The Labour Local Government conference meets this weekend in London with councils facing the most severe cuts since the Second World War. The cuts are front-loaded so councils have less chance to reduce spending in a careful and measured way, they are targeted hardest on poorer areas, and they are so severe they put the economic recovery at risk.
All of that is the choice made by the Tory-led Government. So how do Labour councils respond when faced with implementing cuts because their funding has been unfairly reduced?
So far no Labour council has heeded the call of the ultra-left and ‘refused’ to make cuts. That is because we cannot spend money we no longer have. When hard-left Labour councils tried that in the past it resulted in multi-million pound debts we are still paying off today. In fact, the law no longer allows that to happen. If any council set an illegal budget proposing to spend money they no longer have Eric Pickles would simply send in his officials to run the council instead. Allowing that to happen would be a dereliction of the duty Labour councillors owe to the people who elected us. We cannot simply run up the white flag and offer our communities up to Pickles’ henchmen. The resulting cuts would be far more severe and insensitive to local priorities. And it would destroy Labour in this May’s local elections as voters would conclude that voting Labour would result in their council being handed over to the Tories.
So what do we do? First, we must lobby hard and help lead the mainstream campaigns against the unfairness of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts, showing that we share people’s anger. That’s why I will join the TUC demonstration on 26 March. But we must also deal with the situation we find as fairly as possible and allow our decisions on which services to cut and which to protect to be guided by our values and our knowledge of what matters most to local people. Often that will mean protecting services that support the most vulnerable – including children at risk of abuse, frail older people, the disabled, victims of domestic violence. Because we want to help people meet their aspirations for themselves and their families we invest in better homes, better schools, a more sustainable environment, help to get people back to work. Analysis shows that Labour councils are cutting fewer jobs and protecting more services relative to the size of our funding reduction than Tory councils are.
But Labour councils must show that beyond the relentless misery of the cuts we have an alternative vision for what local government could be. Labour councillors on over 100 local authorities, in opposition and in power, have signed up to the Statement of Cooperative Values declaring our intention to shape a new, more cooperative future for public services. That means rebalancing the relationship between councils and communities with more power in the hands of the people. Labour councils are already developing community-led youth services, opening cooperative trust schools, exploring cooperative housing where residents have more control over the services they receive.
Unlike the 1980s, when many Labour councils became a drag on the Party’s fortunes nationally, our Labour councils today are at the forefront of reshaping what Labour can become as we build back towards power nationally. As we forge new ways to deliver services closer to the people who use them, we are also exploring new ways of organising the party locally so that it is more openly engaged with the communities we represent. This anchors us in our communities and keeps our campaigning more in touch with local opinion. It means we can listen and respond to the quiet voices that represent majority opinion. Labour councils will respond to the cuts by using our values to protect the services that matter most, engaging more closely with our communities and showing we are part of them, and shaping a new vision for public services that puts more power in the hands of local people and local communities.
NOTE: Lambeth’s plans to become a cooperative council are available here