Council cuts and Labour – some frank but friendly words

by Tom Miller

I have an interest in this as I’m running for Brent Council in Willesden Green. But that means the public have an interest in it too, so I’m dumping a quick thought here which outlines how I feel about cuts. Might as well clear my chest at this early stage.

Firstly, the bottom line stuff. I am committed to the Labour Party as once necessary vehicle for democratic socialism, and I will follow its rules as decided by conference, including by following collective group responsibility with any colleagues I am elected alongside at a local Government level. I wouldn’t feel the same about being elected to Parliament for a host of reasons, but they are long and irrelevant.

The flip side – though this gives me a duty to support group decisions, it also gives me an obligation to fight for my own values and for my local residents in campaigns, when candidates are selected within the party, and then within the Labour group if I am elected as a Councillor.

So there’s my caveat paragraphs. What are those values and beliefs?

While I am prepared to admit that some cuts are stupider than others, I am also fundamentally opposed to the economics of the cuts, which are the right’s ideological project and economic solution all wrapped up in one neat package. Firstly this package is unjust and misses why we have economics at all – improving quality of life. Secondly, it is also a package which has failed in its own terms repeatedly across Europe.

Ignored by campaigners: cuts are part of a right-wing political project

But despite all this context, many local anti-cuts campaigners are blaming their Councils for cuts which are centrally decided and then deliberately and carefully outsourced to Labour Councils to avoid accountability nationally. Local campaigners, understandably angry about their own local losses, repeatedly take the bait.

While I support anti-cuts and have marched many times with anti-cuts groups, I think there are several areas of strategic weakness, and despite the encouraging start of the (poorly named) People’s Assembly, the movement as a whole frustrates me.

Where the localised anti-cuts movement is going wrong

It is fragmented, has poor language, has abysmal understanding of the law & finance, and is content to abandon realism in its strategy in the hope that setting a deficit budget in tooting will begin a great global uprising against neoliberalism that is necessary to undo the cuts. While I applaud their defensive work and awareness raising, the sense of strategy is mind-numbingly parochial. It is also so distant from the scale and depth of the task ahead that it is content to sit around biting the local veins of one of the key organisations in overturning the consensus at a national level, the Labour Party.

Why? Well, as stated above, taking losses locally touches more than a nerve, and the Government have sorted the swaparoo in finance so that Councils have to be the public face of the cuts they never wanted.

But I also think as well as the good intentions, it can all go a bit conspiracy theory at times, and the underlying current is sometimes disingenuous – note, for example, how few local anti-cuts campaigners are prepared to put their own solutions before the electorate either as Labour candidates, or for other parties.

On the conspiracy point, hatred for Blairism understandably runs deep throughout the left, parliamentary and external. I know this – marching against Iraq and opposing various privatisations were some of my earliest political actions, and I stand by them. But it’s not always relevant or the way to decent strategy.

Some more radical parts of the left seem happy to abandon materialism in favour of emotionalising this hatred, and apply it more widely against Labour. They are waiting all the time for someone to step into the betrayal zone, which rests on the assumption that nobody from the Labour Party is in the same movement or moral universe as them. Actually, that’s completely untrue.

I repeatedly see people who I know have made quite left-wing decisions in private being heckled by people who barely know them at meetings for being right-wing, or involved in some plot that the accuser cant even put their finger on (but of course, if they have been elected to an Executive Committee, there must be dastardly plots – one example of where the paranoia creeps in, and people respond to it by shouting at someone innocent, whilst lacking the guts to stand for their position themselves).

One recent manifestation was someone from the left echoing the Tory line exactly by suggesting that Labour Councils were cutting harder to ‘teach people not to vote Tory’. This involves some level of self-deception, and can really only be based on an emotional refusal to give the matter any actual thought.

It’s this that bothers me, because it stops even the best within Labour and the wider left working well together.

Views on policy may or may not be legit, but the style and underlying assumptions are empty and sectarian.

Let’s be sensible?

Labour Councillors that have been elected all depend on Labour voters from last time round, not Tory ones. These people are also disproportionately hit by cuts. It would be bizarre even for a careerist to choose to hurt them in this way.

If you can’t see this and appreciate that it means that Labour Councils are not necessarily in bad faith, I don’t think there’s much point in me or anyone else trying to have a political conversation with you, because logic on the points under debate is clearly not what matters.

My local Council has been told it has to find tens of millions worth of spending to get rid of over the next year.

If it’s about showing anyone anything, it’s about Labour Councils trying to find ways to avoid this costing lives, and using it as an example. Tory Councils are not being cut, and won’t have to even bother trying.

Focus: a ‘pragmatic’ left approach to Labour locally

If I am elected as a Labour Councillor, I won’t be promising a Poplar rates rebellion (a legal relic), or to hand over my budget to DCLG (the legal present), which will hurt the vulnerable, but without remotely stoking up any kind of dissent on a national level.

Instead, I will be pushing for Labour’s economic policy nationally and internationally not to concede to the cuts agenda, and pushing within the Labour Party for the Council to find ways of innovating out of cuts (a similar strategy to that used by that pragmatist Ken Livingstone and the GLC, rather than that pushed at the time by John McDonnell and Ted Knight).

I will undoubtedly take part in political demonstrations and perhaps non-violent direct action.

I will push to build a national anti-cuts movement.

I will fight at a community level so concerns about priorities are born out and people are at least listened to, even if they don’t get what they are after.

And to make all of that a relevant possibility, I will be ignoring the poorly reasoned ‘Blairophobia’ and fighting for a Labour government.

That’s better than letting former coalition Minister Sarah Teather off the hook for voting for cuts to our Council budget, which is something that in my view our scattered anti-cuts campaigners in my Borough and others allow to happen far too easily.

Tony Blair is gone, and those of us to the left of him have new challenges altogether to deal with. Let’s stem the bleed locally, get this lot out nationally, and make sure we replace the whole lot with something more participative, more democratic, more egalitarian, and more sustainable.

If I want my Borough to look more like that, I need a new government as an absolute minimum, and I see the fight against the cuts in that context.