On a night on which riot police have had to evict local people from Lewisham Town Hall in Catford, the role of Labour Councils at a time of Tory cuts is moving once more centre-stage.
Labour needs to campaign against the Coalition Government’s cuts and expose the impact upon Council services of their social and economic policies. The Council for which I work is sending both Members and senior officers to give evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees to this effect and are to be commended for doing so.
However, as opposition to the ConDems is increasingly visible on the streets, Labour Councillors, if they cannot bring themselves to put themselves where they belong – in the front rank of the protests – should at least try not to get in the way or oppose the opposition.
Lambeth Leader Steve Reed is right to warn about the deceit of the Coalition parties who will try, wherever they can, to blame Labour Councils for cuts – but is wrong to caricature anti-cuts campaigners as “A couple of supporters of hard-left fringe groups” demanding “a repeat of ‘Red Ted’ Knight’s ruinous illegal budgets of the 1980s.”
Leaving aside the observation that the budgets of the Knight administration up to May 1986 were not “ruinous” and that their only “illegality” was in a failure to set a budget by a certain deadline, the law has – as Steve knows – changed so fundamentally in the past twenty five years that no is – or could – advocate the same tactics today.
It is insufficient to assert goodwill, blame the Tories and trust that a Labour Council can make the cuts less awful (albeit that may be true). Since the interests of local people in areas such as Lambeth (and Lewisham) are best served by either bringing the Coalition Government down or forcing it into a massive “U-turn” we need a political strategy to fight the cuts more than a managerial strategy to implement them.
At a minimum, Labour Councils should surely produce a “needs budget” which shows what we think our communities need their local authority to spend – if only to illustrate the funding shortfall, caused by the Government’s economic policies.
This would enable a meaningful political debate within the Labour Party and the labour movement about what Labour Groups should do, and whether the assumption that it is always better to be in office and never more important to be tribunes of the people is in fact correct.
Trade unionists – like the people who rely upon local services – have no option but to resist the cuts. Labour Councils should be on our side.