Thursday, May 19, 2011

Parallel roads to socialism?

Never afraid to hold unfashionable views, I believe that Labour Councils should refuse to implement Tory cuts.

I believe in UNISON's alternative budget - and therefore believe that there is no economic need for public spending cuts which do devastating social harm.

Since the deficit does not need to be reduced at the expense of those who rely upon public services (nor those who provide them) I think that UNISON should resist every cut.

It must follow from this that we call upon elected representatives not to make cuts. Except that we can't - or at least, that seems to be the national "line" (though I am not aware of any Conference policy which would support the views of our national officials).

It was today reported to the London Region Local Government Executive that the Head of Local Government had reported to the National Joint Council (NJC) Committee that we should encourage local authorities to draw up the budgets they would like to be implementing.

Rather than calling these "needs" budgets, these are now to be known as parallel budgets and - whilst we should press for them to be drawn up - we should certainly not campaign for their implementation, or so the Committee was reportedly told.

This somewhat confusing approach is consistent with the decisions of the Standing Orders Committees (SOCs) for both Local Government and National Delegate Conference to rule out of order motions - reflecting the policy of UNISON's Scottish Council - which called for UNISON to support elected representatives refusing to set "cuts" budgets.

The esteemed members of the SOCs have concluded that UNISON could be at risk of litigation from some unknown third party were we to call upon local Councillors to take action which would not even expose them to any risk of legal action!

If Councillors refused to set a balanced budget (because they found the requisite savaging of public services at the behest of the Tory Government unacceptable) they would find that their Chief Finance Officer would put a block on all discretionary spending until a Council meeting had taken place to consider her (or his) report on the matter. Were they to refuse to follow officers' advice such restrictions - and further meetings - could be repeated ad nauseam.

Ultimately, Councillors might find that the Government dug out legal powers to circumvent their opposition and implement cuts but - unlike in the 1980s when Councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool preferred to take risks themselves rather than impose those risks on the working people who had elected them - there would be no threat of surcharge.

Nevertheless, UNISON's SOCs have concluded that were our trade union to offer support to politicians refusing to make cuts we could be at risk of legal action. Some might think this an obviously implausible justification for a blatantly political decision not to permit our Conferences to have debates, the outcomes of which might embarrass the Labour leadership. I however know that UNISON SOCs just don't work that way and would never make such a suggestion. (Although I do question whether such decisions are truly consistent with Rule P).

What may be more troubling for our Union is the decision of the SOC for National Delegate Conference to rule out of order an amendment intending to promote precisely the policy of parallel budgets being advocated by our national officials. The SOC appear to have concluded that such an approach is either an attempt to pursue the "needs budget" approach by the back door, or that it is hopelessly confusing and therefore not competent.

Of course the only point of a parallel budget is to provide a campaigning tool for activists to frame demands upon politicians nationally and locally. A needs budget (or a "parallel" budget) is a basis to lobby Whitehall or Westminster for more resources - but it is also a tool to use to persuade decent Councillors to vote for the needs of their constituents rather than subordinating those needs to the financial restrictions imposed by central government.

It may be that we do need to decide whether we are against the cuts or not. If we are then we should oppose cuts and call upon politicians not to implement them. If we're not then we should pack up and go home.

At the very least, we must be able, at our policy-making Conferences, to debate the full range of options for UNISON policy in relation to public spending cuts, including the eminently reasonable and responsible position of our Scottish Council - that we should support politicians who refuse to make cuts.

Anyone who thinks that they are helping the Labour Party by preventing such a debate within the largest trade union should have a quick look at the recent Scottish election results. The trade unions need to rescue the Party from itself - from the dregs of Blairism polluting its upper reaches. We cannot do that if we won't permit ourselves even to debate the full range of policy and campaiging options.

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