By Brian Smith and Jim McFarlane, Glasgow City Unison and Dundee City Unison branch secretaries (in a personal capacity) and Socialist Party Scotland
Over the next few weeks, Scottish local authorities will be drawing up budgets that threaten devastating cuts to jobs and services. At least £1 billion will be slashed from council budgets in 2016 and 2017, leading to tens of thousands of job losses and ruinous attacks on community services.
The question of questions is how is this slaughter to be avoided and a fight back to reverse the impact of austerity to be built?
Trade unions representing tens of thousands of council workers in Labour-run Glasgow and SNP-led Dundee are calling on councillors to refuse to make the cuts and set legal no-cuts budgets.
As we have pointed out in letters to the elected representatives of both councils, “politicians have a choice: make the Tory cuts or stand up and defend local jobs and services. We call on elected politicians to use all available financial mechanisms to hold off further cuts whilst leading a fight to win more money”
These mechanisms include using reserves, borrowing powers, capitalisation and other measures, which could include the renegotiation and postponement of debt repayments, currently amounting to £2 billion a year for Scottish councils.
This would be a first step and would give time for the building of a mass campaign to win a return of the money stolen from local government services by the Tory austerity onslaught. Such a stand would ensure the resources for the setting of real needs budgets and a full reversal of the cuts.
Huge support for anti-austerity ideas
Indeed there would be overwhelming public support for a fighting opposition to cuts by elected councillors. The sweeping gains made by the SNP over the last year have been on an anti-austerity platform.
Labour’s new UK leader Jeremy Corbyn has also won support and a huge mandate for his opposition to austerity and the “old politics”. But it’s vital that fine anti-austerity words are now turned into action.
With the SNP and Labour in control of the majority of Scottish councils and the SNP having an overall majority at Holyrood, there is no excuse other than to come out fighting. A united front of the Scottish government and all the major local authorities in refusing to make the cuts would open up a new and potentially decisive front in the struggle against austerity.
If this bold stand was backed up, as it must be, by mass working class action from the trade unions and communities, a major defeat could be inflicted on the Tory cuts onslaught. A council of war involving MSPs, councillors, trade unions and community organisations could be organised to implement this mass defiance strategy now.
However, the decision by John Swinney, the Scottish finance secretary, to pass on the Tory cuts in his budget at the end of 2016 means that the SNP leadership seem intent on a “business as usual” approach .
While the Tory austerity programme is clearly to blame, the decision of so-called “anti-austerity” politicians in Scotland to administer these cuts cannot be defended any longer.
As Brian Smith, Glasgow Unison’s branch secretary commented in December; “This is not anti-austerity – it’s the assassination of thousands of jobs and the decimation of many services our members and the wider workforce provide.”
No-cuts budgets are the only option
With the battle lines now drawn, trade unions, anti-austerity campaigns and local communities are involved in the fight of our lives to defend local services and jobs. Local government in particular will become the epicentre for an almighty eruption of struggle against unprecedented cuts.
It’s vital that maximum unity is built around a fighting no-cuts strategy. That means not accepting the argument that SNP and Labour councillors and MSPs have no power to defy the cuts. They do.
Legal no-cuts budgets can and should be set in every council. A unified stand by local authorities representing a majority of working-class areas in Scotland would have a huge impact. Even one or two councils that were prepared to set no-cuts budgets by using their already existing powers would have a decisive effect.
Local councils in Scotland control budgets amounting to close to £20 billion on an annual basis, as well as borrowing powers, reserves and others financial levers. Above all they could, if they fought, win mass political support for a fighting strategy from the people they represented and whose jobs and services are being decimated by the cuts.
There is no basis for the argument that councillors have no choice other than to vote for cuts. There is not even the excuse, sometimes falsely used by cuts politicians, that councillors or MSPs would face jail, fines or personal sequestration for setting no-cuts budgets.
It is not the legal consequences but a lack of political will that is the problem. The trade unions and all anti-austerity campaigners should now be at the forefront of demanding that the councillors fight the cuts, as the Glasgow and Dundee council trade unions have already done.
The People’s Assembly (PA) in Scotland, an anti-austerity campaign with some trade union support, has produced an “advice pack for trade unions and community groups”.
