In the early 1980s, many Labour councils were committed to defy Tory cuts. Sadly, every single one of these councils backed down in the end. There are many lessons to be learned from that defeat.
Today business rates are set by, and channelled through, central government. In the 1980s, councils set and collected rates levied on local businesses. They had more scope to offset central government cuts through these tax-raising powers. In that context many argued that this tax-raising was progressive and redistributive.
Socialist Organiser (Solidarity's predeccessor newspaper) argued against rate rises in general, and most definitely in the absence of a strategy to confront the government. In 1985, after the defeat of the Militant (now Socialist Party/Socialist Appeal)-led Labour council in Liverpool, Socialist Organiser published Illusions of Power, a pamphlet looking at the prospects, debates and mistakes of the period. The following extract is about the problems of the rate-rise strategy.
Ted Knight [Leader of the Labour group on Lambeth council], who had been prominent in arguing for rate rises as a way of combating cuts, pushed a 41% cuts package through Lambeth council. [In May 1979 after the Tories took office]. Rate rises had been a preparation not for a fight but for cuts. A special conference of the boroughs’ Constituency Labour Parties rejected the cuts and also the alternative of a supplementary rate. “Lambeth Fightback” was formed by the Trades Council. Knight bowed to the pressure and deftly converted himself — from a cutter to a leader of the fight against the cuts.
Street meetings, door-to-door leafleting, workplace meetings, a London-wide demonstration, all began to mobilise a mass movement. But what was this mobilisation about? What was its purpose? What about the rates?
Jenny Morris reported in Socialist Organiser: "Knight used the; same arguments [as the right wing] for refusing to follow the example of Poplar in 1921. The Town Hall unions won't stand for empty wage packets… His answer was rate increases rather than cuts". As other leaders would do later, Knight used the trade union card against the left.
The councillors devised schemes to buy their way out of trouble through rate rises, and then appealed to narrow trade unionism among the leaders of the council workers. [They say] rate rises will buy secure jobs. The cost will be diffused over wide sections, as well as businesses. The council leaders' determination to raise the rates, and the use of the unions to justify this, made the mobilisation a hollow shell, a protest cut off from any serious agitation for industrial action or council defiance.
When Lambeth called two national cuts conferences, big majorities voted for “no rate rise”. Tribune came out against rate rises, so did Labour Herald, just launched by Knight and Livingstone; so, even, did London Labour Briefing. Yet this majority among activists for a confrontation did not manage to compel any council to follow its way of thinking. The November 1980 conference called for no cuts, no rate rises, and no council house sales. [Yet] Lambeth council made a supplementary rate and continued to sell council houses. When questioned by Socialist Organiser, he [Ted Knight] refused even to say unequivocally that Lambeth would make no cuts. In fact, Lambeth, panicked by the wave of tenants’ meetings angry at its supplementary rate, made 10% cuts in April 1980.
On September 27 1980, SO noted that "The statement [for the November conference] hinges the whole cuts fight on a general strike by council workers in January 1981. The unvoiced let-out clause is that if the unions do not meet this arbitrary deadline, then the Labour councils will... include cuts and rate rises in next spring's budget".
This device has been used again and again. Leftists call for an all-out fight by the whole working class. Given the nature of the official leadership, this does not happen. The leftists then use the absence of an across the-board fight to argue that they can do nothing on their own. But now the left looked for something better from the new GLC (Greater London Council). A number of left-wingers had been elected. The GLC manifesto had declared: "A Labour GLC and ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) will resist any cuts and demand that the Tory government provides the necessary finance to maintain and improve all council services. Understanding that the Tory government does not listen to pleas but only responds to pressure, a Labour GLC and ILEA will appeal to the labour and trade union movement to take action including industrial action to support this stand."
Socialist Organiser warned: "40-odd Labour men and women on the GLC can never beat the Tories without an organised mass campaign behind them. "The Labour left's policies have not failed for lack of energetic people. They have failed because they are based on no clear theoretical understanding of capitalist society and the conservative forces within it.” The same month, Livingstone declared: "There can be no doubt that we are now entering the final phase of the struggle against the Tories". [Meanwhile] Lothian Council was coming eyeball-to-eyeball with the Tories.
Livingstone did nothing to put the GLC on the line together with Lothian. The Tories had introduced legislation for Scotland giving them the power directly to order cuts. £47 million for Lothian. The council could not commit to a rate rise, even if they wanted to: mid year supplementary rates had always been illegal in Scotland. The council promised defiance.
Shop stewards voted for strike-action. But once again the official trade union leadership sabotaged the struggle. Alistair MacRae, a local official and also a leading figure in NUPE nationally, was to the fore. It was better, he insisted, to have cuts and keep Labour in office than to risk defiance — which, in event of defeat, would mean a takeover. The councillors collapsed. In their panic, they initially cut three times as much as the Tories ordered, sacking 900 teachers! The rout of the left was complete when the council met again to cancel some of the panic decisions and make more measured cuts.
Jimmy Burnet, the most left-wing councillor, explained that If those cuts were not adopted, a bigger Tory package would go through. "I wouldn't underestimate the ability of working people to understand the position of pragmatic realism..."
At the May 1982 elections, Labour was replaced in Lothian by the Tories.