From Barnsley Central and a smattering of other local by-elections, one thing has become obvious: support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed. In a general election, the Conservatives would stand to gain the most from a Liberal Democrat demise but at local government level, Labour is likely to be the main beneficiary. A look at any recent opinion poll will also reveal a slump in Conservative support, evidenced by by-election wins such as the one in Wigan Central and swings to Labour from the Conservatives in other contests.
Unless something catastrophic happens to Labour support or public opinion suddenly turns in favour of cuts, there is no reason why the trend of results of recent elections shouldn’t be repeated two months from now at local council elections, to be held on the same day as the AV referendum, 5th May. Some councils will be up for election in thirds, others in their entirety, but, in all, 36 Metropolitan Borough Councils, 194 second-tier councils and 49 unitary authorities are going to the polls. That could translate into an awful lot of new Labour councillors. Potentially, Labour could gain overall control of councils such as Birmingham, which is currently being led by another ConDem coalition.
This is, of course, a good thing, but there is a problem: ask any Labour councillor what motivated them to become one. The Labour Party is a broad church, so the answers will be quite varied. One answer, however, that you definitely won’t get is ‘to administer Tory cuts’. Yet every single Labour councillor that May 5th creates, will, at some point, have to vote on a budget that will involve cuts, forced upon the council they are a member of by Eric Pickles. Obviously Labour councils will do more to protect services and jobs than Tory ones. While Labour-controlled Ealing is doing everything it can to maintain Children’s Services at their present level, Tory-controlled Westminster is looking for ways to outlaw homeless people; but the cuts are so deep there is very little room to manoeuvre and even the most meticulously prepared budget that does everything to mitigate as many cuts as possible is nothing more than a damage-limitation exercise. This is why it is of the highest importance that we put the message out that these are Tory cuts.
The last time local government was subjected to such heavy cuts was in the early 1980s. Councillors had different powers in those days: when a government grant to a council was cut, the council was able to increase rates on businesses. As such, those able to pay higher taxes did so, and the money was used to pay for services that would otherwise have to be cut. Of course, Margaret Thatcher, in her determination to shrink the state, created rate-capping, limiting how much councils could raise. Some councils tried to defy rate-capping, passing illegal budgets in a attempt to maintain services. They failed. Those responsible were surcharged and ended up out of office. Everywhere else, services were cut.
Eventually rates were replaced with the hugely unpopular poll tax, which hastily gave way to the present system: council tax. Unlike rates, council tax is based on the value of the home that the council tax payer lives in, not on their ability to pay. It does not bring in very much money which is why council’s rely so heavily on the government grants that Pickles has taken an axe to. Council tax too is subject to a government cap, so it cannot be raised to the extent needed to sustain vital services and like VAT, any raise would hit the poorest hardest. This is how Labour councils have ended up with no choice but to make cuts. Were a council to approve an illegal budget, their Chief Executive could over-rule councillors and submit a legal one. These days, even if a councillor wanted to be an anti-cuts martyr, they couldn’t be. There’s just no point in it.
The thing is, few people outside the sphere of politics are aware of the minutiae of local government finance and working people – those who rely mostly on services provided by councils – are frightened. Osborne and Cameron have managed to get their narrative, that cutting as quickly and deeply as they are is completely necessary, as the widely-accepted truth. The cost of living is going up, petrol is creeping up to near an eye-watering £6 a gallon, benefits such as tax credits are being cut and in the event of losing a job, finding a new one quickly is extremely difficult. It is these people who are protesting against cuts… outside Labour town halls.
If we do not do enough to make it known to people that we are having to administer cuts we are not responsible for making, then we risk being cobbled together with the Conservative and Lib Dems as a mainstream party that advocates cuts. This could create a resurgence in support for the extremist parties (or its more socially-accepted forms) that Labour activists have been fighting so hard against in recent years. Obviously it isn’t helpful when, at a budget meeting, a Labour councillor shouts ‘Blairite and proud of it’ to a packed public gallery of demonstrators who he has just labelled as ‘Trot chumps’. This does not sent out the right message to people and divides our movement at a time when we need to stick together to fight cuts.
After the relative comfort of thirteen years of Labour rule, the Conservatives, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, are creating the conditions that makes is easy to divide and conquer those who oppose them: the people who rely on the services that are now being cut. People now know that the Liberal Democrats are not a progressive force; only Labour and the trade unions are left to fight their corner and if we do not hammer home the message that cuts being made by Labour councils are being forced on them by the Tory government, we run a serious risk of losing the support we need to oust Cameron.