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Trade unions have been demanding councils set no cuts budgets

Labour’s “no cuts” budgets fail to offer a fighting alternative to austerity

Matt Dobson reports

North Ayrshire Labour-run council has claimed it has implemented a “no cuts budget” for 2017/18. Council leader Joe Cullinane was quoted in the Morning Star: “I have proposed the most radical, anti-austerity budget seen in North Ayrshire for many years and I am absolutely delighted that it has passed. It stops the cuts and invests in our future.”

The Labour administration will invest an additional £12.3 million in the local community and stop some of the planned cuts being passed onto councils by the Scottish Government.

The use of the council’s reserves will have an impact on mitigating some of the cuts. It adds weight to the argument put forward by advocates of genuine fighting no cuts budgets like TUSC, and the policy passed by Unison and Unite local government unions, that councils have significant financial powers to stop cuts.  

However, a closer look at this North Ayrshire budget reveals it contains significant austerity cuts that will hit the working class in North Ayrshire. It is not the genuine no cuts budget that the Morning Star claim.

The council website budget statement (1/3/2017) reads: “For 2017-18, the Council received a £9.2m reduction in its core grant.  Despite the additional grant funding of £3.484m, use of £3.4m of reserves, the additional £1.9m from the Scotland-wide legislative changes to Council Tax Bands E to H and a further £1.8m of income from three per cent increase to the Council Tax, savings of more than £7m were still required to deliver a balanced budget – £4.8 million of savings had been agreed when the Council set its budget last year and a robust review of services released an additional £1.5m. However further savings of around £800,000 were still required.”

The North Ayrshire Labour council are not reversing the £4.8 million cuts agreed by the previous SNP administration for 2017/18. (North Ayrshire changed from SNP to Labour control as a result of a recent by election). It’s also clear there will be a council tax rise of 3% and a rent increase of 2.79% for council tenants.

The “robust review of services” that released £1.5 million and “savings” that amount to £800,000 are likely to contain cuts in another name.

A real no cuts budget

A real fighting no cuts budget would have reversed the £4.8 million cuts already agreed and would not have included rent and council tax rises that are way above the rate of inflation and will represent cuts in incomes for working class communities.  

Two other Scottish Labour-run councils, West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire, also claim to have “protected frontline services” from cuts by using reserves. However as the council’s trade unions have highlighted, cuts are still taking place in the form of “efficiency savings” and “management adjustments” that will impact services and council staff.

 In the case of West Dunbartonshire, the Labour council has refused to sign up to the trade union’s “no cuts” campaign. They rejected the areas EIS joint convenor and Socialist Party Scotland member Jim Halfpenny’s call for a mass campaign involving the trade unions and communities to demand more money from the government. Jim argued for this at the budget setting meeting.

 Rather than representing a “radical anti-austerity” break with the strategy of implementing SNP and Tory cuts, these latest “cuts lite” budgets and use of reserves represent the pressure Scottish Labour are coming under from the trade union movement and imminent council elections. Demands for fighting no cuts budgets linked to a mass campaign to demand funding from Holyrood and Westminster is gaining an echo and in wider society.

Scottish TUSC and Socialist Party Scotland and the council trade unions in Glasgow and Dundee call for legal no cuts budgets that would see the full range of financial powers used by council to fight the cuts with no extra burden on working class communities. We recognise that this would open up a confrontation with the Scottish and Westminster governments. These budgets would be linked to a call for a mass campaign, elected councillors and councils linking up on a national basis in uniting with trade unions and communities to demand a return of the tens of millions stolen from the councils since 2010. A full £2 billion has been slashed from council budgets across Scotland since the austerity offensive began.

Rearguard action 

Scottish Labour are desperately seeking to fight a rearguard action in the councils they control against expected abysmal polling in the May council elections. But taking these financial measures including using reserves in a handful of local authorities and trying to dress it up as “no cuts”, will not be enough for Scottish Labour to begin to recover its position.   

Why not link up all the Labour-run authorities in a campaign of defiant no cuts budgets to demand the Scottish government and Westminster reverse the cuts? What better way to go on the offensive electorally against the SNP than by opening up a confrontation that would expose the nature of the SNP government’s cuts budget, which was also backed by the Greens?   

Rather than this, Labour councils have implemented savage cuts and attacks on the trade unions in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. In Dundee, Labour in opposition voted for the SNP’s multi-millions austerity budget. Labour run Clackmannanshire council are threatening up to 350 compulsory redundancies, breaking a national agreement with the unions and withdrawing trade union facility time. 

Labour have passed cuts budgets in coalition with the SNP in Edinburgh and the Tories in Aberdeen. Their alternative to cuts also involves increases in the basic rate of income tax, which is austerity in another form.

Scottish TUSC is planning to stand widely in the forthcoming council elections to offer a 100% anti-austerity alternative. We will be writing to Labour councillors and candidates offering a united front against the cuts. We would be prepared to discuss calling for second preference votes under the STV system for Labour candidates who are prepared put forward a fighting strategy and commit to voting against all cuts and while fully backing trade union struggles.