I sat in on a very bleak meeting of the cabinet of the Labour council in Lambeth, south London, on Monday 7 December.
The council has already cut £79.5 million over the last five years. It will now make a further £35 million in cuts in 2015/16, another £37 million in 2016/17, and is currently estimating cuts for 2018/19 at anything from £49 to £75 million.
That’s a total drop in funding of 50% over 2010-18. Lambeth also has the lowest reserves among the inner London boroughs. One of the councillors said that 500 council staff have been sacked or have taken voluntary redundancy because of local government cuts over the last five years.
Now the council is looking at another 500 in the short term, and another 1000 in the medium term. The big campaign — demonstrations, lobbies, petitions, wildcat strikes — over plans to close two libraries and turn three into gyms has been over just £800,000 of the total £147 million cuts in the decade.
The number one reason for homelessness in Lambeth is eviction. Evictions because of benefits cuts, falling wages, the bedroom tax, soaring rents, lack of council housing to apply for. There are 1800 homeless families in temporary accommodation in Lambeth, including some 5000 children. And that’s just people registered with the council — there are probably double or triple that living on friends’ sofas, in unofficial shelters (beds in sheds), on the streets, or packed six to a room.
Dealing with homelessness is not one of the council’s statutory requirements, and therefore not protected. Lambeth is cutting its homelessness budget by tens of millions of pounds. People will die waiting to be housed.
Even then, by 2020, the council looks like it will fail to meet even basic statutory requirements
What of the fightback? There are still some community anti-cuts groups, fighting alongside local trade union members in workplace-by-workplace disputes. While the new Labour leadership is fighting the PLP, Momentum in organising the left in wards and CLPs. There are nascent rank-and-file projects in the unions that have fighting strategies to win national disputes on pay and pensions — LANAC in the NUT, for example. But there is a weak link in the chain: councillors.
Labour councils have passed on the cuts in near-complete silence. The Councillors Against Cuts project attracted only a dozen councillors, most of whom were expelled from the Labour Party.
Councillors attempt to rationalise. They claim that they have “no choice”. If you don’t cut parks, then you must cut funding for disabled children. Privatisation is better than no service at all.
They are too timid even to speak of local council resistance, whether of the failed attempts — Liverpool and Lambeth in the 80s — or the successful ones — Clay Cross in 1972, and famously, Poplar in 1921, which forced the eventual abolition of the Poor Law Unions which had existed for centuries.
Councillors do have a choice. Setting a needs budget, or a cuts budget, is a political choice. In many ways, it is easier to set a needs budget now than before. Councillors can’t be jailed or surcharged, for example. And the standard retort, that central government will just send in commissioners to make the cuts, assumes a passivity in response. If councillors made a needs budget, and then used their elected positions to lead a campaign by mass demonstrations, community occupations, a sustained program of official and unofficial strikes, against imposed commissioners, then central government would be forced into making concessions.
No more excuses from cowardly Labour councillors! As George Lansbury put it in 1921, “it is better to break the law than break the poor”.
Momentum should be agitating for a national strategy from Corbyn HQ of instructing councillors to defy cuts now.