When Eric Pickles was in his mid-30s, in 1988, he became leader of Bradford Council. Cllr Pickles’ rise to the civic leadership of one of the great northern cities was not the result of some great electoral surge in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. At the time, just three years after the miners’ strike, Thatcher was not all that popular in Yorkshire. Pickles became leader after putting a Tory in as Mayor, thus giving the Tories a majority of one. Despite not winning an election outright, the Tories launched a programme of cuts to the council, slashing £50m from the budget and sacking one third of the staff, putting thousands of Bradford citizens on the dole. It was dubbed the ‘Bradford Revolution’.
Now, why did he do it? It was not because of some great financial crisis which required such sado-monetarism. It was because Pickles believes in a small state, lower taxes, and lower public spending. He joined the Conservative Party in 1979, not through family tradition or an idle lack of imagination, but because he was a Thatcherite. There’s nothing ignoble about that. He’s an ideological Tory, a small-state revolutionary in the Thatcher and Reagan mould. He’s read his Trotsky. He understands that revolution should be permanent, and the need for dramatic political acts.
We shouldn’t be too surprised that he’s taken the axe both to his own government department and to local government. He’s doing it because he wants to. The Communities and Local Government (CLG) department has been cut by 44%. The open-plan floors of Eland House are filled with empty desks and vacant chairs. The keyboards lie idle. Whole projects have been scrapped. It’s like the opening scenes of 28 Days Later.
Yesterday, the Pickles revolution spread to the town halls. When Pickles planned the Bradford revolution, he drew up contingency plans for an all-out local government workers’ strike. Then, as now, Pickles is not a politician overly bothered by public opinion. The cuts he announced yesterday will hit the poorest areas hardest, with Labour-run towns and cities in the front line. Liverpool city council is facing a cut of 6.2% in its spending in 2014/15, while Mole Valley in Tory Surrey will get an increase of 0.55% The six places facing the biggest cuts are Barrow, Bolsover, Hastings, Burnley, Hyndburn, and Pendle. The great cities – Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds and Birmingham – will be laying off their workers, closing libraries and squeezing social services. Some will see cuts of nearly 9%.
Pickles’ cuts will kill stone dead any Tory recovery in the north. The front pages of today’s Liverpool Echo, Newcastle Journal and Manchester Evening News are laced with anti-government outrage. There is a real danger that the British cities which enjoyed a renaissance under Labour, will slip back into the urban wastelands of the 1980s, with the unemployed centres, homeless teenagers and soup kitchens. Pickles is rebuilding, brick by brick, the North-South divide.
What should Labour’s response be? In the 1980s, faced with similar cuts, Labour’s response was divided between the revolutionary defeatists, (Liverpool and Lambeth) and the soft-left realists (Sheffield, Manchester, the GLC) who advanced the idea of the ‘dented shield’. This meant that Labour groups implemented cuts, but protected the most vulnerable as far as possible.
This time round, there are few town hall revolutionaries. The Trots are largely absent. Instead, there are sensible Labour councillors working hard to protect their communities. Their first duty is to reduce any waste and inefficiency. Eric Pickles’ department issued Fifty Sensible Savings yesterday. The timing and tone of the document will send blood-pressures soaring in most Labour groups, but it does contain some useful ideas. I’ve always argued that councils’ artworks held in storage could be put to better use. Of course, opportunities to generate extra revenue should be exploited such as coffee shops in libraries. But the amounts are negligible compared to the scale of Pickle’s cuts, and most councils have been doing this stuff for years. Even Starbucks can’t make that much from selling coffee.
The second duty is to turn their town halls into centres of resistance. Part of the Coalition’s political strategy is to force councils to take on the responsibility for cuts, in the hope they will take the blame. It’s no accident the cuts fall hardest in Labour areas, and least in Tory ones. Labour councillors must ensure through argument and campaigning that it is government ministers who get the blame. In Sheffield for example, the primary culprit is not council leader Julie Dore, but local MP Nick Clegg. As in the 1980s, the Tories must be wiped out in the northern cities, and this time they should take their Lib Dem collaborators with them.
The third, and most important duty of Labour councillors is to be radical. They must take Rahm Emanuel’s advice and not let a serious crisis go to waste. The financial crisis can be an opportunity to look again at the function of local government. Aside from the statutory services, councillors should ask what needs to be done by the town hall, and what can be done by co-operatives, community councils, and the third sector? In Lambeth, the ‘co-operative council’ model shows the way for the rest of local government.
This is a million miles from the ‘Big Society’, which as Cameron admitted in PMQs yesterday, is all about charity replacing the welfare state as the safety net for the poorest and vulnerable. Instead, it is about the transfer of assets to community co-ops, a revival in genuine grassroots democracy and workers’ participation, and co-authorship of services. We can re-invent the local state, and build our electoral coalition at the same time.
If Eric Pickles wants a revolution, we should give him one.