled 'The Eight Consultations of Christmas'. Unfortunately for them it played to largely empty halls across the city.

Invites were sent out to community groups and organisations but members of the public were kept completely in the dark about their location and timing, resulting in ordinary Sotonians missing out on the performances.

In fact on one occasion, a Socialist Party member was the only person who turned up but that didn't deter the councillors from declaring 'there is no room at the inn' and refusing to allow him to attend!

Over two weeks and eight venues, a collective audience of approximately 150 people attended these meetings, the audience being outnumbered by councillors and council officers in some instances.

However, those with the 'golden tickets' were treated to a rare spectacle of method acting involving dishonesty, evasion and handwringing.

Opposition voiced

Even this selective invitation, designed to filter out opposition to their plans, failed dismally.

From the off it was the usual diet of "difficult decisions", with councillors saying how "heartbroken" they were.

One Socialist Party member, John, rightly asked: "If you and your colleagues are so heartbroken, why are there only two councillors who have stood up against the cuts?", adding that it "is a sad indictment of the Labour Party that it is doing the Tories' dirty work".

At the Redbridge meeting, a councillor lamented that they were doing this "with a tear in my eye". Don Thomas, one of the two 'Labour Councillors against the Cuts', scolded them by saying: "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start feeling sorry for the people facing these cuts!".

In the first meeting, on a working class estate called Northam, we called for the city council to use its capital assets and reserves to fund borrowing to save all services and stop threatened closures.

It could then use this breathing space as an opportunity to build a city-wide campaign, and we added that it could link up with other councils to force the government into retreat.

They trotted out that this couldn't be done and we challenged them by asking if they had directly approached the finance officer.

They replied "yes." Did you get a written response from them and if so can we see it?" "No" was the response.

We then asked for it to be minuted that the councillors would officially speak with the finance officer to look at the viability of this option and then to forward the response to us!

These forums aren't the best environment in which to raise our programme against all cuts, nevertheless the Socialist Party members who have intervened have had a dramatic impact on the proceedings.

It has been very inspiring to see how we have taken the fight to the councillors and given them a roasting.

This in turn has encouraged other people to be more vocal and critical than perhaps they would have been.

In fact so chuffed were three comrades after 'dismantling' the arguments of Richard Williams, leader of the council, that they wished there were more meetings planned!

In the course of a month we have gone from being contemptuously batted away as "not understanding the figures" when we addressed the November council meeting, to now, all of them having to seriously engage and acknowledge our presence.

More farcical panto

At the event I attended there were six councillors including a Conservative, and half a dozen council officers.

Two youth workers had to fight for the right to attend as they were "not on the list"! For their troubles they got to witness a tragic-comedic performance.

After about ten minutes of the same old leftovers, I said: "It seems to me that this government are acting like a bunch of bullying thieves and have stolen money from you.

"Now if someone tried to snatch your purse or wallet, you would fight back and get help to return your property.

"What you are doing is complaining they have stolen your stuff, and then nicking money off everyone else, particularly those who have the least". This drew the only applause of the night.

Jacqui Rayment, council deputy leader, responded by saying: "Gavin lives on a different planet to me", adding, "we don't want to do this, we are doing all we can".

I said: "You have no mandate from the citizens to do what you are proposing. You were voted in because people were sick of what his lot (pointing to the Conservative councillor) were doing to the city.

"You should be leaving no stone unturned in finding a way not to make these cuts and that includes investigating the capacity to borrow as a temporary stopgap".

The response to me was: "You have been raising this at all the meetings, we can't do it and will send you an email to tell you why". I am still waiting!

"Don't expect things to get any better if we get elected, there just isn't the money around", she continued.

To this, I said: "Are you seriously suggesting that we are to resign ourselves to another six years at least of this? There will nothing left in the city except the council tax.

"I am telling you that people will never forgive you if you go down this road and what's more, they will not accept it".

The council at least is consistent if nothing else. Not content with erasing the public from its 'sham' consultations, a leaked email to library staff from a senior line manager ordered them not to speak to any member of the public, including councillors, about the reduction in staffing and service. Don Thomas derided the gagging order, asking: "Is this North Korea or Southampton?"

Next elections

In another development, following on from the massive public meeting in Newtown a few weeks ago, community activists are beginning to seriously ask "shall we do it again?", referring to the community standing independent candidates in the next local elections.

One activist commented: "Last time we only had a few weeks, this time we will have longer and it wouldn't matter who we stood, we would win the seats".

His message to the three local ward councillors, all Labour, was stark: "We want to see that you are going into meetings and fighting our corner, we want to see the notes so we know what you have said and done.

"If not you'd better hang up your bags". He added: "We are coming for your seats and this time it's in earnest".

This sentiment was echoed by a Muslim man I had invited to the meeting who commented: "All they do is come around the mosques at election time when they want our votes" and he agreed that they need a 'kick up the ass'.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 2 January 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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