Saturday, June 30, 2012

The crisis facing (Labour) Councils

The great and the good in local government are right to be worried (

Our local authorities face long term increases in demand for services founded upon demography, a medium term challenge to financial stability arising from changes to local government finance and the benefits system, and a short term threat of further reductions in funding.

Local Councils are always most at risk from a Government hell-bent on cuts, because Ministers take less political heat for cutbacks for which locally elected politicians have to take responsibility. Those in local government currently patting each others backs for having managed to make savage cuts thus far without financial meltdown ought perhaps to reflect upon the fact that their lauded "financial competence" makes them an easier target for further disproportionate savings in the next spending round.

The latest hope (though hardly new) is the chimera of shared services, currently being pursued (in London) in the various guises of the "Tri-Borough" and "Project Athena". Councillors desperate to believe that they can make deep cuts whilst protecting "front-line services" are investing in a variety of dogs' breakfasts in the hope that economies of scale will deliver them from their torment. This (as readers in the South West will know) is a triumph of hope over experience.

Meanwhile at the "front-line" local authorities are tail-ending Cameron's "Big Society" privatisation project (even when rebranding it as "co-operative") and hoping against hope that local people themselves will somehow square the circle and enable Councillors to claim credit for the delivery of better services with fewer resources.

For Labour Councils, in the run up to the next General Election, the Coalition Government have erected two well-signposted bear traps between which they find themselves caught.

On the one-hand (and this is the trap the Councillors see all too clearly) Labour in local government fears that, if it can be accused of being imprudent or wasteful, this will hinder the electoral prospects of the "two Eds" at Westminster. Particularly in some parts of Inner London, where certain Labour politicians have never moved on from the personal trauma of the inner-Party strife of the late 80s, there is a folk memory (which is not correct) of electoral damage done to Neil Kinnock in 1987 by tales of the "loony left."

The other bear trap, which appears less well understood in Labour Groups, is the grave risk that, by acting as the agents of a Tory-led Government to deliver damaging spending cuts which have increased rather than reduced the deficit, we will compound the disillusionment amongst Labour supporters which was what lost Labour the last General Election.

As a Tory Government in office becomes less popular, more and more Councils fall to Labour. If these Councils implement Tory-mandated spending cuts (as they are) this provokes either strife or despair. There is a contradiction, in these circumstances, between being efficient administrators of the local state and being leaders of the local working class.

This contradiction is reflected in the inevitability of conflict between Labour Councils and trade unionists who refuse to engage in "concession bargaining" or the surrender of conditions of service won for us by those before us.

The resolution of the contradiction, which would enable Labour Councils to navigate a path between the two bear traps, would require a change of approach at the top of both wings of the labour movement. We need a political leadership which will chart a clear anti-cuts, anti-austerity path and an industrial leadership which is prepared to use trade union power for political ends, uniting all those suffering in these worst times we can remember.

Absent these two necessary conditions we're left with bitter damage limitation and attempts to slow the continuing descent into social disintegration.

But then (as regular readers Sid and Doris Blogger will appreciate) you don't get to the end of a post on this blog expecting to have been cheered up!

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