Councillor Nick Davies, Swansea West CLP, reports from the Councils and the Cuts Welsh Labour Grassroots (WLG) day school.
‘Austerity and the challenge for the left in local government’, the subtitle of this WLG event, summed up the prospects for local government in Wales. Ten authorities, including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport are now under Labour control and over 30 WLG members are councillors at a time when Wales faces a perfect storm of welfare ‘reforms’, further spending cuts and attacks on public services.
Pontypridd Assembly Member Mick Antoniw opened proceedings by looking at the impact of the cuts in Wales so far and how, with some areas already among the UK’s poorest, the situation will get worse. He saluted the Welsh government’s role in acting as a shield against Westminster, by demolishing government arguments for regional pay. It also made up the 10% of Council Tax benefit not passed on to local authorities by Westminster, thus giving some relief, for this year at least, to the poorest people in Wales. Darren Williams gave an historical overview of the struggles, from Poplar in the 1920s to the 1980s battle against rate-capping, by councils to protect their communities against central government and the courts.
Two left Labour councillors then offered their own perspectives on fighting cuts. Greg Marshall (Broxtowe) recounted how he had campaigned on a clear anticuts position and, once elected, had maintained this position and worked alongside trade unions and community organisations to protect jobs and services, as a result winning some concessions from the group leadership. Charlynne Pullen (Islington) emphasised how, after winning back control, Labour had brought services back in-house and made savings as a result, paid the living wage and had set its face against the proposed 80% of market rent for new housing association tenancies. But she admitted that the council’s financial position meant she had also been forced to take decisions that she was not happy with.
These contributions prompted lively debate on how socialists in local government can best protect their communities against cuts. In one sense, the situation is easier than previously, as councillors are no longer liable to personal surcharge and disqualification if they set a deficit budget reflecting the needs of the people they represent — although the minister may intervene by sending in commissioners.
However, in every other way the conditions for resistance are worse. The decline in council housing and rise in housing association tenancies and home ownership make the weapon of the rent strike less powerful. Most important is the decline in trade union membership and the level of class consciousness — the feeling that people can change the conditions of their existence. Councillors who want to fight the cuts feel isolated. The cabinet system puts power in the hands of officers, who advise councillors that fighting cuts is either impossible or unlawful. The answer is for councils, trade unions and community groups to build joint campaigns against cuts and to protect jobs and services across Wales. Although the Welsh government does not control tax and benefits, it can protect the poorest communities and give political leadership to the anti-cuts campaign.
Such a campaign could take the struggle to defend services and jobs from a defensive to a transformative project. This was the theme of the final speaker, Hilary Wainwright, coeditor of Red Pepper and authority on experiments in popular democracy Councillor from the GLC to the participative budgets in Porto Alegre in Brazil and, most recently, Syriza in Greece. She posed the need for a broad campaign across party and sectional lines, uniting Labour councils, trade union branches and, for example, UK Uncut, involve ordinary people in developing and implementing policy.
Until a mass anti-cuts campaign can be built, councils must minimise the effects of the Westminster onslaught on services — for example, by ruling out compulsory redundancies, privatisation or outsourcing. Jobs and services can be protected by increases in Council Tax, by borrowing and by the use of reserves. However, this is not a long term solution. As Mick Antoniw observed, you can only move money around for so long. Others agreed. Sooner or later you’re going to run out of ‘wriggle room’.