Ideas from Labour's past not to revisit #1
This is number one in what might turn out to be a depressingly long series of posts pointing out which ideas tried last time we were in opposition we shouldn't revisit (unless we want to be out of power for 18 years this time too).
First up is Daniel Blaney (CND Vice-Chair), mulling over very thoughtfully the idea that Labour Councils might vote for illegal budgets, http://www.labourlist.org/daniel-blaney-should-labour-councils-pass-illegal-budgets, a strategy last attempted in the rate-capping rebellion of 1985 by Lambeth and Liverpool (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rate-capping_rebellion) and endorsed by the LRC at its Conference last Saturday.
This is superficially attractive as a way of avoiding Labour councillors being politically implicated in cutting services, or morally compromised.
Here, however, is why this is an idea that shouldn't even be mulled over thoughtfully, but dismissed out of hand:
- There isn't a moral requirement on Labour councils who are the victims of Eric Pickles' budget cuts to not implement them, any more than there would be a moral requirement on the victims of benefit cuts to keep spending as though they still had the money. The central government cash will not be in council's bank accounts so it will be physically impossible to carry on funding services to the same value as before even if the political gesture made sense.
- There's a whiff of refusal to come to terms with losing the General Election in this. We told voters "vote Labour or else there will be massive cuts". 71% of them didn't. So the cuts are here. We didn't say "if you don't vote Labour we will somehow be able to ignore the government changing and carry on spending locally as though we were still in power nationally".
- Town hall vs. Whitehall is such a lop-sided battle there can only be one winner. It isn't good strategy to pick a fight against someone who holds all the cash and legal powers.
- It will remind older voters of Ted Knight (who was actually at the LRC event) and Derek Hatton and help the Tories establish a narrative that we have gone crazy again.
- It didn't work in 1985. No one actually stopped the cuts. All that happened was that the councils which had tried to resist ended up making chaotic unplanned cuts at the last minute, with a far worse effect on jobs and services than councils like Graham Stringer's Manchester that carefully planned their budgets within the resources Thatcher gave them, preserving the services vulnerable residents most needed.
- The law has changed since 1985. You can't even get as far as setting an illegal budget and being surcharged. All that happens is that the council officers set a balanced budget for you, with no reference to your political priorities.
- If Labour doesn't balance budgets at local level where it is a legal requirement, it hardly sends a message that in power nationally we would be fiscally responsible (and the idea that we weren't was a major contributory factor in our defeat last May).
- A gesture of defiance to Eric Pickles wouldn't cause him to think again. It would delight him. He cut his political teeth attacking Labour municipal gesture politics in the '80s and would love nothing more than to send in the commissioners to take over a few Labour councils and to resurrect the bogey-man of the "loony left".
- Holding public office brings with it fiduciary and legal responsibilities which trump your political instincts. All councillors sometimes have to make cuts. Councils often have to make people redundant when service requirements or funding streams change. The scale and distribution of spending cuts this year is horrific, unfair and draconian, but every councillor knows when running for election that their duties include setting a balanced budget in bad times as well as good. If you are not prepared to accept that responsibility, don't run for office.
Interestingly it is usually people who haven't stepped up to the plate and been councillors who advocate this strategy. It was a councillor who bravely spoke against it at the LRC conference.
Almost all of us who have had our budgets slashed by Pickles and will have to take the terrible decisions about what to cut this year are getting on with the reality of it, and trying to apply our socialist values in deciding which services to protect, not fantasising about getting out of this ghastly scenario through insurrection. I wish there was an easy way to say "no" to these cuts, but there isn't.
This isn't to say that Labour councillors shouldn't lead the political protests against Pickles' cuts and be screaming from the rooftops about their impact on our communities - we absolutely should.
Future posts in this series are unfortunately likely to include explanations of why we shouldn't:
- pursue a syndicalist strategy of trying to bring down Cameron through strikes
- advocate unilateral disarmament
- allow Trotskyists to infiltrate the Labour Party
- go soft on law and order
- go Euro-sceptic
- propose the nationalisation of major sectors of the economy
- put forward an Alternative Economic Strategy based on autarky
Most of the above were supported by the LRC on Saturday. Every motion except number 10 in this booklet was passed: http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/files/RESOLUTIONS_2011.pdf. Read it and weep. At least in 1979-1983 they had the partial excuse of not knowing how unpopular this kind of stance was. That they have not changed what they are advocating suggests a pathological inability to learn from experience.