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Local council services are still worth fighting for
POLITICAL PARTIES in Britain are gearing up to win seats in this May's round of local elections. This contest could help decide Tony Blair's future as leader of New Labour. But previous governments - Tory and New Labour - have gradually destroyed so much of local councils' power, through an unrelenting barrage of cuts and privatisation, that many people wonder whether local government is really worth a vote.
ROB WINDSOR, Socialist Party member and Socialist Alternative candidate in St Michael's ward on Coventry city council, explains why socialists still take part in local elections.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT emerged for two reasons. The first was the inability of individual private enterprises to deliver basic co-ordinated services like clean water, sanitation and a safety net for the poorest.
These much-needed reforms did not come about because our employers and rulers suddenly felt benign, but through necessity. The capitalist class needed first of all to look after its own health interests and then, to ensure an impoverished but reasonably fit workforce for the factories and mines and finally when capitalists in different nation states fell out, to fight in wars.
Even then, these basic services did not come easily. For example, it took the noxious stench of raw sewage in the river Thames making MPs ill to force the creation of the much-needed London sewerage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette. This was held back due to costs despite a cholera epidemic - well over a century later, it still remains London's sewage disposal system.
The second reason for the growth of democratically elected local government was the struggle of working-class people to change society. In the early part of the 20th century, rent strikes led to the beginnings of council housing.
This gathered pace after World War One when thousands of workers returned from the carnage, many conscious that in Russia the first democratic workers' state had been established. They were unprepared to return to the days of foul conditions and tugging the forelock to the aristocracy.
IN THE 1920s when unemployment started to bite, more struggles occurred in local government. In Poplar in East London, a radical left council was elected. Immediately it began building new housing, wash-houses, parks and schools. It increased wages for council workers.
Its better treatment of unemployed workers (at this time councils were responsible for paying unemployment benefits) caused a bitter struggle with the government which led to Poplar councillors being jailed for refusing to cut unemployment relief.
These councillors' slogan was "Better to break the law than to break the poor." They had mass support and were backed by marches of thousands. After their release, central government finally started to provide more generous support to councils in poorer areas. In the 1930s more housing was built.
It was after World War Two that council services increased at a greater pace in tandem with the establishment of the welfare state. Again this did not happen due to the goodwill and generosity of government and the capitalist class.
The improvements came about because the ruling class was running scared in the face of workers returning from the front who, again, would not be prepared to tolerate lousy conditions. This was linked to Labour's landslide victory in 1945. The frightened capitalists had to give concessions and were more able to do so in the post-war economic upswing.
But even then Marxists predicted that the ruling class would attempt to take these concessions back - with interest, especially in an economic downturn.
During this period of post-war economic boom, a massive house building programme was developed and new services, like Social Services came into being and grew alongside the NHS. Later came democratically controlled comprehensive education and free further education.
In the early 1970s, the end of the post-war boom resulted in the first major cuts to be proposed in local government. The Tory Housing Finance Act sought to double council rents over three years. One small council, Clay Cross in Derbyshire, refused to implement the increases. Again councillors were supported by their predominantly working-class community. For this, they were surcharged and removed from office.
Their struggle, combined with the mighty struggle of the miners, forced Heath's Tory government out in 1974. However, the mechanism of surcharging (ie heavily fining) councillors and undemocratically removing them from office using unelected District Auditors, fully backed by the state, remained.
THE ELECTION of the various Tory governments led by Margaret Thatcher produced the biggest wave of attacks on local government. Councils were financed in three ways, by locally collected business rates, by council rents and household rates (a property tax similar to, but less costly than, the council tax) and finally by government grants for both services and housing.
It was these government grants that Thatcher slashed in big towns and cities where Labour's vote was strongest. They aimed to force through massive spending cuts or big rate rises that would financially devastate workers.
A movement of councils developed against these measures and against the government policy of "capping" the rates of those councils who raised them to make up for government grant cuts. But it was in Liverpool with a Marxist-led council, where the leading figures were supporters of Militant, the Socialist Party's forerunner - that a different struggle developed.
Councillors refused to make cuts or to raise the rates beyond a certain level. Instead they demanded back several years' worth of under-funding from the Thatcher regime. In addition to this, they improved services by developing 17 new community comprehensive schools, nursery schools, sports centres and parks.
Most of all, they built over 5,000 new council homes and created thousands of jobs. They also won some £60 million in extra funds from Thatcher's government through their fight.
Liverpool could have, alongside the striking miners, beaten Thatcher but the political bankruptcy of the Labour leadership at the time led to that council, along with Lambeth council in London becoming isolated. Eventually 47 councillors were surcharged hundreds of thousands of pounds and undemocratically removed from office.
They were also thrown out of the Labour Party despite getting the best-ever election results and being backed by tens of thousands in marches, protests and strikes in the city.
After this, Thatcher really went to town. The requirement to put council services out to private tender increased privatisation. But the biggest attacks were through the Housing Act and the Local Government Finance Act 1988 that included the hated poll tax.
The Housing Act scrapped secure tenancies, replacing them with weaker agreements such as 'assured tenancies' where evictions would be easier. It also introduced the proposed privatisation of council estates through ballots or by government decree through Housing Action Trusts (HATS). There was a massive campaign against HATS in London, in Sandwell in the West Midlands and Leeds.
In London, the then housing minister David Trippier was literally rendered speechless by the anger of a meeting of 1,000 tenants in Tower Hamlets. Many ballots for privatisation failed miserably despite massive Tory cuts in housing grant.
