No to no-cuts budgets
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, urged Labour councillors not to make cuts during last week’s Ralph Miliband lecture – and went on to ask: what would happen if they did? The context of his question suggests he hoped that this would somehow stop the cuts happening at all. However, the reality of what would happen is very different. Far from cuts being avoided they would happen on a greater scale and without any of the priorities Labour espouses being applied.
Our party rightly celebrates those who make a stand and in this context reference is often made to the actions of councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s and in Clay Cross and Poplar before. But the Tories also know very well how powerful martyrs can be and the law has changed. Today councillors don’t face surcharge or prison if they vote through an illegal budget. What happens is that the council quickly grinds to halt as a great deal of expenditure is frozen.
Eventually an external team arrives with the power to direct or confirm the action of council officers in preventing an overspend and to set a legal budget. Their priority would be saving money, not services. Put another way it will be the appointees of Eric Pickles who are making the decisions not the elected Labour councillors.
It is beyond doubt that local government has suffered more than most at the hands of the Tory austerity programme. But Labour councils across the country have done everything in their power to protect frontline services and ensure that Labour policies and values are upheld.
In Lewisham, we have continued to implement the living wage, kept all 19 of our children’s centres open and started building the first council homes in the borough for 30 years. At a time when our budget is being slashed by £90m we’ve still been able to keep free swimming for under-fives and over-60s, permanently expanded eight primary schools and are about to open our second new leisure centre in the space of two years. All that would stop if we opted for the gesture politics of setting a no cuts budget.
Taking such actions would play straight into the Tories’ hands beyond local government. Refusing to implement the cuts and produce balanced budgets would throw services into disarray and allow Labour to be portrayed as incompetent and irresponsible – we would hear the line that ‘Labour cannot be trusted’ over and over again.
No one elected as a Labour councillor wants to be making savage cuts. However in 2010, when I was re-elected, we were all fully aware that some savings would have to be made, whoever won the general election. Our party went into that election telling voters that cuts were necessary and the two Eds have made it clear that when we return to government in 2015 we cannot promise to overturn any but the worst of the coalition policies immediately.
To suggest that there is a simple way Labour councillors can prevent cuts happening is not only misleading and unfair to councillors but would, if attempted, actually make it less likely that we will see the return of a Labour government which would begin to rebuild our public services.
Steve Bullock is elected mayor of Lewisham
cuts, Labour, Len McCluskey, Lewisham, local government