You don’t have to look far to see the harsh impact of Tory cuts. Every day it seems there is a tragedy reported in the news: a woman committing suicide because she couldn’t find the £20 a week she needed to pay the Bedroom Tax; or hundreds of food banks springing up across the country. And while the cuts are hitting everyone (apart from the super-rich), the worst is being felt by the already most disadvantaged in society, disabled people and women in abusive relationships for instance.
But just when it feels like all politicians are out to destroy the support services we need most, one recent development restores faith in elected official. Councillors Against the Cuts is an inspirational group founded earlier this year by councillors, primarily but not exclusively Labour, who have committed to vote against passing on Tory cuts. They rightly argue that their role as councillors is not to administer austerity but to join with their local communities in fighting back.
A similar strategy was carried out by some Labour councils under Thatcher’s government, for instance Clay Cross in Derbyshire. They set ‘needs budgets’ – illegal budgets which did not balance and required a cash injection from central government to work. The Tory government responded by trying to send in civil servants to take control of parts of the council, for instance housing, and by fining and even jailing the councillors. Since then the laws have changed so that councillors cannot be jailed, preventing them from being martyred, all that Westminster can do to respond is try to administer the cuts centrally – a job that’s much more easier said than done, for reasons outlined below.
This is where the main opponents to Councillors Against Cuts rest their arguments: that it’s better that progressive councillors cut in ‘friendly’ ways than that a Whitehall bureaucrat makes cuts with no concern for the consequences. I don’t buy it, for two reasons.
First, I think this entirely misses the point of what politics is for. Local politics should be more than bureaucracy and a long list of places where it’d be nice to have a cycling lane. It should be about defending communities and pushing for a better world. When we elect local councillors on progressive manifestos they have a mandate to fight for it. And when central government (particularly one with such an astoundingly weak mandate) pushes down on them they should push back! Refusing to implement cuts is part of building a movement. Just think of the response that community groups would have to an unelected civil servant coming in to over-rule their democratically elected representatives. Councillors taking a stand like this would help to energise and revitalise the fight against austerity, making the Tories think harder before they push even more grotesque policies on the most disadvantaged in society. The public opposition to this could make it incredibly difficult for the civil servant to do their job and it could seriously damage the government’s public approval ratings.
Second, I don’t think that it will even make much difference who’s making the cuts. The cuts we’re talking about here are colossal. If they were smaller then there might be a weak argument that they could be made without affecting public services, but that’s so far from the truth that no one is even trying to say so. The size of the Department for Communities and Local Government has been cut by 60% – you can’t make those kinds of cuts by just getting rid of some office plants. No, council budgets can only be balanced by massive cuts to public services. And the councils in the most deprived areas are being expected to cut harder and faster than those in more affluent areas. It doesn’t matter who’s making the cuts, the harm is still the same.
I have submitted a motion to this Monday’s NEC (see below) which calls for NUS to support the Councillors Against Cuts and support students’ unions in lobbying councillors to not pass on cuts to public services. It also resolves to identify any NUS officers who sit on local councils and support them in leading on this issue on their councils.
Students and students’ unions do great work in their communities, and great work lobbying their local politicians. I want NUS to provide more support to unions who want to defend their local services, and I think this motion is a good start.
I’d be really interested to hear people’s views on this, and look forward to NEC (hopefully) passing it on Monday.
Motion: Councillors Against the Cuts
Submitted by: James McAsh
Seconded by: Marc McCorkell, Gordon Maloney, Rosie Huzzard
1. The establishment of a national network of councillors committed to voting against cuts and agitating for councils to refuse to implement cuts – Councillors Against the Cuts.
2. That in June CAC received the overwhelming support of Unison’s Local Government national delegate conference and it will now have official Unison backing.
1. That there is no need for cuts to jobs and services. There is plenty of money in society – it is just in the wrong hands.
2. That the Labour leadership should take its lead from Labour councillors who are fighting the cuts rather than saying that cuts need to be made.
3. That councillors should indeed stand in solidarity with trade unions, anti-cuts campaigns and communities fighting to defend jobs and services by voting against and refusing to implement cuts.
1. To support Councillors Against the Cuts and publicise its work.
2. To issue a statement saying this and calling on councillors to vote against cuts and support CAC.
3. To support students’ unions to lobby and put pressure on councillors to vote against cuts and support CAC.
4. To identify NUS Officers and Committee Members who are councillors and encourage them to sign up to CAC and lead on this in their councils.