On Thursday 18th February members of Carlisle Socialist Party, along members of Unison, protested outside Cumbria County Council's budget setting meeting in Kendal. The council was intending to make £25m cuts to services, with up to 2,000 jobs being at risk. Councillors entering the building were asked whether they would be voting for cuts, and if not, what else they intended to do to oppose the vicious attacks on local government by the Tories. Some declined to comment, whilst others vociferously argued that they had 'no choice' and told us to go and protest outside the houses of parliament instead!
Several Unison members expressed dismay that councillors who were trade unionists and also members of Momentum in Cumbria were intending to vote in favour of a cuts budget. Most were agreed that such a stance was a self-fulfilling prophecy; cuts this year would lead to ever more cuts in the future, as has been shown over the last 5 years. The Tories have made it clear that they plan to abolish central government contributions long before 2020, leaving poorer areas unable to provide much-needed services, and taking local government back to the 1920s. Councillors voting for cuts have walked into a trap.
At the start of the meeting Brent Kennedy read out a statement from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) calling on the council to set a needs-based (no cuts) budget, a position now supported by the main public sector unions Unite and Unison. We suggested using reserves and prudential borrowing powers to make up the shortfall. This would be a temporary measure to buy time to mobilise workers to demand that the government provide the necessary funding permanently. We pointed out that the government deficit of £70bn could easily be paid off by collecting the estimated £120bn unpaid taxes of wealthy individuals and corporations, illustrating Jeremy Corbyn's statement that "austerity is not an economic necessity but a political choice".
We urged those councillors who disagreed with the cuts ideology to have the courage of their convictions and start the fight back by passing a no-cuts budget.
The Labour party has now officially declared itself an 'anti-austerity party'. We warned that they are unlikely to have much credibility with existing voters, nor to enthuse alienated non-voters, if they say one thing nationally but do completely the opposite locally.
In his reply, council leader Stuart Young tried to muddy the waters by talking about an 'illegal budget', even though he knew that this was irrelevant, as our statement made clear in advance. Brent Kennedy had to interject, to the annoyance of the chair, that this was not the case, and Mr Young conceded the point. So why did he bring this up in the first place?
His only real argument was that the use of reserves for one year alone would mean worse cuts in the following years, and that he therefore 'had no choice'. This gained several murmurs of approval from other councillors. In other words, they have no concept of using the time this signal would give to actively campaign on the issue of austerity and mobilise the working class against the government.
Mr Young correctly described the Tories as having "declared war on local government". Unfortunately it's a completely one-sided war, as the Labour Party in Cumbria has hoisted the white flag without firing a shot.
It should be noted that in the recent coverage of the meeting in the Cumberland News, no mention was made of either our call to use prudential borrowing in addition to reserves, nor that we accept this as only a temporary measure, and merely the first part of a campaign to secure the funding. The media debate is thus being framed to suggest that what we are proposing is fantasy, whereas in fact it is councillors who are living in a fantasy world by continuing to believe that slashing ever more from our public services will satisfy this rapacious government. A line must be drawn sometime. If not now, then when?