By Tom Barker
Fresh rounds of council cuts have added yet more fuel to the humanitarian crisis in Britain’s public services, raising once again the issue of whether or not there is an alternative to Tory austerity.
Labour councils across the country continue to argue that their hands are tied. But, in the trade union movement at least, the conversation around cuts is beginning to challenge this view.
GMB (the UK’s second biggest trade union), the Welsh Trade Union Congress (TUC), and Unite and UNISON’s local government service groups have all already called on Labour councils to oppose Tory cuts by setting legal no cuts budgets.
But in breaking news, Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite – the largest trade union in the country, with a membership of more than 1.3 million people – joined with them in backing calls for Labour councils to fight austerity.
Speaking at a public rally in Leicester last Tuesday, McCluskey stated:
“We have consistently opposed cuts. We have sent out a call to all our Labour Unite councillors that they should oppose cuts…”
“The idea at the moment is that there are huge reserves that Councils have. Particularly in many of the Conservative shires but within Labour Councils as well there are significant amounts of reserves. There is an argument that says that Labour Councils should use those reserves in order to stave off cuts, or certainly the most damaging of cuts, until such time as relief arrives, or until such time as the cavalry arrives over the hill. And we support that.”
This is a massive step forward for the national anti-cuts movement, and will help campaigners to continue to heap pressure on Labour councils who, up until now, have been carrying out cuts with little to no resistance, to stand up for working class people.
But will Labour fight back?
Although at the moment the possibility that Labour councils might actually fight back against the Tories by setting legal no cuts budgets may seem remote, it is important to note how far some of them have already been pushed by the anti-austerity mood that is building across the country.
It would be easy to miss the fact that the attitude of Labour councils toward cuts has undergone a tremendous change over the last few years. Just two years ago, for instance, before the 2015 general election, Labour councillors and MPs were telling us that austerity was inevitable – indeed, the only solution – and that we must “live within our means”.
Even some of Corbyn’s alleged allies in the Parliamentary Labour Party today, such as John Ashworth (MP for Leicester South and Shadow Health Secretary), maintained that there was no alternative to cuts. Writing for Progress, the Blairite faction of the Labour Party, in February 2016, Ashworth stated:
“Our old approach to tackling inequality was just redistributing the proceeds of growth through tax and transfer socialism, but these are neither available nor adequate to meet the scale of the challenge. Unavailable because we have to deal with the deficit and live within our means. Inadequate because just redistribution is no longer enough to compensate for the inequalities a globalised economy spits out.”
But now, with Jeremy Corbyn having twice consolidated his position as the leader of the Labour Party, the tone of the debate has changed decisively. As McCluskey stated at the rally: “No-one in Labour talks about being supportive of austerity anymore. Nobody!”
The question on the lips of trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners today is whether Labour councillors are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Will they oppose cuts in deeds as well as words?
One thing is for sure, the trade union movement is becoming increasingly vocal in its demands for an end to austerity!