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Southampton Labour right wing blocks call to debate budget cuts
This week will see Southampton Labour council propose the largest cuts to jobs and services since it was thrown into office following the successful strike of council workers in 2011. Promising to be the friend of those facing the brunt of Tory cuts, it quickly became part of the problem, expelling from the Labour group the anti-cuts councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, who defied its budget cuts.
Last summer, as over 800 people at a Southampton 'Jeremy for leader' rally cheered Jeremy Corbyn's call to stop council cuts and end austerity, the hope was that things would change. Hundreds have joined a party whose local membership now tops 2,000, spurred on by the call from councillor Cathy McEwing that the "fightback starts now".
Nothing has changed from the Labour group, led by self-proclaimed socialist Simon Letts, who marched through the streets of Tolpuddle at the trade unionists' festival there in the summer, but now prepares to swing the axe on council jobs and services to the elderly, like at Brownhill House.
There is an overwhelming mood of anger against cuts across the city. Thousands protested at the closure of the Bitterne NHS walk-in service but the councillors failed to lift their little fingers to oppose it or use their council powers to refer the decision to the secretary of state for health. In a biased NHS consultation, over 73% voted against closure. It would take an estimated £150,000 to restore the service with qualified nursing staff.
Now furious council tenants are threatening a rent strike in a tower block that has just one working lift for over 100 families, who have to queue for half an hour to get in or out of the block to pick their children up from school.
While council tax payers get fleeced, vanity projects get funded. The Tory inspired Sea City museum, built with public money, then rejected by private business when offered for tender, loses thousands of pounds every year.
A new arts complex, home to a chain of fast food restaurants and luxury flats, has been bailed out with £2 million from the council, to complete the project. Corporate 'welfare' for big business, while elderly residents who paid their taxes get told that longstanding respite care beds at Brownhill Lodge have to go.
It is no surprise then that council leader Letts seized on Jeremy Corbyn's letter to councillors in December, tweeting "A clear message from the Labour Leadership today on what is expected of Labour councillors at budget setting meetings."
But councillors do have a choice and if councillors say they oppose austerity, how can they build a campaign for such a stand when they are carrying out the cuts?
Southampton Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in collaboration with anti-cuts councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas has consistently voiced the view of John McDonnell, that "austerity is a political choice".
The council should use its powers to refuse to implement further cuts, set a legal, balanced, no-cuts budget and build a campaign to restore government funding to the city. On this stand both Keith Morrell and Don Thomas have been re-elected to the council with huge majorities.
In the autumn Southampton TUSC launched its own budget consultation, asking people what services they want the city to provide and whether they would support a campaign of defiance by the council. Hundreds have completed our forms, calling for affordable council housing, NHS walk-ins, services for young and old; and by 99% backing the demand that the Labour council refuses to vote for further cuts.
With support in the council trade unions for Jeremy Corbyn and amongst senior Unite officials, the case was clear to put the demand to councillors to change course and fight the cuts.
But those who have called for this, or who have called for Labour Party members to be given the chance to debate the council budget, have not just been blocked but now face a kangaroo court for their audacity in demanding a say. Labour Party members were reluctantly allowed to attend the Labour councillors' group meeting but only after the budget was decided!
Party officials have blocked attempts by activists to contact the hundreds of new members by refusing to hand over new members' information on the grounds of data protection! And far from attempting to mobilise new members, Momentum organisers have sat on their hands and failed to organise a single meeting.
Worse still, some of those on the Labour Left, who have chosen to meet without including anti-austerity councillors and activists who support Corbyn, have criticised calls to challenge the Labour right-wing, have spoken in defence of the council leader, ridiculed the idea of a 'no cuts' policy and the 1980s' victory of Liverpool council, and delayed such steps as it 'will all take time'.
Attempts at Southampton Unite Community branch to discuss the 'no cuts' motion agreed by Unite's local government NISC (National Industrial Sector Committee) were obstructed and ultimately delayed until after the budget.
Even if these cuts are passed they will be opposed in the community. The challenge remains to defeat the right of the Labour Party, which will only happen with a determined struggle to mobilise the Corbyn supporters and transform the party as so many have claimed to wish to do.
However there is not an unlimited amount of time. When will the ducks all line up? When will the time be right to oppose these cuts if not now? A further round of carrying out Tory cuts by Labour means a threat to its majority, with further seats being lost this May, giving up the gains made by the sacrifices of council workers in their 2011 strike.
How does it assist the fight against austerity if the Labour councillors' mantra of 'we have no choice', goes unopposed? Silence risks throwing away the hope of hundreds who joined the Labour Party to fight back.
Socialist Party members in Southampton gave our full support in 2012 to Labour's rebels Keith Morrell and Don Thomas and their successful fight to save Oaklands pool.
We will continue to offer our support to all those who stand up and oppose the cuts in deeds as well as words and will back any Labour councillor who seeks the road of resistance and refuses to vote for cuts.
But we will not sit on our hands and allow those who carry out cuts to go unopposed in the local elections in May. What we need is councillors who won't vote for cuts, who will fight for the money necessary to provide services in the city.
We reject the lie that there is 'no choice'. People are seething at the blatant robbery of tax evaders like Google, who ultimately gain from the cuts that are made to our services. Now is the time to fight back!
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 9 February 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.