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

December 20, 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 Give Londoners more control over Transport for London

    Give Londoners more control over Transport for London

    Transport for London is London’s biggest and arguably least accountable quango. Bossed by the Mayor, in practice it is answerable to no one in London apart from him. Londoners have virtually no say in what it does. Fares go up with Londoners having no chance to stop them, never mind reduce them, while vanity projects such as a plan for an estuary airport, on which a royal ransom has been spent, and a cable car that carries few passengers, are […]

    Read more →
  • News Danczuk/Farage photo sparks new defection concerns

    Danczuk/Farage photo sparks new defection concerns

    This is what page 9 of today’s Sun looks like (h/t @DavidWooding):   It appears that Rochdale Labour MP Simon Danczuk – no stranger to strident views on Ed Miliband or party policy – met Nigel Farage for a few beers last week. And despite the encounter taking place far from the prying eyes of Westminster, it seems they were entirely coincidentally photographed by The Sun… Their meeting has obviously raised concerns that Danczuk might defect to UKIP – he’s […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Growing the economy outside London

    Growing the economy outside London

    This article is from Our Labour, Our Communities – a pamphlet of 10 essays by Labour PPCs, published by LabourList in partnership with Lisa Nandy MP. All politicians believe (or claim to believe) in certain things, from regional devolution to a welfare policy that works. However when it comes to stepping up and making the big changes that may lead to less power in Westminster (or an unpopular decision) that conviction wavers. Over the next ten years our leaders will decide what […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Labour moves into seven point poll lead with Opinium

    Labour moves into seven point poll lead with Opinium

    After a mixed (at best) week of polling for Labour, the year may be ending on a high note, with Opinium’s poll for the Observer putting the party seven points ahead of the Tories. In the past month (including the period since the Autumn Statement) Labour’s vote share has increased from 34 points to 36, whilst the Tories are unchanged on 29 points. In terms of leadership ratings, Cameron still leads – but the gap is narrowing. Whilst the Labour […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Educating Labour: We need a school system that will deliver equity as well as excellence   

    Educating Labour: We need a school system that will deliver equity as well as excellence  

    Should Labour win the next general election its new Education Secretary will inherit a school system that has been subject to significant ‘diversification’ and ‘structural reform’ since 2010. The key question for many Labour members and supporters is should a new Labour government continue with this focus on system-wide reform or put its efforts and resources into teaching and learning programmes that are proven to raise standards? The past 50 years of school reform in England shows us that the […]

    Read more →