Sunday, November 30, 2014
The Labour movement and the future of local government
After a very relaxing week away I return to prophecies of doom from the political leaders of English local government.
Having made savings of 40% in this Parliament, our leaders say that efficiency savings are coming to an end. They warn against "further reductions" without "radical reform" (although how precisely one reforms a pint pot so that it can hold a quart is not made clear).
The timing and content of the letter published in today's Observer suggests that some form of devolution may be the twenty first alchemy which will transmute the base metal of inadequate funding into the pure gold of decent public services.
Whilst I am doubtful that there are constitutional solutions to economic problems, it is nevertheless remarkable that a layer of important leaders of all main political parties will join together to warn of the consequences of the policies of deliberate austerity which will be advocated (to a greater or lesser degree) by the national leaders of all those parties in next year's General Election.
In fairness, the national leaders of the political parties ought to pay attention to those of their colleagues who (unlike most Members of Parliament) are responsible for running important services and directing public expenditure - but I wouldn't hold out much hope that this correspondence will shake the hold of the consensus in favour of austerity which holds both Front Benches in its thrall.
Within the Labour Party - and wider labour movement - this ought to be the moment to renew the debate which some of us tried to have a few years ago about alternatives to compliance with austerity policies in local government.
We tried and failed. Within the Labour Party the brave and principled handful of Councillors who were prepared to vote against savage reductions in services they had been elected to deliver and protect were marginalised, disciplined and - in some cases - expelled.
Within UNISON, the Standing Orders Committee for our Local Government Conference ruled out even discussion of advocacy of approaches which didn't include setting a balanced budget (on the risible grounds that such a discussion might somehow place our trade union in legal jeopardy).
It is not always true that our union's policies or behaviour are dictated by our relationship with the Labour Party (and those who believe that therefore sometimes struggle to comprehend the behaviour and motivation of our leaders).
However, on the question of local government finance the attitude of most of those in leading positions, locally and nationally, in both the industrial and political wings of the movement has been shaped in recent years by an over riding concern with the electorate's presumed perception of the "economic competence" of a future Labour Government.
On the assumption that advocacy of any alternative to compliance, by Labour authorities, with Coalition policies of austerity, would have enabled Daily Mail leader writers successfully to shred the reputation of the Opposition Front Bench, we have stood by (as Labour Party members and trade unionists) and watched tens of thousands of redundancies and the related closures and reductions in services.
Some Labour authorities - sometimes under pressure from local trade unions - have done their best to limit damage and to pursue progressive policies in a harsh environment but the political wing of the labour movement has not presented a national alternative to the social and economic vandalism of the Coalition.
Nor, for that matter, has the industrial wing of our movement made any serious attempt to use such strength as we may have to mount a national challenge to the generalised implementation of Government economic policy by our employers. We have done nothing nationally to prevent cuts locally and have not stood in the way of local retreats on conditions of service.
Our one chance to take on and defeat the Coalition Government in this Parliament was squandered in December 2011 by a deliberate retreat from the defence of public service pensions choreographed from the Euston Road. If local government workers could console ourselves that the particular nature of the Local Government Pension Scheme had protected us from the worst of that attack, we know now that our national trade unions are currently unwilling or unable to protect our living standards in a national pay dispute.
We are reduced to pleading with local authorities to raise up the living standards of the lowest paid of our colleagues by means which do not rely upon our collective strength and organisation - such as the living wage or the ethical care charter (just as those local authorities are today reduced to pleading with the Government to relent from imposing further cuts upon them).
In these desperate circumstances I am pleased to have returned to news of the success of the call for a Special Local Government Conference initiated by our Manchester branch.
We need to begin to rebuild a trade union capable of waging a national dispute in local government just as we need a labour movement with a vision for local government which transcends today's cross party plea for sympathy.
I'm not sure precisely what we need to do to achieve either of these objectives (and I wouldn't be too inclined to believe anyone who was sure right now) - but it's clear we need the sort of honest discussion which, at least in relation to pay, Manchester's Special Conference requisition directs us to.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.