Gesture politics of the very worst kind

islington town hallBy Mark Ferguson / @markfergusonuk

It’s easy to yell and shout while others make difficult and unpleasant decisions. It’s easy to throw around insults, and call those tasked with impossible choices “traitors” and Tories.

That’s what happened last night at Islington Council’s budget meeting.

Worse still, those who chose to jeer from the public gallery forced a democratic meeting to be suspended and moved to another room, such was the level of disruption caused.

So what were these anti-cuts warriors protesting against last night? Were they attacking the coalition government for the painful cuts inflicted on local councils from Whitehall?

No. They were attacking Labour councillors for having the audacity to protect local people against even further destruction by passing a legal budget.

There was a time when the penalty for failing to pass a legal budget fell upon councillors themselves. They were the ones who would bear the brunt of the legal action. They would be the ones who would martyr themselves. They would be the heroes of the hard left.

To attempt this today though would be the worst kind of gesture politics. Futile and best, and downright destructive and harmful at worst.

A council that failed to pass a legal budget now would lose control over the finances of the local authority. Decision making would pass to unelected bureaucrats – or worse Eric Pickles – who wouldn’t be bound by the priorities and manifesto pledges of those who had been democratically elected. If you believe that cuts delivered by Eric Pickles would be less damaging – or equiavalent – to those which Labour councillors are forced to deal out, then you have clearly exited the realm of reality.

The impact a “Pickles budget” would have on local people would be brutal. The Tories have no need to pander to the voters of Islington, Lambeth, Gateshead or Lewisham. The Tories in these boroughs are a minority party – an irrelevance. Retribution against such councils were they to break the law and refuse to pass a budget would be swift and painful. Worse, it is possible that such councils would lose the right to collect council tax, making the situation worse still.

It is the poor and vulnerable, those who Labour councillors are seeking to protect with a “dented shield” that would be hit hardest.

Those who would attack Labour councillors for the decisions which they are forced to make by central government are really just behaving in a style similar to the “useful idiots“. Eric Pickles, David Cameron and George Osborne want hard line anti-cuts activists to attack Labour in local government. They want the refrain “they’re all to blame/they’re all the same” to be heard across the country, precisely because it’s not true and it allows them to get off scot free. It also allows Lib Dem and Tory councillors to evade scrutiny of what their party is responsible for.

Before I started working on LabourList I worked for Islington Labour as a local organiser. No doubt that experience has coloured my views. Yet I’m proud of the Labour councillors that I know up and down the country who are working tirelessly to mitigate the damage that central government is raining down upon our communities, and I’m proud of every single moment I spent helping to elect a Labour council that is doing its upmost to defend local people

No-one becomes a local councillor to cut public services, and no-one who becomes a local councillor should have to put up with such abuse for trying to defend local people. To think or act otherwise is to play into the hands of those who are really responsible – the Conservative government.

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