After poll tax
THE POLL tax, which Thatcher tried to introduce as a replacement for local government rates, proved to be her undoing. This legislation tried, in a leading Tory's words, to make a dustman pay as much for local services as a duke. It was piloted in Scotland.
A movement of Scotland's big Regional Councils especially in Strathclyde, Lothian and Tayside (encompassing Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee) could have crushed the tax throughout Britain. But again Labour's leadership refused to fight.
It was left to the Militant in Scotland, then in England and Wales to organise the mass campaign of non-payment that would finally defeat Thatcher and her hated tax that millions just could not afford to pay.
Despite Thatcher's humiliation, the changes that were made to local government funds provoked more cuts and remained alongside the new council tax. Business rates were collected by councils but paid to central government who were then supposed to re-distribute them, plus government grant to councils based mainly on population.
But any slight rise above strict spending limits would provoke huge rises in council tax or lead to big cuts. 15 years after the abolition of poll tax we have seen both but under a so-called Labour government.
When New Labour were first elected in 1997 many people thought that local councils would be better funded and that services would be safe. Nothing could be further from the truth. The steady betrayal of workers in struggle under Neil Kinnock's leadership of the Labour Party paved the way for Blair to ditch any semblance of socialism and turn Labour into another party supporting capitalism.
New Labour began and is continuing the near total sell-off of council housing. Its method is to starve tenants into voting for a new private landlord by making huge cuts in housing repair funds. Criminally, it earmarked billions that could have been spent on repairs to be given instead to banks that were "owed" money (mostly interest) by councils from up to 70 years ago for building homes.
In most areas where the whole housing stock has been privatised, services for repairs are no better and local housing offices have been shut. Rents have gone through the roof as have court cases for eviction. In addition thousands of homes have been demolished with no replacement rented homes being provided. This policy is right now stoking the fires of a housing crisis in the near future.
New Labour also introduced "Best Value" which is basically the Tories' 'compulsory competitive tendering' in drag. Each council had to review services and consider whether or not privatisation would be a better option. An army of aggressive consultants grew which swept into councils to 'hint' at the benefits of "outsourcing" services. Services like Social Services are prime targets for privatisation and a whole industry of private providers and lobbyists has been created to push this.
In addition council workers' pay and conditions have been undermined. Not a week goes by without attacks on these public-sector workers who, through collective action, have secured better pay and conditions compared to private-sector workers.
The latest disguised attack has been the "Single Status" scheme which in many areas slightly increases the basic pay of lower-paid staff but at the expense of workers on slightly higher grades. The council officers implementing such attacks are subject to a different grading scheme and do not have to face the pay cuts of between £2,000 and £10,000.
Workers in Coventry for example are facing attacks through this scheme. Unfortunately, the New Labour-supporting leadership of a number of unions initially supported this. Only Socialist Party members in the unions warned how it could be used to cut pay.
The idea of such a scheme, in the long run, is to push workers out of the public sector as any perceived benefits of public-sector work are stripped away. This would then leave the field even more open for the complete privatisation of local services.
IN REALITY this is what Blair and Brown and the rest of New Labour want and every time New Labour councillors vote for such proposals they are like turkeys voting for Christmas. Like the Tories before them, New Labour would prefer American-style boards running councils.
Already the cabinet system of local government - where a small cabal of ruling party councillors make the decisions and committees of 'lesser' councillors allegedly scrutinise them - places decision-making in narrower hands.
Both Thatcher and Blair's "model" would be a board of 10 or 12 "senior councillors" meeting a few times a year in order to select and renew contracts for various private companies who would run what is left of local services.
Other "sub-boards" consisting of "partnerships" between councillors, business "professionals" and carefully screened local "worthies" would rubber-stamp decisions whilst giving an illusion of scrutiny.
This is already happening in many so-called 'regeneration schemes' where land is given to developers for virtually nothing and they dictate what happens. Such schemes usually propose the 'social cleansing' of working-class communities by demolishing affordable rented housing and local facilities and replacing them with overpriced housing and other gimmicks.
This is worth billions of pounds to the big companies involved who have seen a whole new lease of life for "vulture capitalism" as they circle to devour the result of chronic under-investment in public services.
SO SHOULD socialists still participate in local government? The answer is a resounding yes. Firstly for a political reason, socialists need to use every platform to show that there is a different way of organising society.
Socialists on councils fight to hold onto public services, hence the successful campaigns to save council-run day centres in Coventry or for funds for housing repairs in Lewisham.
Socialists need to be the best representatives of all members of the communities that they represent and must fight on the ground in communities just as much, if not more than in council chambers. A key task is to build the strength and combativity and organisation in local communities to resist New Labour's attacks.
Despite small numbers, Socialist Party councillors have scored victories against cuts and privatisation and the slide towards the destruction of local councils. For a greater voice, more forces are needed.
In addition to socialists there are now a whole host of independent councillors who could be won to socialist ideas. That is one reason why the coming together of such forces in a new mass workers' party is more crucial than ever.
An article in a future issue of the socialist will deal with the campaigning record of Socialist Party members as local councillors.
The Socialist Party is fielding candidates in this May's local authority elections.
Details will be in next week's the socialist
Liverpool - A city that Dared to Fight
by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn
Published 1988, 500 pages hardback
Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) played a leading role in Liverpool city council's battle against the Thatcher government 1983-87. This book presents both commentary and penetrating political analysis.
£14.95 + 10% p&p.
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In The Socialist 30 March 2006:
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