Kevin Bennett reports from Labour’s Local Government Conference in Nottingham.
Attending the conference as a delegate from Unite’s North West Regional Political Committee, I asked Ed Miliband: “What would you say to the councillors who want to vote against the cuts, and what support would you give to them?” He said I should ask Hilary Benn and moved on. But there is real anger. People need to know what Labour will say about local government beyond the usual non-committal answers.
Liam Byrne MP said five million people are using payday loans to cope with everyday bills. He called for “jobs, jobs, jobs” and said the Department for Work and Pensions was blocking investment into manufacturing and small businesses. But with seven million under-employed, what is needed are real jobs. Lewisham Council spend as much money on Housing Benefit as they do on housing.
Many councillors are receptive to our message of resistance. I support those councillors standing up against the cuts, but I think we must fight from within Labour Groups to encourage other councillors to join us.
Labour councils do have an alternative, by utilising council borrowing powers funded by cash in the council’s reserves under the 2003 Local Government Act. When they say that borrowing should only be for ‘capital expenditure’ as opposed to day-to-day ‘revenue’ spending, it is not the whole truth. The Audit Commission, the government’s spending watchdog, admitted recently that 16% of unitary local authorities submitted ‘capitalisation requests’ in 2012 to allow them, in the Commission’s words, “to treat revenue expenditure as capital expenditure and therefore either borrow or use capital receipts to finance” it. There are other routes that are deemed to be an “acceptable budget” and will be decided not by the views of council officials and their legal advisors, but ultimately by the growing public anger against cuts.
Recognising the horror these cuts will bring, leaders of three Labour councils — Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield — wrote a joint statement over Christmas begging the government to change tack because “forces of social unrest are starting to smoulder”.
Labour should promise to write off the debts of any Labour council that borrows in order to avoid cuts. They must all ensure no stone is left unturned in fighting to defend the towns and cities from such cruel ConDem cuts.
Three Hull City Labour councillors — Gary Wareing, Gill Kennett and Dean Kirk — have said publicly they will vote against cuts in jobs and services at the council budget setting meeting on 28th February. Hull council faces losing a third of its funding over the next three years.
The Poplar councillors’ motto in the 1920s was: “Better to break the law, than to break the poor!” Liverpool’s militant stand in the 1980s won £60 million and resulted in the largest council home-building programme in the country and created children’s nurseries and apprenticeships for unemployed youth.
Labour councils have to decide which side they are on. Stoke-on- Trent City Council plans to borrow £59 million to build another new council HQ after carrying out savage cuts of £56 million over the last two years, with a further £21 million planned this year. There is massive anger against this plan — we need to save jobs and services instead.
Nationally councils hold £13 billion in reserves. They could set budgets that meet people‘s needs and create a mass campaign involving unions, service users and local people, to demand more money from the government.
Ed Miliband has said he supports government austerity measures and that a future Labour government would not reverse one spending cut. Labour councillors have already been expelled from Labour in Southampton for voting against cuts. On 23rd January Stokeon- Trent Labour councillor Andy Lilley resigned from the Labour Party saying, “I cannot, will not support an administration that seeks to target the very people they claim to represent.”
Labour councillors across the country are faced with a decision: do the Tories’ dirty work or stand united with their workforce and the people in their local area to build a mass campaign to defend much-needed jobs and services.