Saturday, July 03, 2010

Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark - shared services or shared struggle?

My heart wants to feel good about the news that three Labour Councils are to team up to protect front line services. Local people in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark voted in Labour Councils to protect public services from Tory Cuts. A unified campaign of three Labour Groups, together with the thousands of trade unionists employed in the three boroughs could be a force to be reckoned with.

We could for example, organise mass lobbies of the local surgeries of local MP, and Lib Dem Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes to demand that he stops backing the Coalition’s Cuts. We could organise a march through the three boroughs, from Downham all the way to Westminster Bridge – and then cross the river to take the demand to Parliament that there should be adequate funding for public services in South London.

However I fear that the most likely prescription to protect front line services may be the technocratic and managerial solution of shared services rather than the political solution of shared struggle. It may be that after thirteen years of believing that we were in Government, leading lights in the Party won’t see beyond the duties of their office to their duties to our class.

Shared services appeal to those who want to make savings that they think will not be “cuts” – and there may be scope for genuine economies of scale through public-public co-operation, which should certainly be explored. For example, combining procurement of goods and services between local authorities could increase value for money at no cost to jobs and services.

However, sharing services where that means job cuts will have deflationary implications for local economies as much as this will attack the workers made redundant as a result. This sort of attack will cut across attempts to build political unity between Labour Councils and the local labour movement to take on the Coalition Government.

Another equally likely route to sharing “back office functions” – which could be just as damaging to the building of political alliances against Coalition cuts - is merger of public service agencies within a locality (a la Total Place) of which today’s news from Blackburn of the merger of senior management of health and local government is a recent example.

We know that Lambeth First have been attracted by this possibility also – but we don’t know what they have been up to in the last six months because the last published minutes of a board meeting date from November.

Whilst an argument could be made for putting all locally delivered public services under the authority of elected local Councillors, I cannot see such an argument for unelected and unaccountable Local Strategic Partnerships.

Local electors chose Labour Councillors to run local services. Councillors deliberate in public and their decisions are available for public scrutiny. The same cannot be said of the Local Strategic Partnership.

(Incidentally, regular readers Sid and Doris Blogger will know that I have complained before that if you search the Total Place website for a reference to trade unions it returns no response. Since 24 June this has no longer been true! Now there is one reference to Trade Unions – at day two of the “Total Place summit” some thought was given to a “tool kit for working with trade unions, involve them (workforce issues, single public workforce)” – I think we need to organise as a single public workforce too of course, but not perhaps in quite the same way…)

I have been involved in the politics of Lambeth and its local authority for a quarter of a century. I was living in the borough when the Ted Knight administration took on the Thatcher Government. I supported them then and think today they were right to fight against that appalling reactionary shower. Had Labour local authorities stuck together in 1985 in the struggle against ratecapping there might never have been a third term Tory Government (we shall never know).

However, I think a valid criticism can be made of Lambeth’s Labour administration of the mid 80s that its focus on confrontation with the Government may have taken the attention of Council Members away from improving the delivery of public services in the borough, including the financial management of the local authority. This damaging legacy haunted the borough for at least another ten years – at least until 1997 when the Council launched the largest privatisation in the history of English local government (destined to fail) and tried (and failed) to reduce the conditions of service of its workforce.

The current Lambeth Labour administration may well know more about a clear focus on improving public services (though they could do with applying that focus to Housing…) However, there is a danger that Lambeth’s current Labour Group, in common with their counterparts in Lewisham and Southwark, may be so worried about being identified with the 1980s that they will now ignore the importance of a shared struggle against Tory cuts.

Let’s look at what our leaders say;

Cllr Steve Reed said: “Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark councils all provide many services that are identical, but do we really need to pay twice for separate sets of senior management and back-office support? We need to proactively look at making savings at a time when the Tory/Lib Dem government is making cuts to council funding in order to protect frontline services”

Cllr Peter John said: “Local councils are facing unprecedented cuts from the Tory/Lib Dem Government. We know that we’re going to have to change the way we work to rise to the challenge those cuts present and carry on making the improvements to local services that our residents need. Pulling together with our neighbouring boroughs, which face many of the same challenges we do, promises to deliver some of that change.”

Mayor Sir Steve Bullock said: “We have to seek dramatic improvements in efficiency by working in partnership with our neighbouring Councils, other public services and the private sector. Every pound we can save through efficiency is a pound we can spend on frontline services. I hope this innovative approach can be used as a model across Local Government, rather than a return to slash and burn cuts”

Sorry comrades but none of you get it. If you want to protect public services from the ConDems, you will not do it by saving money, nor by “changing the way we work”. To protect public services we need to bring down this Government – and in inner South London we have an opportunity to apply political pressure to the Coalition’s weakest point.

There’s nothing wrong with improving efficiency – but what working class people in South London need from our Labour Leaders is not just competent management – we need inspirational leadership in a fight against reactionary attacks upon our Welfare State.

Shared services may or may not be a good idea. Shared struggle is what we need – and is what working class voters in South London were asking for on 6 May.

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