4 December 2010


How should Labour councils respond to the coalition government's spending cuts? It would be nice if they could simply refuse to implement them – or, failing that, increase the council tax to compensate for the slashing of central government funding for local government. But, as Don Paskini makes clear here, it's more complicated than that:
In recent days, there has been some comradely discussion between lefties about what local councils, and specifically Labour councillors, should do in response to the cuts.

Leftie activists make helpful and informed points such as “on a point of principle, Labour councillors should resign rather than make any cuts and if you don’t agree then you are a sell out”, and Labour councillors make inclusive and coalition building points such as “you don’t know what you are talking about and I know better than you about why these cuts have to happen and aren’t my fault”.

Let’s try and find some consensus.

The leftie activist case argues that the duty of local Labour councillors is to resist the cuts, through a variety of strategies such as increasing borrowing rather than making cuts, transferring assets to community groups, resigning en masse and forcing central government to make cuts, and building a mass movement of resistance. This is inspired by the example of Poplar, Liverpool, Clay Cross and other past socialist heroes.

The councillors’ case is that the law is quite clear. Councillors have to set a legal budget, or the council’s designated section 151 officer will do so. Refusing to get involved with making cuts won’t stop them from happening, it will just ensure that there are bigger cuts which reflect the priorities of an unelected bureaucrat. People who are angry about the cuts shouldn’t be shouting at or denouncing councillors, but should focus their anger on the Tory/Lib Dem government which is responsible for these cuts.

In summary, the activists are Wrong but Romantic, the councillors Right but Repulsive.

The law is indeed quite clear, and was written to stop all the clever wheezes which Labour councillors came up with in the 1980s to avoid making cuts. In addition, councils don’t even have the option of raising council tax in the short term ...

There is no point in denouncing Labour councillors for making cuts this year. Sweeping moral statements about the immorality of making cuts achieve literally nothing except antagonising people. The position of calling for “no cuts” is not credible – is it really the case that lefties should oppose every single cut to the number of senior managers that a local council employs, for example?

This is not to let councillors off the hook, however. The specific solutions which leftie activists call for might not be credible, but they are articulating real and important concerns. Labour councillors need to do more than just work out how to minimise the impact of the cuts and then vote for a budget which adds up. Being a councillor is a political role, not a bureaucratic one.

Specifically, councillors need to make sure that they don’t get caught up in the town hall bubble. Local government finance is a very, very dull subject, most people don’t really know the difference between, say, a councillor and MP, and lots of people are going to be furious when they feel the impact of these cuts. There’s no particular reason in the abstract why people will understand the need for cuts, or understand why councillors chose to make the cuts which they did.

So councillors need to be out in the community, explaining their decisions to people, listening to their ideas and concerns, making sure that anyone can understand the dilemmas which they faced and – crucially – helping to organise people who are angry about the cuts to help them do something productive.

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