As the fun never stops in the Rusling household, I finally got to read the much-discussed In The Black Labour paper over Christmas. We might not like it, but the paper sets out perhaps the only plausible way for Labour to claw back our economic credibility and to achieve social justice when the fiscal cupboard is bare. Many will rightly balk at following Osborne’s spending plans to the last penny, but the authors’ basic approach has to be right.
Every change must be costed and paid for through growth and tax. We have to look to structural reforms, not spending, to tackle our society’s injustices. And we must embrace the straitjacket which forces us and our opponents to reveal our true priorities. This might not sound sexy, but as a government-in-waiting, we have to show how we would achieve our objectives without splashing the cash. Because, whether we are Old, New, Black or Blue, that will be the situation that faces Labour (and, indeed, the Tories and Liberals) in 2015.
Yet, reading the paper as a councillor, I was struck by familiar thoughts. The constraints that the paper outlines are exactly the constraints that local government operates under. Our finite funding comes from Whitehall and council tax. If the money doesn’t come in, it doesn’t go out. The size of the spending cuts imposed on local government – £70 million a year in Waltham Forest – is forcing councils to do things differently. Because, if we don’t do things differently, we can’t do things at all. We can’t salami-slice, as Osborne has done with the cuts to Whitehall departments – all services have to change to remain.
Make no mistake: the speed and depth of the government’s council cuts are wholly wrong. They don’t allow adequate time for councils to prepare and, as most council services are for the most vulnerable, it is the most vulnerable who will pay the highest price. However, as the Black Labour authors rightly point out, the one bright spot is that this forces all parties to show their hands – what are our true priorities?
Those priorities may differ, Labour council by Labour council. However, what is certainly true is that our priorities will differ from those of our opponents. So, in Waltham Forest, we have cut further in some areas so that we can keep all our children’s centres open. Tory Bromley are closing 12 of their 18 children’s centres. That’s priorities for you! And that’s why we should embrace the need to roll back the stone and allow the priorities of all parties to slither out into the sunlight. There is no contradiction or hypocrisy in saying that we believe the cuts are too fast and deep, but accepting that we are where we are, and proudly laying out our priorities.
Yet, because our priorities now cover a much smaller pot of money, we have to reform as well as spend. Waltham Forest children’s centres are being reorganised into a hub-and-spoke model. To make sure that all parents can access all services, the services offered in each centre will have to change. But we should never give the impression that we are grudging reformers. We might fundamentally disagree with the scale and speed of the cuts, but we cannot pass up an opportunity to demonstrate our economic credibility, show off our priorities and give the poorest in our communities the chances that the richest take for granted.
So, a tip of my Santa’s hat to In The Black Labour – I think they are right. We might not like the position we are in, but we cannot deny it. Labour’s local government leaders are already Black Labour, showing how fiscal competence and social justice go hand in hand. We might chafe at the constraints we work under, but we are prioritising and reforming to navigate our residents through these choppy seas. Our leaders in Westminster could do worse than to copy our Black Labour town halls.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
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