Being a Socialist Councillor, Steve Bush, reproduced from issue 2 of the journal
I stood for election to my local District and Town Council last year. I had planned to stand again as a TUSC candidate as I had in the County Council Elections in 2013 when I received a massive 37 votes. As it happens, I failed to get a TUSC endorsement in time, so stood as an Independent instead. I was quite shocked when, after a fairly minimal campaign, I received 481 votes for District and was not elected but gained 644 votes in the Town Council Elections and was elected as an Independent. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader I resigned from the Socialist Party and re-joined Labour. I was lucky in that when I stood for TUSC for County I hadn’t stood against a Labour candidate – there wasn’t one.
Now, the Town Council isn’t exactly the kind of place you can launch a revolution from. It is, in the main, a very dull and stuffy place indeed. There is a limit to how much political input one can have to the Christmas Lights Committee. I hope that soon I may make it onto the District and perhaps County Council to try and make more of a political impact. Many more Labour Party members will be doing the same. But of course there are a large number of Labour Councillors and indeed Labour Councils up and down the country. Many of those Councillors and Councils are making difficult decisions day-in, day-out about what services can be saved and what to sacrifice on the altar of ever increasing Tory cuts – which are about to get worse on an almost nuclear scale!
In the 1980’s left-wing Labour Councils up and down the country formulated a method of opposing cuts – the idea was non-implementation of Tory cuts by Labour Councils. Labour Councils would use any means at their disposal to oppose cuts, up to and including setting deficit budgets in an attempt to force more funding from central government. Had that been implemented across all the municipal authorities as agreed it would have forced the Government to back down, at least temporarily. However, even in those heady days, the majority of those ‘left’ Labour Councils backed down, following the policy preferred by Kinnock and Blunkett of the ‘dented shield’ (protecting essential services but passing balanced and legal budgets – so cutting ‘non-essential’ services). This left only Liverpool and Lambeth to take the fight to the government. For one glorious year Liverpool City Council caught the government on the back foot and actually managed to win extra funding which they put to use along with borrowed money building new Council housing, community centres, sports centres and creating new jobs at the Council. However, the following year, having set an ‘illegal budget’ and taking things to the brink even issuing redundancy notices in an effort to force the government to back down, the District Auditor was called in, took control of finances and the 47 Councillors who voted for the budget were removed and even surcharged individually for the budget deficit.
Militant, Militant Labour and now the Socialist Party (SP) have constantly traded on that fighting legacy, and today still argue that Councillors should rather ‘break the law than break the poor’, echoing the Poplar Councillors of the 1930’s who made a similar stand and even the Clay Cross Councillors of the 1970s who refused to implement the sale of Council housing stock. On paper it’s an appealing position, and even where you have one or two Councillors it can be an effective thing to call for. The SP’s electoral front, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) are making much at present of calling on Labour Councils to oppose the cuts. Of course the Councillors they are appealing to are, in the main, Blairites, or at least Councillors elected under either Blair or Brown, a few under Miliband. These are not individuals who will listen to such calls, and the appealing clamour to take such a stand obviously serves to set TUSC apart from Labour whom they still insist on calling ‘Red Tories’, thereby making TUSC seem so much more revolutionary and radical than Labour and hopefully recruit more young Labourites and would-be Corbynistas to their ranks, by the handful.
But is it a realistic call? Could a majority Labour Council, assuming all the Councillors had a damascene conversion overnight, actually set a ‘needs budget’ or a ‘no cuts budget’ and take a stand against the Tory Government? The answer is, in general terms, no. Although the threat of personal surcharge (a direct financial penalty against individuals) has been lifted from Councillors, if a balanced budget is not set (a budget which is within the precept – the monies returned to the Council from central government – and reserves) then the Officers of the Council are legally obliged to call Whitehall, who will send bean counters to suspend the Council and set a budget themselves. Now you can make the argument that it’s better to make the Tories make their own cuts than do it for them, and I have some sympathy with that argument. But the reality is that they would be likely to make far worse cuts to core services than a Labour Council would do. This is the position that McDonnell and Corbyn have taken on the issue.
But there also is a problem with that position – it can lead to Labour Councils becoming very unpopular and being voted out of office in favour of Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, etc – weakening Corbyn and strengthening those other Parties, at least locally. We have seen in local councils up and down the country, this ‘pendulum’ effect of ‘incumbent fatigue’ as whoever is in power locally is blamed for the cuts to services.
What is needed then is a dynamic and democratic approach; Socialist Councillors need to come up with inventive solutions to the problems faced by cuts in local authority budgets. They need to involve the trade unions and workforce and the wider working class more in decision making and coming up with solutions to save money. They need to come up with inventive ways to generate more revenue for Councils whilst not spending vast amounts, and they need to escape the mindset that all they can do is simply try and win more money directly from central government through confrontation and protest. Reserves can and should be used – particularly where they can help fund capital projects which can generate more revenue – but they need to be used sensibly and sustainably. A good example of this might be fitting solar panels to Council buildings where they can save money on electrical costs, or fitting LED lighting in the same way to buildings or street lighting (grants can be obtained to help with such things) – but once again it has to be done well and costed properly. Building a Community Hydro Scheme locally could be an effective way to generate revenue streams which could be used to fund services. Crowd-funding schemes like these, can attract European or other funding so that Council funds don’t need to be depleted. All of these things and many more can be done if the thinking is there and the political will is there – it is also *gasp* possible to get cross-party support for such things on Councils if they are done in the right way.
I think then the key to effective Socialist-led Councils which can retain power and build on that in the future will be a far more open and inclusive approach to the way that they are run, and a transparent approach to financial issues and how they could be dealt with. By that I don’t mean this ‘hand wringing’ approach which lazy Labour Councils seem to adopt whereby they say ‘look, here’s the shortfall, we’ve do everything we can, but there is no other option than closing every library to balance the budget’ – that simply does not work, as has been amply demonstrated across the board. Or the duplicitous method in which a Council says ‘we need to halve the libraries budget so we’ll announce we are closing all the libraries, then do a ‘u-turn’ when there is a campaign to save them and ‘only’ close half’ – if there is one thing being on the Town Council does show you, it’s how easy it is for Councillors to be herded like sheep into making bad and unpopular decisions and also failing to communicate effectively with the public.
Of course running Councils is hardly revolutionary, and isn’t going to end capitalism in and of itself, but proving competence is important to winning workers to Marxism and building Labour into a strong and vibrant mass party of the working class which can take power and ultimately end the capitalist system.