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Perspectives for Britain 2017
Perspectives for Britain 2017
35. The retreats by Corbyn have immediate and practical consequences on the lives of millions. In particular, it has meant, up until now, that Labour councils are continuing to implement brutal austerity without one word of criticism from Labour's anti-austerity leadership. Since 2010 local government spending has shrunk by a massive 40%. This has disproportionately affected poorer, and therefore predominantly Labour, areas. Labour councils are implementing savage austerity. Inevitably, this undermines Labour's claim to be opposing austerity in the minds of millions of people. When he first stood for the Labour leadership Jeremy Corbyn called on Labour councils to stand together and refuse to implement cuts. Since his election, however, the right - terrified that councils would come under pressure to act against austerity - have successfully got opposition to 'illegal budgets' enshrined in the Labour Party's constitution. They endlessly repeat the mantra - their only defence - that councils have no choice but to implement Tory cuts. Unfortunately, this myth has not been challenged by the left Labour leadership. It is urgent that they start to clearly oppose the brutal austerity being carried out by Labour councils at local level. Most recently Newham Labour council has announced plans to tear up its workers contracts, sacking them and then re-employing them on worse terms and conditions. Doing so would take £1.8 million out of the pockets of Newham's workforce. Yet the council has £161 million in its general reserves!
36. Many Labour councils are increasing their reserves at the same time as they are massacring vital local services. For example, the 58 Labour-led councils which had elections in May 2016 have, between them, £4.5 billon in useable general reserves. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell should make an immediate call on councils not to make cuts and pledge that a Labour government would replace any reserves local authorities use in order to do so. The same Labour-led councils have sufficient capital reserves, for example, to legally undertake prudential borrowing to build 100,000 council homes in the next financial year. Such measures would be extremely popular and could result in Labour winning a victory at a general election.
37. Of course it is true that councils would not be able to set legal budgets indefinitely by using reserves and prudential borrowing powers. However, doing so would be a vital first step in a campaign of mass defiance to demand the funding needed from central government. Many councils are already breaking numerous laws because they have made cuts to public services which they are statutorily obliged to provide! Far better to build a mass movement behind a no-cuts budget. Given the right-wing caste that make up the vast majority of Labour councils even a clear call for no cuts budgets by Jeremy Corbyn would not have resulted in large numbers of councils making a stand. It is much more likely that one or two councils would fight alone, at least initially. Many would still have the reserves to be able to set legal no cuts budgets initially and use their stand as a platform to mobilise a movement in their support.
38. Contrary to the scaremongering of the Labour right wing, the legal powers that the Tories could use against Labour councils which set illegal budgets are weaker now than they were in the 1980s. The right to surcharge councillors, for example, was abolished in 2000. The worst that could happen to individual councillors is that they could be removed from office for up to five years. But this would trigger by-elections - in which new anti-austerity Labour council candidates could be elected. It is true that the Secretary of State has the reserve powers to appoint commissioners to take over specific council functions. However, this would be a protracted process - 18 months in the case of Tower Hamlets - and would be very politically difficult for the government if a council was mobilising popular support in a national campaign against the cuts.
39. The need for councils that fight the cuts is increasingly urgent. The Tories have a conscious strategy to destroy effective local government. The removal of the Revenue Support Grant is turning the clock back to the days before the heroic struggle of the Poplar councillors, when local councils were entirely reliant on local fundraising. They are pushing councils in the direction of the 'easy Council' model; where the council contracts out the vast majority of services to private companies; acting primarily to organise the tenders. If anti-cuts councillors were to take a majority in such a council they would face an immediate struggle to bring services back under democratic local control; kicking out the profiteers.
40. Over the winter of 2016-17, more than 23 hospitals declared a Black Alert, meaning that their A&E departments were unable to guarantee patient safety. As the axe continues to be swung with the introduction of STPs, we can expect this situation to worsen. The NHS remains a much-beloved institution, the strongest unambiguous gain of the working class in the post-war upswing, and it can very easily become a focal point for working class resistance and anger. This was demonstrated by the mass support for the junior doctor's strikes and the building of the March the 4th demonstration, very much in spite of the inaction of trade union bureaucracies. It is vital that the momentum that drove the March the 4th demonstration is not allowed to dissipate. Coordinated regional campaigns and mobilisations, united with the option of strike action by health workers, should be built with a clear platform calling for an end to and reversal of all the cuts and privatisations of the NHS.