Local government cuts: Build a coalition of opposition!
THE JOHN MCDONNELL COLUMN
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and Chair of the Labour Representation Committee
THE BANKERS’ CHANCELLOR, GEORGE OSBORNE, introduced the next wave of austerity measures in November, followed in December by the announcement of the detail of the cuts in funding for local government.
The scale of cuts of central government grant to local councils is immense - but the distribution is also grotesquely unfair. Government funds are being diverted from high need, poorer council areas to Conservative controlled councils. This is the worst financial settlement in the history of local government over the last five decades.
Labour councils are now preparing their budgets for next year. They are exploring every financial mechanism they can use to prevent the need for cuts. That includes drawing on reserves. Most Labour council leaders are reporting that discretionary spending by their councils is coming to an end and there is an increasing fear that they will struggle to fulfill their statutory duties in areas like social care.
In the 1980s, those of us in local government faced with rate capping explored two strategies of resistance. The first advocated was to keep spending at the level to avoid cuts for as long as possible. The second strategy was to refuse to set a rate. We adopted a strategy of refusing to set a rate in protest but, despite the courageous battle led by Ted Knight at Lambeth, this strategy did not hold as councillors came under pressure.
The Tories soon learned how to nip in the bud any further revolt by Labour. New legislation introduced powers to enable council officers to take over from councillors the ability to set the budget should those councillors refuse to introduce a balanced budget. This is a draconian power which undermines local democracy in one fell swoop. What limited room there was to manoeuvre has been taken away from councillors. This doesn’t mean that councillors are not doing everything they can to prevent cuts to their local services. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, central government effectively controls the final level of local council budgets.
Labour council leaders asked Jeremy, Jon Trickett (as shadow local government minister) and me for advice on what they should do in budget setting. We wrote to them explaining we understood the overriding power that had now been seized by Tory central government to enable unelected council officials to set a budget over the heads of the elected councillors. For that reason, we supported Labour councillors staying in power to minimise the damage the Tories are seeking to inflict on our communities.
All the Labour councillors to whom we have spoken are absolutely committed to doing all they can to protect services. It’s critically important that we campaign against the cuts being forced upon local councils and to put the blame squarely where it lies - on the Tories in Westminster. That’s why Labour council leaders and the Labour leadership are working in partnership to make opposition to austerity central to our local election campaign. We will be working with the trade unions and local communities to expose what the Tories are forcing upon Labour councils and to mobilize mass opposition to their policies. In this way local councils, local trade unions and community groups will be able to form a coalition of opposition to this government on a scale not seen for decades.
Maximising Labour’s vote in the elections in May is a responsibility that falls upon us all if we aim to support Jeremy’s leadership. It will take time to explain our political approach and to win people to our policies, especially with the barrage of media opposition and distortion. However, we all know as socialists that this is the opportunity of our lifetime. In our mobilization against the Tories’ attack on local government, let’s demonstrate what new energy and forces Jeremy’s election has unleashed.