Thursday, October 15, 2015
Hope in hard times
For all that Corbyn's leadership of Labour brings unaccustomed hope it remains true - at least for those of us who are union activists in public services in the Labour heartland targeted by the second successive Cabinet of millionaires for truly devastating cuts - that these are hard times.
Just this week, for example, I've watched Councillors frozen by the scale of their financial problems jump at shoddy proposals from Council officers without relevant experience or commitment to "save" libraries by closing them.
The tragedy of Lambeth Council's Cabinet meeting this Monday was not that three hundred people were mobilised around a meeting of Labour Councillors in a solidly Labour area - a turnout which only Corbyn himself might hope to exceed and which is otherwise beyond the dreams of our local Labour politicians.
The tragedy was that the mobilisation was against the plans of the Labour Council and that Councillors, instead of placing themselves at the head of their local community in opposition to the political choice of austerity being made at Westminster, chose to position themselves between angry local people and the true object of their anger, preferring to pretend to believe in the drivel served up to them by officers rather than listen to the informed and passionate voices of those who wanted to defend public services.
That particular argument is far from over - and there is time still for Labour in Lambeth to put itself at the head of a progressive consensus in defence of public services (rather than under the feet of both the Government and their opponents in the local community). Services which account for a small proportion of the budget of a local authority can always be saved (or not) as a political choice however dire the budget figures.
However, cuts to high profile local services around which campaigns can be mobilised are just the tip of the iceberg which is tearing through the hull of our public services in the areas of greatest need.
Job cuts of up to 40% in "back office" services for which no one will bring homemade placards to the Town Hall still wreak havoc with the lives of those displaced from their jobs, damaging also those who are left to try to carry on. As job cuts to make budget savings also follow the contours of other Government policies, and of the much spoken of "channel shift" in which local people increasingly find they must access services online or wait an age, so the jobs which are cut are lower paid jobs disproportionately held by women and black workers.
So Councils sincerely proud of their commitment to equality of opportunity find themselves cutting back particularly the jobs of those most likely to face the disadvantages of racism and sexism if and when they are forced out into the Labour market.
Not that everyone is forced of course, some are cajoled in the increasingly common "trawls" for "volunteers" for severance, as whole workforces are asked to gamble between a redundancy payment and an uncertain future.
Watching long serving colleagues weigh up the worth of staying, some of them influenced by the Government's dishonestly proposed "exit payment cap" (which, far from being an attack on "fat cats" is an assault on the statutory rights of career local government officers) is only marginally less distressing than seeing a sixth of a workforce composed of agency workers with no security of employment whatsoever.
There is precious little point in responding to this bleak vista with the simple slogan that "Labour Councils should not make Tory cuts" - that is simply the mantra of those who don't want to peek out from under their blankets at a world in which a socialist leads the Labour Party and would rather insulate themselves from the political developments which do offer us some small hope.
The hope we need in these hard times is hope which we, trade union activists and Labour Party members, need to fashion for ourselves. The thousands who have flooded into the Labour Party this year have not done so because they want clever, competent (or even imaginative) management of austerity "with a human face".
The new Labour Party members - like many of the long standing members - are potential allies for trade unionists trying to hold the line against the carnage of the cuts. We must build this alliance both around specific local campaigns and around the articulation of an alternative vision for local government in the short, medium and long term.
Which will be tough for those of us frequently feeling punch drunk at the horror of it all - but if we want to find hope in these hard times this is what we have to do.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.