Britain: Local council cuts continue…so must the fightback

Liverpool city council's struggle, 1983-87, for more funding from the Thatcher government was an inspiration to workers (photo: Dave Sinclair)

Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson says austerity is over. But who believes this pathological liar? As London mayor and Tory MP, Johnson promoted cuts to council services and supported tax cuts for the super-rich.

The Tory austerity axe has fallen hardest on council budgets. But shamefully, right-wing, Blairite councillors in Labour councils have carried out these Tory cuts, hammering both young and old.

Stripped away is the veneer of a civilised society; one in ten libraries have closed, along with parks, playgrounds, youth clubs and children’s centres.

It is working-class communities which have borne the brunt of these brutal council cuts. With the impact of job cuts, zero-hour contracts, rising rents and falling pay and benefits, there is little left of a safety net to cope. Scandalously, there are more food banks than McDonald’s outlets in Tory Britain.

An extra 500,000 children have been thrown into poverty as a result of austerity cuts. Schools and children’s services are being asked to cope while their budgets and staff are axed. Social care service cuts have left over-stretched families struggling to cope with elderly parents and relatives. As the bar to access services is lifted higher, the poorest are left starving to die of neglect.

Homelessness is a vivid sign of austerity – every town centre a shop window for abandoned rough sleepers. And thousands of job cuts have left council workers overworked and underpaid.

To add fuel to the fire we are all asked to pay more for less. Council tax bills are set to rise above the rate of inflation, and councils are introducing new charges and increasing others.

So as councils prepare to set budgets next month, everyone – Johnson, the Labour leadership candidates, trade union leaders, councillors of every shade will be asked, “what are you going to do to stop council cuts?”

Over the last decade, heroic struggles of council workers, working-class communities and a handful of anti-cuts councillors have fought to protect jobs and public services. There have been important victories, but resistance has remained isolated.

We are campaigning for the council trade unions to ballot for national strike action to stop the cuts. And we call on Labour councillors to join the resistance by setting no-cuts budgets and demanding the return of the billions stolen by the Tories since 2010.

A mass campaign to mobilise working-class communities, drawing on the historic victory of the Militant, socialist-led Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, must be central to the fightback against further Tory cuts and the rebuilding of our austerity-hit communities.

To win back working-class trust Labour must take the ‘Liverpool road’

The five Labour leadership candidates at the first regional hustings pursued a common theme – how can Labour win the trust of the working class.

Rebecca Long-Bailey said she was kept awake at night worrying about this, and how Labour could become “salespeople for socialism”.

It’s fitting that this search for a road to the working class took place in Liverpool, with its militant tradition. But it’s a tragedy that no mention of the city’s vital socialist lessons was made by the candidates.

The warning signs were there: in the 2019 council elections, Labour’s losses were overwhelmingly in working-class areas in the north west and north east. In 2018, Labour also lost councils in working-class areas in the midlands.

Why? Since 2010 almost 800 libraries have been closed; there’s been a 73% cut in spending on youth services; social care is a social crisis; councils have cut over 800,000 jobs in that period; almost 200,000 council homes have been lost. The most savage cuts have been in Labour-held areas.

In 2010 the Con-Dem Chancellor George Osborne demanded that Labour councils do the Tories’ dirty work and make the cuts at local level. In this way, they would be complicit in ensuring that it was working-class people who should pay the price for the economic crisis caused by the bosses and billionaires – accepting the logic of capitalism. And they did. That is a major factor as to why Labour has lost the confidence of working-class people.

In the general election, Liverpool elected Labour MPs – most of whom are in the socialist campaign group. But it’s not the case that Liverpool was always a Labour city – it was won. Despite a history of working-class struggle, from 1979-83 various coalitions of Tories and Liberals held power in the city.

Socialist programme

But a socialist programme for working class struggle against the Tories turned that around. Under the leadership of the ‘47’ socialist councillors, with the Socialist Party’s predecessor Militant playing a key role, fighting to get back what Thatcher had stolen from the city defeated the Tories.

A conscious membership of a mass Labour Party was built through campaigns in the factories, workplaces and on the doorsteps – with general strikes, mass meetings and the confidence in a socialist alternative. The fact that all decisions of the council were made democratically, with those in opposition allowed to put their point of view, was an important factor. But so too were the material gains of the working class from those socialist-led struggles.

Labour in Liverpool ‘sold’ socialism by making it a concrete question: 6,300 families rehoused; 4,800 houses and bungalows built; 7,400 houses and flats improved; six new nurseries; 17 community comprehensive schools established; £10 million spent on school improvements; five new sports centres built, one with a swimming pool attached; 2,000 additional jobs provided for in the council budget; 10,000 people per year employed on the council’s capital programme; three new parks; rents frozen for five years.

An important step to winning back trust would be for Labour to take the Liverpool road. That requires fighting for what the Tories have stolen from the working class. Long-Bailey has written that “we can take charge and build a very different future for ourselves, but only if we grasp our most powerful collective weapon: a government for and by the people.”

Even before the next general election local government offers Labour a chance to do this. Liverpool’s socialist history shows how.

No-cuts council budgets and the building of mass united struggle for the money stolen from the working class are central to whether Labour can become a party of the working class and relevant to the fight against Johnson’s attacks.

 

 

 

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January 2020
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