If Eric Pickles wants a revolution, we should give him one

20th December, 2012 2:50 pm

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.

  • Andrew

    Please explain why cuts in the public sector must lead to “the urban wastelands of the 1980s, with the unemployed centres, homeless teenagers and soup kitchens”. If there is no private sector generating wealth, then necessarily this will be the result. The public sector has the opposing effect, unless you still seriously believe you can borrow your way to prosperity!!!!!

  • Amber_Star

    Instead, it is about the transfer of assets to community co-ops.

    ———————
    Co-ops are a very desirable alternative to irresponsible or unethical corporations but if the co-ops are groups of private citizens they should not be gifted ownership of public assets. The assets should be leased to the co-ops for a ‘peppercorn’ rent with appropriate conditions attached to the lease.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    While I agree with most of this article I would say that down here in the South of England there are plenty of people suffering and the biggest rise in activity is in the food-banks. As Labour, we really need to get through to the electorate down here in the South as well.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    I didn’t really want to see Scottish independance, but if I lived in Scotland and could see the Tory hatchet swinging at my public sector in a land where few vote for the Conservatives then I would want to be independant.
    The Tories are all about divide and rule, and they are really keen to destroy bodies such as local councils and trade unions who offer the ability for people to come together to oppose them.

  • Dave Postles

    Yes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    Some of the proposals are plain daft. Coffee shops in libraries not only make a loss, but also take trade from the High street, which is in opposition to other aspects of government policy

Latest

  • Comment The Blairites don’t know why they’ve lost control of the Labour party

    The Blairites don’t know why they’ve lost control of the Labour party

    If there’s a lesson from the Labour leadership contest, it is that most of its MPs have lost control of the party. Daily pleas from senior MPs to members to choose someone “electable” i.e. not Jeremy Corbyn) seem to be falling on deaf ears. A full scale insurgency is in effect. Blairites sound even more disorientated. Last week the Independent’s John Rentoul blamed Ed Miliband for Corbyn’s rise, claiming that while he was leader, “the party chose as candidates a […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Unison back Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader

    Unison back Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader

    Unison have announced that they will be backing Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership. The union has nearly 1.3million members. It has said that this is just a recommendation and that individual union members who sign up to vote as should vote for whichever candidate that think is best. They have said that Yvette Cooper is their second choice. Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall are also in the running to be Labour’s next leader. Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis explained […]

    Read more →
  • News 23 council leaders pen statement endorsing Caroline Flint

    23 council leaders pen statement endorsing Caroline Flint

    The leaders of 23 Labour councils have publicly endorsed Caroline Flint’s campaign for deputy leader today. In a statement, the local government leaders praise the Shadow Energy Secretary for her “radical ideas” and “track record of working in partnership with local government”. The signatories include leaders of some of the biggest councils in London, the North West, North East and Yorkshire. Flint finished second in the MPs’ nominations, and is a close third behind Stella Creasy in CLP nominations – […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Forget vacuous ‘One Nation’ – Labour is missing a global vision

    Forget vacuous ‘One Nation’ – Labour is missing a global vision

    Many things have been written so far about the Labour leadership debate, but one thing that most people agree on is that it has been far from visionary. At exactly the time when people in Labour need to lift our sights and look to the future we seem to be chained to the past, caught debating spending decisions in 2006 rather than mapping out a future for 2020 and beyond. George Osborne’s latest budget pushed the right buttons to ensure […]

    Read more →
  • Comment It’s absurd that people registering to vote in the leadership contest say they might not vote Labour

    It’s absurd that people registering to vote in the leadership contest say they might not vote Labour

    A bit of a hornets nest has been stirred up by my suggestion that those who didn’t vote Labour at the last election shouldn’t get a vote in the Labour leadership. A majority of those who have contacted me to disagree are explicit that having registered for £3, they will not vote Labour if either of the other three candidates win. Some democracy this. For those who have slogged their guts out for Labour for years to discover that people […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit