Councils: Centres of Resistance – the Leeds dimension

The Labour Party with Corbyn as leader is a party of contradictions, writes Marc Renwick.  Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team are very clearly against the policy of austerity and cuts. However up and down the UK, Labour councils are reluctantly implementing cuts. In our city of Leeds the public health budget is facing cuts of millions. Social care is on its knees. Councils say that they will implement cuts in the least damaging way. They say that if they don’t then councils will be left in the hands of people who will cut services in a way that will damage ordinary working people. When we elect a Labour council do we expect cuts? Is there an alternative to cuts if central government is imposing them?

On 23rd July, from 7pm to 9pm, Left Unity is holding a meeting at Inkwell, 31 Potternewton Lane, Leeds LS7 3LW to discuss these crucial issues. We have invited speakers with experience of opposing cuts in local government to argue that there is an alternative strategy. In anticipation of our meeting the participants have contributed some thoughts on how councils can react to cuts.

Garth Frankland (former Leeds Labour councillor): “I am a retired former worker at the British Library and a former cleaner at Chapel Allerton Hospital. I am a retired member of PCS and UNISON. For 20 years I was a Leeds City councillor. 19 of them Labour and 1 as an independent socialist after my ward Labour Party was closed down for three years. Afterwards I helped form the Alliance for Green Socialism standing under their banner several times collecting around 800 votes. Today I am a member of Left Unity. The Tory Government has unremittingly attacked local government both cutting their funding and undermining their powers. This centralising drive has only been opposed very weakly by Labour Councils. They have verbally protested but not a single Labour Council has actively tried to oppose the cuts. This is actually easier to do than when Liverpool stood up to the Tories because individuals can no longer be surcharged. However no one has. The present council leaderships came to power under Tony Blair’s version of managed capitalism and they cravenly accept that approach. There is no attempt to coordinate a common response or to take to the voters the need for action. There is a whole range of responses that are not illegal that they have refused to use, two examples of which I have urged Leeds to use on Public Health and Housing.

“The Tories said in their manifesto that they would not cut NHS spending but they cut over two million pounds from the Leeds public health budget which had been transferred from the NHS. It has been estimated that each pound cut from public health results in £3 extra being spent by the NHS. This cut added six million to the Leeds NHS budget. The council should have sent the cut back to the Government saying it was a mistake. They should have done this publicly and repeatedly like the stuck record technique. On housing they should have sought permission for a billion pound loan to tackle the Leeds housing crisis. If the government turned them down they should have promoted a private bill in Parliament. Let the Tories take the blame for the housing crisis. The election of Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party has squeezed the space to the left of the Labour Party but it has had no immediate impact on local Labour Councils. They have been told to keep with the law and not to challenge the Tories. However the election of an increasing number of pro-Corbyn councillors has lead to some mild challenges to this approach. If some councils did take on the Tories this would help an eventual Labour election victory. If voters cannot see a difference they are less likely to vote.”

Felicity Dowling (former Liverpool Labour councillor): “I was a Liverpool City Councillor from 1984 until we were removed from office in 1987. We organised popular support, powerful trade union support and a mass membership local Labour Party. Despite the defeat, our banner is still bright. We were elected on a programme to create a thousand jobs, build a thousand homes, and ‘no cuts in jobs or services’. We had plans ready for when we won control of the council for 16 urban regeneration areas and a major reorganisation of secondary schools. I was also the Secretary of Liverpool District Labour Party at a time when ward by ward we took seats from the ruling Liberal party and virtually obliterated the Conservatives. We kept our promises. We fulfilled our promises and more. We built 6,000 houses in just a few years, and more. We had excellent electoral support from the people of Liverpool, but sadly none whatsoever from the right-wing leadership of the party. Lambeth also fought Thatcher, but other councils broke ranks and settled with Thatcher. Heffer, Benn, Corbyn and a few others though, were brilliant. We refused to make the cuts Thatcher insisted upon. Thatcher wanted to break the organisations working class communities had built, their strength in local authorities and the trade unions. So, as we fought Thatcher over our services, we stood alongside the miners in their titanic struggle. I was the organiser of the huge collections for the miners in Liverpool. My ward twinned with Point of Ayr pit in North Wales. We stood on picket lines as a routine part of the campaign.

“Huge international struggles such as those in South Africa were taking place. Solidarity with workers in South Africa too, was part of our struggle. Why is it important today? We face another reactionary Tory government determined to destroy the remnants of the welfare state and of the post war compromise that produced the welfare state. Local Authorities have ceased to be centres of resistance, being instead implementers of utterly destructive austerity. There is a prevailing belief that there is no alternative. We face ineffective responses from the organised Labour Movement to the significant problems ordinary people face at work, at home, and in the communities. There is an as yet untapped well of willingness to struggle; just two examples are Corbyn’s movement, and the Irish referendum on abortion. The working class needs to be heard. We have a housing crisis. Our schools are in deep trouble. Labour Councils are cooperating with NHS ACOs, STPs and privatisation again in the belief that there is no alternative. There is ferocious injustice, but there is no consistent organised labour movement response.”

From Iain Dalton (recent TUSC Leeds city council candidate): “I’m Iain Dalton, socialist party member and active in Usdaw. I was the chair of the Save Fearnville Fields campaign and the Gipton and Harehills TUSC candidate in the 2018 local elections. Very often it can be senior council officials making recommendations which councillors simply rubber stamp. Councillors should be looking at what powers they can use to challenge austerity. Sometimes this is not even financial – but the councillors utilising the powers of the health scrutiny board to challenge cuts in the NHS for example. There are also subsidies given to business linked to the idea that encouraging development in the city centre will help wealth trickle down to the rest of the city (all we get is low paid retail and leisure jobs instead!) To fund the services we need, councils must fight for the necessary resources from the government, this means not leaving such a campaign to just an angry letter to the newspapers but mass campaigns involving the trade unions and community groups to win that funding. In the short term, to defend existing services and indicate to people that councillors are prepared to fight, councils could use its reserves and borrowing powers to create a ‘no cuts’ budget. Leeds has over £200m in its capital reserves for example. The last election in Leeds saw a raft of new Corbyn-supporting councillors elected for Labour. But it also saw a number of ex-Labour councillors leave the party and move a few amendments to the last budget to try to reverse some cuts to bulk waste collections and the closure of a specialist dementia care home. Where Labour council leaderships don’t fight to defend local services, the trend like in Leeds is for some councillors to establish independent groups, and like in Leeds and Southampton these can win re-election. So far the new Corbynites have not stamped their mark, but there have been campaigns involving ordinary Labour party members which have forced the council back on a number of issues. This has included forcing the council to drop plans to build a free school academy on Fearnville playing fields and the campaign led by parents to force the council to delay for at least a year plans to cut transport to education for SEND 16+ years old students.”

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