Thursday, February 17, 2011
Can councils resist cuts? posted by Richard Seymour
While one understands the difficulties faced by councils, and while it would seem hubristic to expect the return of Poplarism in this day, it is worth considering exactly what the options are. First of all, it is true that a council has to pass a legal budget, or an appointed S151 officer can take over. Manchester City Council has drafted a legal document explaining some of the background (and basically justifying cuts) here. Secondly, it would seem improbable at the least that council tax could cover what is needed, even if that was a fair alternative. The tax covers only a small proportion of local council income. In Wales, trade unions and the local administration have reached a deal whereby they collectively consider all available alternatives, including raising taxes and charging for certain services. But, of course, that coopts trade unions in a cuts process and it's hardly fair that working class communities should have to pay more for services. On the face of it, unable to raise adequate money, bound by legislation to pass a balanced budget, councils are left with no option but to cooperate. But the trouble is that passing 'democratic socialist' or 'lesser evil' cuts is still imposing cuts - deep, savage cuts - and it still involves councillors who should be attempting to defend their local communities in savagely attacking them - which most of them don't want to do. What could a radical left-wing council do that would be different?
Previous instances of defiance include not only the Poplar rate-capping rebellion in 1921, but also the Clay Cross councillors, who refused to implement the Heath administration's Housing Finance Act. Most famous, perhaps, is the defiance of Militant Labour councillors in Liverpool, who took on the Thatcher administration in 1984 by passing an illegal budget. The context is the Thatcher government's war on local council spending. They cut the 'Rate Support Grant', which was essential to local councils to support services. They said that rents and rates would have to go up, or cuts would have to be made. They then imposed the Rates Bill, which capped rates to ensure that spending was kept low. This was all part of the neoliberal social engineering, to create a more conservative society, expanding the social bloc with an interest in opposing 'municipal socialism', and to transfer wealth to the middle classes and the rich.
The incoming Labour council in Liverpool, which was under strong Militant influence, had inherited an austere budget, but they were determined to increase spending on housing. In postwar administrations until 1979, no Liverpool council had built fewer than 1,500 council houses. The highest number built was by Labour in 1972-3, which built over 4,000. Between 1979 and 1983, the hung council built a miserly 127 houses. And since housing conditions were so terrible, the Militant councillors felt they needed to spend at least £25 million on top of what the council had already budgeted. So, against opposition from Liberals, Tories and right-wing Labourites, they pressed ahead. The government at that time was in the middle of a titanic fight with the miners and sent Patrick Jenkin as Environment secretary to look at housing conditions. Jenkin, who had pushed rate-capping legislation through parliament, insisting that he would resign if it wasn't passed, conceded that the government might offer the council £20m. The success can be over-stated. The number of houses that the Militant-led council succeeded in building was short of a thousand.
However, the example it set was immediately taken up by others on the Labour Left. The leaders of Labour councils in Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich agreed to a strategy of non-compliance with the Rates Bill. John McDonnell, who was then chairing the finance committee on the GLC, also signed up. David Blunkett, leader of Sheffield council, participated in non-compliance. In some cases, councillors were willing to defy the law and risk being fined and disqualified. In July 1984, Labour's Local Government Conference resolved to defy rate-capping. Bastions of resistance were cropping up all over the country, and often gaining popular support.
Thatcher ranted and raved about how the enemies of law and order stretched from the IRA to the hard Left. But she would have found it far more difficult to defeat this campaign had not Kinnock been determined to break this policy. The mainstream of Labourism had always seen the law as a neutral force, which could be used by elected administrations . Kinnock was therefore not defying orthodoxy when he insisted that Labour councils should work exclusively within the law to defend local services - "better a dented shield than no shield at all", he said. Following the defeat of the miners' strike, he collaborated with Ken Livingstone to undermine any attempt by the GLC to resist rate-capping. Within weeks of the end of the strike, most left-wing councils gave up the ghost. Only Lambeth and Liverpool continued defiance and Thatcher, in a triumphant mood, instead of making concessions stuck the boot in. The councillors were 'surcharged' (fined), and disqualified. Meanwhile, the Militant were witch-hunted out of Labour, left-winger Eric Heffer was drummed off the executive, Labour Party Young Socialists was attacked and its paper shut down. By 1986, the atmosphere of defeat in Labour was such that most members were willing to go along with the witch hunts, an the 'new realism' favouring free market policies. The Labour Party that emerged from this process was one that ended up imposing the hugely unpopular Poll Tax, refusing to support non-compliance campaigns and prosecuting non-payers through the courts.
