THE MOVEMENT that twice elected Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader is defined by its opposition to austerity. But local government cuts mean Labour councils in many of the party’s heartlands have spent six years as the face of brutal cuts to the social fabric of our communities.
Unless it is overcome, this contradiction will torpedo the development of a clear opposition to austerity and fatally undermine Labour’s general election prospects.
In his closing speech to Labour’s annual conference, Jeremy Corbyn claimed “each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do”.
This statement followed a list of policies showing how Labour councils are “putting Labour values into action”, citing a handful of limited local initiatives with varying degrees of merit.
What effect this tribute had on the 1,000 councillors who signed an open letter calling on Corbyn to resign is not clear. But it certainly didn’t go down well with the Lambeth residents who are being compulsorily rehoused at higher rents, or the Durham teaching assistants facing a £6,000 pay cut.
Corbyn’s message was intended to reassure Labour councils of their importance as centres of “power” for Labour in opposition and to absolve them of their responsibility for cuts by blaming the Tory government whose “cynical funding cuts have hit Labour councils five times as hard as Tory-run areas”.
The point was hammered home with the central theme of the speech: end the infighting and unite to prepare for a general election in 2017.
This was a powerful riposte to the rebellious Labour parliamentarians, but it was gleefully seized upon by hardline right wing councillors to demand Labour activists stop marching to save libraries and line up behind the councils in the name of “party unity”.
But for hundreds of thousands of members who campaigned for Corbyn’s victory in order to make Labour a party that opposes austerity in action, not just words, unity on the councillors’ terms is unacceptable from both a democratic and a practical point of view.
There’s no doubt that Labour councils have been put in an invidious situation by the Tories’ town hall funding settlement – whose cuts disproportionately affect poorer areas with increased social care costs.
Communities ranked in the top 20 per cent for health deprivation and disability have seen an average reduction in spending power of £205 per household – that is 12 times more than the 20 per cent least deprived.
To take the London borough of Lambeth as one example: Lambeth is the 22nd most deprived borough in the country, but has suffered a 56 per cent, £175 million, cut in central government funding since 2010.
The result? More parts of the borough are in the 10 per cent most deprived areas nationally than five years ago. Along with Tower Hamlets, Lambeth is the most unequal borough in the country on indexes of ethnic equality.
With further cuts of £55 million over the next three years, inequality and deprivation is going to increase, creating a vicious circle as social and community services are cut to the bone or scrapped altogether, leading to higher care bills, drawn from a diminished pot.
The Local Government Association estimates that the total revenue support grant that councils receive will have fallen from £14.5 bn in 2010 to £2.2 bn in 2020. The truth of many Labour councils’ claims that they have protected vital child and elderly social care services by closing libraries, parks and youth services, has worn thin after six years. Last year it was libraries, this year it’s youth centres, what will face the axe next year?
The reality that some within the party refuse to accept is that Tory cuts have simply accelerated the trend towards outsourcing, academies, and ‘regeneration’ pioneered for years prior to 2010 in right wing Labour bastions like Lambeth.
The long decades of local authority control and lack of internal party accountability have turned many Labour councils into fiefdoms, controlled by a self-selecting and replicating caste of officials.
The inevitable result is the atrophy of principle and imagination in the Labour groups. Vanity projects, financial mismanagement and corruption plague local authorities. Town halls are packed with as many lobbyists as Westminster – with even less scrutiny. Sweetheart deals with property developers waive mandatory quotas for properties let at social rents. Revolving doors offer lucrative futures for council officials.
The majority of councillors are hard working and principled people, doing their best in difficult circumstances and, in most cities, Labour has been able to hold onto enough of its voters to win elections. But, with low turnouts, enough votes to win shows a lack of an effective alternative, not positive support for what Labour is doing.
Continuing to make the cuts demanded by Tory policy will inevitably grind down support and hollow out Labour’s social base. The Scottish disaster shows where that leads and the Brexit vote was a warning that the same complete collapse could happen in local government across the country.
In short, it’s true that Labour-run authorities have suffered the brunt of austerity, but the situation has been aggravated by Labour’s own policies, its endorsement of austerity until Corbyn’s election, and its inability to set out a progressive alternative.
The fact that councils like Lambeth have got themselves into protracted and bitter conflicts with residents, trade unions and local parties should be a wake-up call.
Following his first election, Corbyn declared that giving the members greater say in decision making was a major priority. But within weeks he and John McDonnell published a letter instructing councils to continue passing legal, i.e. cuts, budgets. This capitulation to the party’s powerful council lobby was made with no involvement or consultation with the members.
The rule change at the 2016 conference, making it a disciplinary matter for a councillor to abstain or vote against any legal budget proposed by a Labour administration, is designed to make council chiefs immune from dissent.
These actions declared business as usual for Labour councils under Corbyn’s leadership and undermined one of the biggest reservoirs of his support – the active and dedicated campaigners fighting to defend local communities.
The idea that embattled Labour councils simply need to hold out for a general election victory is a recipe for defeat. If we don’t fight to stop the cuts now, a Labour government won’t have an NHS to fix, and local councils will soon have no services left to run.
This is where Labour’s new mass membership, committed to fighting austerity, comes in. By building a powerful mobilisation of the labour movement against cuts, winning victories, we canl change the political landscape.
We can sink roots, train activists, win over new communities and renew frayed relations with old ones. Most importantly, we can show that there is a force in society that can deliver meaningful victories through its own actions. That will do more in a few months to improve Labour’s election prospects than anything else.
Stopping the privatisation of the NHS, preventing the expansion of selective education, defending the rights of refugees and migrants are all important national issues that we can fight and win on.
We’ve got the numbers; we’ve got the ambition to win. But stopping the assault on local communities by Labour councils must become a central part of our strategy for victory.
What we can do
We need to launch a coordinated effort to make Labour launch a major national campaign against cuts to local government funding. We can tie this into a fight against the gerrymandering of the boundary review; exposing the Tories’ attack on working class communities that vote Labour.
Forcing Corbyn and McDonnell to openly side with those fighting local government cuts will make it easier to gather support for the next step: overturning the undemocratic rule change that prevents councils setting no-cuts budgets and changing the constitution to give local parties more control over council policy and make councillors recallable.
On a practical level, local Labour Parties and Momentum groups should work with sympathetic councillors and community campaigns to draw up “needs budgets”which show how much money the council needs to provide decent homes, health, education and welfare for all residents.
If we can build up a major campaign against local government cuts, uniting trade unions, residents’ groups and anti-cuts campaigns with the Labour Party, then we will have a social basis to start coordinating left wing and socialist councillors’ resistance to councils that continue to pass cuts.
Apart from demonstrations, occupations and strikes, this could take the form of publishing the council’s accounts to public inspection – allowing residents to see where the money is being spent or wasted. We would need to convene public assemblies to demand the council leaderships explain their cuts or discuss a strategy to work with residents to stop them.
This mobilisation has the potential to turn the new mass membership Labour Party into a centre for organising resistance – and going beyond that to form the basis for a radically different vision of local democracy.
There’s no more time to waste, so let’s get organised: