UK councils: can they fight the cuts?
By Len Arthur at Nov 04, 2010
It is now clear that the UK ConDem government onslaught is faster and deeper that the Thatcher era: the Tories have returned with relish to being the nasty party. Naomi Klein's disaster analysis fits the situation: these are ideologically driven cuts that are about making the working class pay for the bankers crisis and brutally re-enforcing the neo-liberal agenda. In my book the ConDem government is a neo liberal coup d'etat. Locally, if we don't work at getting the political resistance right we could actually prolong this unnecessary disaster.
It is not going to be enough just to blame the Tories. That just leaves the one option of waiting until another UK Labour Government but that not provide active support to those who will resist. Local Labour councils and a Labour Controlled Welsh Assembly have to find a way of uniting to fight these cuts with those directly affected. If they go about implementing them in a managerial or technical manner they risk being seen merely as the implementers, or worse: Tory lackeys. Without a united and broad polictical approach reaching out
and involving trade unions, us as members and the local community a political vacuum will be created thay others will soon fill. It might not just be other parties underming the Party's position but a Tea Party type local populism.
It is extremely important to recognise how difficult the situation is for Labour councillors and Assembly members. Not handling the budgets appropriately and refusing directives can lead to financial and legal penalties. But it is also important to balance this against the real affects of the cuts on jobs; homes; benefits and a whole myriad of ways these cuts will eat into the fabric of our civilisation. We are all in the same boat but have to avoid the political problems experienced by Labour councils in the 80s and 90s when faced with a similar situation, when despite notable exceptions, they implemented the cuts, often justifying their actions buy saying that a Tory controlled councils would have been worse. I'd like to go through three examples from my own experience of that period in South Wales looking at the dangers and then hopefully at some answers.
1. Rent strike in 1971.
In that year the Heath Tory government introduced the Housing Finance Act forcing all councils to raise rents by 10/- (50p) per week: a lot of money then. I was in the IS / SWP ( International Socialists / Socialist Workers Party ) at the time and we organised meetings on estates in Swansea and Port Talbot aimed at getting a rent strike off the ground and forcing local councils to refuse to implement the rise. The Labour controlled Swansea council refused to even discuss the issue publically and went ahead with the increase. 100s would pack into meetings after only one leaflet drop and the rent strike started.
However eventually it was ground down and many of the rent action groups went on to stand candidates against Labour and won control of the council during the 1970s. The SWP didn't now how to cope with this right reaction in the movement and just pulled out. The division and not talking things through only meant that the Tories won.
2. Compulsory redundancies South Glamorgan IHE (now UWIC).
The Thatcher government removed support from the British shipping industry in the early 80s. In response the Labour Controlled South Glamorgan County Council decided to close the Maritime studies courses in SGIHE making 42 lecturers compulsory redundant. I was branch secretary of the union and we decided to fight with strikes and other action.
The crunch came at a South Glam County Labour Party meeting when a motion to stop the reduncies was supported. Rev Bob Morgan who was leader of the Labour Group agreed to abide by the decision and although the department was closed, retraining and other measures were used to ensure no one lost their jobs. This was a good outcome for unions and the LP but group members were not happy and replaced Bob with Jack Brooks (later Lord) with the intention of being tougher in the future.
3. Closure of Howardian High School Cardiff.
This time it was the school that my two daughters attended. The South Glamorgan Council still Labour controlled but under Jack Brooks did a deal with the Tory controlled Welsh Office to introduce tertiary education in East Cardiff so long as school places were reduced. Howardian was chosen for a variety of reasons, some political, and although it was in a Labour area most of the catchments area was and with 35 different nationalities attending the school, it had a very postive impact in a multicultural community. The fight went on for nearly five years until 1987 when after an initial judicial review hearing in the High Court, the Tories signed the closure order.
I was chair of the campaign and although the Liberal Democrats tried to dominate, we kept them at bay, ably assisted by Councillor Julie Morgan who defied the Labour Group to support the school. I rejoined the Labour Party in the same year. Ultimately the long running problem which continued with education in area after the closure formed the basis of the Liberal Democrats winning council seats and then Cardiff Central and this was used as a base to eventually control Cardiff Council. which they now do with the support of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party. A compromise was possible, but the new leadership of the group decided against it.
The first conclusion is that resisting the cuts and keeping unity is fraught with difficulties both inside and beyond the Labour Party. However, working hard for that unity is worthwhile as Bob Morgan showed when leader of the South Glamorgan labour group. This case also indicates that answers may be complex but one that unifies is often possible. The other conclusion is that a failure to achieve or effectively work at unity both inside and beyond the Labour Party when facing Tory cuts creates long term political damage which could have an adverse effect on the chances for Labour at the following election, thus actually prolonging the cuts.
Striving to sustain broad based unity is crucial. In the current case perhaps the first step is for the councils to open the books to a wide
debate in the labour movement and local communities. As a trade union leader I always shared the real problems and balance of forces with the members not matter how tempting it was to promise to deliver, so we could collectively share answers and the strength of action required. It is amazing how much this releases creative and collective thinking. Alternative answers come forward and although ultimately choices have to be made which all may not agree on, meaningfully participating in the process helps to sustain unity.
Clearly united answers will involve some give and take on all sides even in the most sophisticated alternatives. However, at some stage cuts become more and more difficult to absorb and a decision has to be made about whether to implement them or not. If that is the case that no needs to be the answer, so be it. The decision is no more difficult for those who lives are being undermined but job, home, service
and benefit loss. But if the process of sharing the problems and developing answers to sustain the widest possible unity has been undertaken, the chance of widespread support for taking a stand will be maximised. It will also lay the basis of support for a more radical policies for a future Labour government.
It seems a hard road and as you can see I've done it before but I'm more than willing to stand up and be counted again. Capitalism and what it means and stands for has not been so exposed internationally as in this current financial crisis, possibly since the early 30s. The situation is serious and the right is assembling a narrative which is about making us pay the cost for the crisis: we must resist both with action and a route to an alternative narrative that demonstrates we will not accept the cost and that another world is both possible and affordable. I'm suggesting that councillors and Assembly members should play a key role in developing the unity required to achieve this. I can understand why many will not wish to. Even if that is the case we should work with those who are prepared to resist and work for unity and action as Labour Party members.