Quite rightly the PA says: “We believe that the job of Councillors who oppose austerity is to demonstrate political leadership not merely adopt cuts proposals recommended by Officers.” This is correct, and is best summed up by the demand for a no-cuts budget.
However, the PA stops short of advocating this clear demand and instead argues for “parallel budgets”. This tactic would allow councillors to outline what is actually needed in terms of services while, in practice, allowing councillors to vote through a cuts budget, albeit reluctantly.
In addition, they also argue that councillors should: “be up front about cuts and the damage they are doing – label cuts as ‘this service is withdrawn due to austerity’”. For council workers and communities it matters little if those making the cuts did so with a heavy heart. Elected politicians either voted for cuts or they did not.
While supporting demands for the mitigation and alleviation of cuts, nowhere does the PA raise the idea of a legal no-cuts budget. Instead they refer to the “ramifications” of setting “unbalanced budgets” which would be “detrimental”.
They don’t explain what they mean by an “unbalanced budget”, but it likely, and mistakenly, refers to the no-cuts position as put forward by the trade unions in Dundee and Glasgow, as well as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
The no-cuts strategy put forward by us would be balanced by using the already existing powers the councils have. Primarily, this is a question of political will and of adopting a fighting anti-cuts policy.
Councillors should fight
We also disagree with the PA when they say that before councillors make a stand they will need “broad based support” and a “widespread social movement “ before they could act. This is the wrong way of putting it.
By refusing to implement cuts, elected councillors would go a long way to help create a mass anti-cuts movement. This would be done with the backing of the trade unions and communities who would fight alongside the elected representatives in a unified struggle.
This was the experience in Liverpool in the 1980s when the socialist council refused to make the Tory cuts and built a mass campaign for more resources for the city. Tens of thousands of working-class people were mobilised in support of the Liverpool councillors. A one-day general strike of the trade unions and huge demonstrations were organised which placed mass pressure on the Thatcher government to concede more money for the city.
Of course this is not to argue that we don’t build a “widespread social movement” against austerity. Indeed this is vital. The TUC, STUC and the major public sector unions could go a long way to achieving that by organising mass coordinated and generalised strike action against the cuts as well as the vicious anti-trade union bill.
As it stands, and while organising demonstrations and mass protests in the run-up to the budget-setting meetings in February and March, it is likely that SNP and Labour councils will vote for cuts. The anti-austerity leaderships of Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn, if they are to live up to that mantle, should call on their councillors to refuse to make Tory cuts.
If the cuts are voted through, this will not be the end of the matter. The level of austerity will unleash huge opposition at a local level and among council trade unions. The potential for strike action and community protests to defend jobs and services will grow significantly. It’s essential that a coordinated movement is built across Scotland to defeat the austerity juggernaut.
At the same time it will become ever more clear that a political alternative must be built to those politicians who are playing pass-the-parcel with Tory cuts.
Socialist Party Scotland, alongside the RMT transport workers union in Scotland, leading public sector trade unionists and socialist organisations, make up the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC’s central policy is 100% opposition to austerity through no-cuts budgets. We demand that all MPSs and councillors back a no-cuts policy and pledge to vote against all cuts.
Scottish TUSC will be standing candidates in the Scottish elections on this platform, alongside a wide range of anti-austerity and socialist policies. The Scottish TUSC conference is taking place on Saturday 23rd January in Glasgow at 1pm in the Renfield – St Stephens Centre, Bath Street, Glasgow.
Socialist Party Scotland says:
- Councils and the Scottish Government should set no-cuts budgets using a combination of reserves, under-spends, borrowing powers and other financial levers
- Build a mass campaign for a return of the billions stolen by the Tories involving trade unions, communities and elected politicians who are prepared to defy the cuts. This would allow a full reversal of all the cuts since 2010
- Immediate steps to renegotiate, write-off and buy-out the hugely expensive council debt repayments, including PFI/PPP/NDP contracts in Scotland – expected to save up to £12 billion in repayment costs.
- Scrap the council tax – For a progressive income-based alternative linked to ability to pay
- Trade unions to urgently convene a conference to plan a national campaign against cuts. Build mass protests and nationally coordinated strike action.
- For demonstrations and community protests at all council budget-setting meetings in early 2016 to demand a no cuts strategy.