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Q and A on how councillors and MSPs could set no-cuts budgets and stand up to Tory austerity

Socialist Party Scotland 

Scottish councils and the Scottish government are drawing up budgets that threaten devastating cuts to jobs and services over the next two to three years. At least £1 billion is being slashed from council budgets in 2016 and 2017 alone. The consequences will be tens of thousands of job losses and ruinous attacks on community services. In this leaflet Socialist Party Scotland outlines what elected councillors and MSPs should be doing instead of carrying-out Tory cuts.

1. SNP and Labour politicians in Scotland claim they can do nothing to stop the cuts as budgets have been slashed by the Tories. Is this true?

It’s true that the Tories have stolen more than £3 billion from public spending in Scotland since the austerity offensive began in the summer of 2010. Austerity, we should remember, is an attempt by big-business politicians to make the working class pay for the economic crisis of capitalism, particularly acute since the crash of 2007/2008.

But that does not mean MSPs and councillors are powerless to do anything about it. Collectively, the Scottish parliament and councils have real powers to begin a campaign of defiance and a refusal to implement anymore cuts.

2. So how can councillors and MSPs refuse to make the cuts?

As well as Socialist Party Scotland and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, 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 they have explained, “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”

3. What are these “financial mechanisms”?

Under the rules, councils have a legal duty to set a “balanced” budget. The no-cuts budgets advocated by Socialist Party Scotland and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) would meet those rules. No-cuts budgets can be set by a combination of drawing on council reserves, using the borrowing powers that councils have as well as “creative accountancy”, for example capitalisation. In addition, negotiation over historic debt repayments could also help, albeit temporarily, to allow the setting of a no- cuts balanced budget. The Scottish parliament now has borrowing powers, regular under-spends and will also have enhanced tax powers from 2017. These could all be used to set no-cuts budgets.

4. Would finance officers not refuse to support such a strategy?

No-cuts budgets would certainly be described by officers as “unorthodox”, and they would be unlikely to recommend them. However, and this is the crucial point, it is the councillors and MSPs that take the decisions – not the finance officers – as to what budget is passed. All that is required is the political will to use the powers the councils have to refuse to make the cuts.

5. OK, but is this not only a short-term tactic. You can’t keep using borrowing powers and reserves to set no-cuts budgets?

Yes, that’s true. But the setting of a no-cuts budget by a council or the Scottish government would allow time and space for the building of a national campaign to win the money required to fully fund jobs and public services.This would involve mass protests, demonstrations, strike action by councils and other public sector workers in support of a no-cuts policy.

6. But surely the Tories would refuse to give in to such a campaign?

They would try to resist this pressure for sure. However, let’s not forget this is not a government with a strong support. The Tories were elected by only 24% of the overall electorate in the UK. Unlike, for example, the SNP who have a huge mandate on an “anti-austerity” platform.

Moreover, Cameron and Osborne were forced to retreat over tax credits through huge public pressure and the opposition of the un-elected House of Lords. If the SNP were true to their anti-austerity word the Scottish government could help lead a mass campaign of defiance, linking up with councils across Scotland, to demand concessions from the Tories over funding.

Look at the panic that swept through the big-business establishment during the indyref. A fighting stand in Scotland would also inspire working class communities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to demand the same stand by their own councils.

7. But I’ve been told by SNP and Labour councillors and MSPs that they could be removed from office for setting a no-cuts budget?

It’s not illegal to set a no-cuts budget and there are no sanctions that can be used against those who back such a position. If a council or the Scottish government set a deficit, “unbalanced” budget, then there are potential consequences, and it is likely that the situation of “illegality”could arise at a certain stage. But the sanctions don’t involve jail, which did face the heroic Poplar councillors in 1921, nor do they involve the surcharging of councillors as faced by the socialist Liverpool council in the 1980s.

Today, councillors who voted for a budget that was “unbalanced” could face referral under the “councillors code of conduct” whose sanctions are puny by comparison with those councils who stood under the banner of “It’s better to break the law than break the poor” in the past.

The most important issue is that a decision to send in commissioners to a council would have to be a political decision by the Scottish government. Is Nicola Sturgeon going to send in unelected commissioners to administer cuts into a council who had refused to implement Tory austerity and was building a mass campaign for more money? The consequences for the SNP would be enormous if they did.

8. So why aren’t the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party taking this position?

Good question. There would be overwhelming support for a stand against cuts. The SNP are riding high on an anti-austerity, anti-Tory mood in society.

Their refusal to act and defy austerity in practice is linked to their support, at least among their leadership, MSPs and councillors, for capitalism and the market system.

In practice, they limit their policies to what the failing capitalist economy can afford. Today, that means savage austerity and attacks on the working class with very little room for reforms that benefit the working class.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is a step forward. But an overwhelming majority of Labour councillors didn’t back Jeremy and are, like the SNP, voting for cuts in councils across Scotland. We believe Jeremy Corbyn should call on his councillors to defy the cuts and set no-cuts budgets. So far he has not been prepared to do this, which is a big mistake.

9. Wouldn’t an increase in the council tax be a way to avoid councils making the cuts?

The increases involved would be of the order of 70 to 90% – almost a doubling of council tax over the next two years – in order to avoid making any cuts. There is no way increases of this scale would be tolerated by the working-class communities affected. The council tax is deeply regressive and benefits the richest in society disproportionately. We want to see it scrapped and replaced with a tax that reflects ability to pay.

The only way to end the cuts is to build a mass campaign to win back the billions robbed from jobs and services under the austerity programme. That requires implacable political will on behalf of councillors and MSPs who are prepared to fight.

10. How do we get councillors and MSPs who will oppose austerity in deeds, not just words?

That requires building a mass political alternative to the parties and politicians who are administering cuts. Socialist Party Scotland is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, alongside the RMT transport union among others. TUSC is a step towards the building of a new mass working class party. We stand for election on a no-cuts and socialist platform and you should get active, join and support us.

The Liverpool socialist council in the 1980’s was hugely influenced by the policies, tactics and strategy of Militant – the forerunner of the Socialist Party. That council refused to make Thatcher’s cuts, built a mass campaign alongside the working class of the city that included a city-wide general strike and mass demonstrations that won extra money to build thousands of council houses, nurseries, sports centres etc.

In order to fight cuts effectively, it’s also necessary to stand against the economic system that is driving austerity.

Capitalism is a broken system that benefits only the rich elite, the 1%. Being a socialist means fighting tooth-and-nail against all the attacks the working class face today.

But also standing for a new, socialist society where the wealth and resources squandered under capitalism are collectively owned and controlled by the 99%. Join with us today.

SOCIALIST PARTY SCOTLAND SAYS:

  • Councils and the Scottish government should set no-cuts budgets using a combination of reserves, underspends, 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 the hugely expensive council debt repayments and the 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 to demand a no cuts strategy.
  • End austerity and fight for socialism. For an independent socialist Scotland as a step towards a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland. For a socialist Europe and world