By Ruth Cashman (Lambeth Unison secretary, standing for Momentum National Coordinating Group in London) and Josh Lovell (Hertfordshire county councillor)
• For ideas on what Labour and union members can do to help get a fight against council cuts started, see fightcouncilcuts.carrd.co
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does.
Since 2010 the Tories have cut local government to the bone, removing a majority of its central government funding and destroying vast swathes of public services and infrastructure. Last year, the cuts briefly came to a halt. Now, in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, councils are facing financial melt-down, with even deeper cuts on the cards.
Putting together estimates from the Labour Group on the Local Government Association of the amount extra needed to keep providing existing services, and party figures on councils’ likely losses due to the pandemic, we estimate about £20bn in extra funding is needed just to stand still.
At a time when our communities are going to desperately need radically more public provision, they are going to be forced to do with even less – unless we actually start to fight back.
We have to confront the reality that the Labour Party has been effectively complicit in the virtual destruction of local government over the last decade. And not just its right wing.
The past record of the Blairites in local government – promoting privatisation and the dismantling of democratic structures under Blair, and then insisting at the start of austerity that there was nothing to do but take it – is dire. Their more recent record of loyally implementing cuts, including by pitching themselves into conflict with their own communities and workforces (eg the Durham and Derby teaching assistants, Lambeth libraries) is just as bad.
But the rise of Corbynism brought nothing better.
If anything, since 2015, the Labour right has been bolder on local government funding than the Labour left. The right-wing council leaders established a sort-of campaign, Councils at Breaking Point, which did call for an end to cuts, emergency funding to plug the gaps and then speedy reversal of all cuts.
Unfortunately, they did very little with it – but then that was sort of to-be-expected. Instead of jumping on this opportunity to launch a real campaign, the Corbyn leadership and its leading supporters did nothing, not even making the demand to reverse all the cuts.
This while many thousands of Labour members and affiliated trade unionists were involved in struggle against cuts on the ground – but without any wider support, national campaign or political leadership.
Local government spokesperson Andrew Gwynne was allowed to brief the press that a Corbyn government would not reverse all the cuts – and as late as month before the 2019 manifesto, he refused to commit to a call from Labour council leaders to commit to this. (It then appeared in the manifesto, years too late.)
This problem has been reflected in Momentum too, which has encouraged its supporters to become councillors, and engaged in grand talk about councillors “building socialism”, but done nothing to even develop discussion about how to resist and reverse cuts. The head of Haringey council, responsible not only for passively implementing cuts but for the atrocity of the Latin Village redevelopment, sits on the National Coordinating Group.
Now both main Momentum factions, Forward Momentum and Momentum Renewal, say versions of the same thing – let’s get more “left-wing” councillors and organise them better. Without discussion and development of a strategy to mobilise struggle against austerity, it is worse than pointless.
Forward Momentum has been somewhat better, talking about holding councillors to account and occasionally criticising Labour councils (for instance Haringey over the Latin Village). But it still dodges the central issues. Its policy committee voted for text about councillors organising a fight against cuts, but this did not appear in the published “Plan” or elsewhere in their output.
We can talk all we want about “municipal socialism”, but unless we begin to reverse the gutting of local government and win its re-funding and re-empowerment, it is a hollow mockery.
To be clear: whatever the merits of the Preston model, it is not absolutely not an answer to the central problem of cuts and how to reverse them. Whatever else it has done, Preston has led no struggle.
There can and should be a discussion of how councils have in the past defied the law as part of mobilising a mass struggle in the past – inspiring examples like Poplar and Clay Cross. Councils are hardly straining at the limits of creative tactics to challenge financial limits. But we need to establish the even more basic idea of leading a fight, a real, mass-mobilising, fight to win lost funding. Do councillors like having no power? Do they like seeing their communities devastated? If not, how about fighting to change it?
What should we fight for?
• A push to create anti-cuts group in every community, linking up trade unions, Labour Parties, service-users and everyone who wants to fight cuts and win more funding.
• Labour councils and councillors to enter into genuine discussions with these groups about how to fight together, including organising demonstrations, mass direct action, etc.
• CLPs, Labour left groups and union branches to organise discussions across the country about how to organise the strategy we need.
• The party at every level to declare it is going to lead a real campaign to block further cuts, win adequate emergency funding to plug the holes and then ensure a speed reversal of all cuts since 2010.
• Maximum pressure on the national leadership to – lead.
• Momentum to use its councillors’ network to promote these goals and discussion of strategy.