Labour Councils and cuts: what should Momentum do?

By Josh Lovell

Over the past five years, many new, left-wing Labour Councillors have been elected into local government. I count myself as one of these who ‘rode the wave of Corbynism’ into local government alongside the resurgence of anti-austerity politics forming part of the new political mainstream.

Nationally the Labour Party led its 2017 and 2019 General Election campaigns with slogans about ending austerity, and over-seeing the biggest cash-injection and public ownership programs in generations. Delegates to Party Conference repeatedly passed motions calling for the party to go further, and particularly the reversal of all academisation of schools, the complete public ownership of all NHS and social care services, and immense home building demands. They were all right to do so.

Whilst the leadership and large swathes of the membership were calling for these however, extraordinarily little was actively campaigned on and won outside of party structures – amongst the trade union and workers’ movement, and in councils where left-wingers have been gaining numbers.

This should be of little surprise to anyone who followed the course of the organisation that set itself up to do just this. Momentum – with its aim of building a socialist grassroots movement in every town and city – failed to train socialists in how to fight for their ideas, either in their workplaces or on their councils. And this task is about to become even more urgent.

With an economic crisis hastened by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we can expect a Tory-led onslaught on local government finances imminently. Some predictions suggest we may soon enter the most destructive global economic crash in generations, and with Labour still controlling many councils, local government budgets are going to be at the forefront of the Tory agenda for rapid privatisation and sweeping spending cuts. Without an organised socialist resistance, the Tory steam-roller could leave local government completely flattened.

Although embryonic organisations that could serve to bring people and campaign groups together, none of these seem to be calling for this with the determination needed. The Labour left must commit to re-building itself on the basis of class struggle to fight austerity and organise socialist councillors and local government workers in how to respond.

Government cuts to local authority finances have been rammed through in recent years through a combination of tight legal restrictions on councils and the unwillingness of Labour Councils to resist, supported by a bureaucratic Labour Party ruling which reserves to the right to expel Councillors who ‘say no’.

Clearly individual councillors decrying cuts in isolation is a strategy doomed to failure, but organised across the UK, a mass campaign of socialist councillor resistance should be built, alongside a combined fight back of local government workers, demanding major increases to local government funding, and social ownership.

The logic of the current pandemic leads us directly to the latter of these, where widespread government bail-outs have been necessary to stop an all-out collapse of many essential public services left fragmented after decades of privatisation. We should make a central pillar of our efforts taking all council services into public ownership, run by their workforces, funded by government grants from taxing the rich. This must include as a minimum the restoration of local government funding to pre-2010 levels, but more where needed to ensure all social need can be met by socialised provision.

A radical re-birth of Momentum could help to bring this about and begin an urgent, organised struggle in local government. With Labour Councillors refusing to pass on Tory cuts and fight for more funding with local government workers, they – like struggles before – could have the power to break the government’s strangle-hold on local authority finances.

100 hundred years ago during the Poplar Rates Rebellion, local Councillors adopted the slogan “better break the law, than break the poor”. We need this spirit back in local government, now.

Josh Lovell is a Hertfordshire Labour Councillor and a Candidate in the Forward Momentum Primaries in the Elected Representatives category (writing in a personal capacity)

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