The lesson of the above would appear to be that the success of non-compliance campaigns depends on a mixture of political will and wider circumstances. If the government of the day is already experiencing difficulties, and if you are able and willing to mobilise grassroots support for your strategy, then it may pay off. But perhaps this seems academic. Today, even left-wing councillors are not promising defiance, but grudging compliance. This is despite the fact that they do not face fines any more, and are not really in danger of disqualification. The SWP's Preston councillor Michael Lavalette has been pressing for a non-compliance position but, despite the deep unhappiness of local Labour councillors with the cuts, they're all voting for them. Their mood is determined by their feeling of weakness. The political culture of the Labour Left has not survived Blairism, and the stranglehold of managerialism. Neither, in fact, has Labour's presence on local councils, which was seriously eroded over the last decade or so. So, Labour councillors are not feeling ebullient and combative. The coming struggle is therefore likely to resemble the Poll Tax campaigns more than the rate-capping campaigns, inasmuch as anti-cuts movements are likely to be operating in defiance of Labour councils more than in collaboration with them. There are some councillors who want to encourage public sector resistance to the cuts without actually leading that resistance themselves. But unfortunately the result is the same: they push through 'humane' cuts, finding 'efficiency' savings, and relying on 'voluntary' redundancies and 'natural wasteage'.
Some Labour supporters argue that one shouldn't criticise Labour councillors for imposing cuts this year, as they have to move in a very short space of time and aren't likely to be in a position to build extra-parliamentary resistance, even if they were so motivated. This is a comprehensible position. However, it is also a destructive and politically defeatist position. If arriving at a quick stopgap is the concern here, then councils are in a position to borrow and draw on reserves in the short-term. This is what the Socialist Party has been arguing in Lewisham. But that's obviously not the concern. There is also a tendency among those defending 'humane' cuts to snigger at the idea of opposing all cuts - should we really defend every white elephant project, every single manager's job, every single inefficient outlay? The answer is clear: we should oppose any cuts in the spending totals. If councils want to deploy resources more efficiently by shedding managers and stopping useless schemes, and spending more on the vulnerable, all well and good - but if so, shouldn't they have been doing that already? At its worst, this argument says that everything should be subordinate to getting Labour back in office. Only that will make a difference, and nothing else matters. This exact logic, which relies on the willingness of working class voters to put up with anything Labour does and keep voting for them, is precisely what cost Labour 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010. Yes, the legal position is clear. It is true that the government can resort to imposing a budget through section 151 officers. But do they actually want to have to do this? Or would they rather have the connivance of local councils giving the cuts the appearance of a democratic mandate? Is the difference between section 151 cuts and 'humane' cuts sufficient to justify going along with this attack? And is the fear of taking on the government not a little exaggerated? This isn't Thatcherism at the height of its powers, but rather a weak Tory-led government amid a generalised crisis of the system they're defending. Their cuts are deeply unpopular, and have already provoked tremors of resistance that caused a panic in Tory HQ. They can't even sell off the forests without encountering resistance big enough to force a retreat. If the obstruction of local councils were large enough, the campaign threatening enough to them, the Tories would make concessions, as they have been compelled to do before.
If Labour councillors aren't prepared to resist, it will fall to trade unionists and community activists to defend services. And if Labour councillors defy strikes and local community campaigns, as the logic of their position may compel them to do, then anticuts campaigns would be strategically justified in standing candidates in local elections, explicitly standing on a platform of non-compliance. That may alienate Labour activists, but the latter surely can't expect everyone else to tail the local Labour leadership.