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Wednesday 4 March 2015

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There is an alternative to austerity, rebel councillors show - so could you be a candidate?

Rebel councillors backed by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) have shown once again that local councils could implement alternative policies to those demanded by the Westminster pro-austerity establishment parties - if only councillors were prepared to fight.

Councils really are in the frontline. The latest government cuts to funding for local authorities announced in December takes the total reduction in central government support to 37% since 2010, according to the National Audit Office.

But it is just not the case that councillors have no option but to sit in the council chamber and meekly vote for cuts to local services, especially just weeks before a general election. The fact is, the Labour and Green councillors who have voted for more cuts in the latest council budget-making meetings have chosen to back austerity.

Leicester TUSC councillors challenge Labour

Leicester TUSC councillor Wayne Naylor

Leicester TUSC councillor Wayne Naylor   (Click to enlarge)

Leicester is a good example. Last week the directly-elected Labour mayor of the Labour-controlled city council proposed a budget freezing the amount to be spent on services at £242 million for this year and the next three years.

This is yet another real terms cut to local public services, rightly criticised by the council's UNISON branch as 'more disguised cuts'. As the union's branch secretary, Gary Garner, said, "Leicester city council is hiding behind a policy of organisational change and reviews and carrying out, by stealth, the coalition government's programme of public sector cuts".

Leicester TUSC councillor Barbara Potter

Leicester TUSC councillor Barbara Potter   (Click to enlarge)

But this time Labour didn't go unchallenged. Wayne Naylor and Barbara Potter, the two-strong Leicester Independent Councillors Against Cuts group who are part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, proposed an alternative - a 'People's Budget'. Opposing the Mayor's plan to add £6.9 million to the council's reserves to enable a 'managed reduction' of services, the rebel councillors proposed spending the money now on maintaining jobs and services while launching a fight for the needed money from central government.

Wayne Naylor challenged Labour: "You say you're saving the reserves for a rainy day. Well look around you - it's raining now! We need to save these services today before they're gone tomorrow". Barbara Potter said that the People's Budget alternative "gives hope to the people in Leicester. The Labour group have tried everything in the book to discourage our stance to protect services".

The Labour deputy mayor Rory Palmer denounced the rebel councillors' call as "the politics of irresponsibility" and the amendment was voted down. Once again Labour councillors had the chance to defend public services - and they chose not to.

Hull rebels also stand firm

Hull Red Labour group councillor Dean Kirk

Hull Red Labour group councillor Dean Kirk   (Click to enlarge)

A day later the same thing happened at the Hull council budget-making meeting. The Labour group moved a budget with £5 million cuts and extra charges for council services and a 1.95% council tax increase. The budget included cuts to children's centres, which officers calmly admitted would mean that some would "no longer be viable", and ending funding for community use of schools, meaning that "a large number of clubs and voluntary organisations" would "not be able to afford access to facilities". And to make sure opposition to these and future cuts was muted, the Labour group proposed cutting the number of trade union convenors, affecting the unions' ability to organise. This, from a 'Labour' council.

But once again there was a 'no cuts' alternative on offer, prepared by the Hull Red Labour group councillors Dean Kirk and Gill Kennett with TUSC's help.

Like the Leicester alternative budget it was a costed amendment that the council's finance had to accept as viable, at least in the short term. As the Red Labour amendment said, "there are ways to use the resources of our council to 'buy time', to avoid for the 2015-16 financial year the cuts in services, the above inflation rise in council tax, and the increased charges for council services in the Labour Group's proposed budget".

"But we do recognise", it went on, "that councils, including our own, have been put in a position that is unsustainable in the medium term.

"So for that reason we conclude our amendment with the instruction to the Leader and cabinet to urgently bring forward proposals for a campaign, in collaboration with other local authorities, to persuade the new incoming government to reverse the cuts in central government funding for local councils and provide relief funding for those authorities, including Hull, that have had to deplete their reserves or adopt other temporary budget-balancing measures to maintain vital public services".

As Gill Kennett puts it: "If the Labour Group had faith in Labour on a national level and believed that their gaining power in May would result in their fulfilling any commitments that they should have to the most vulnerable in our society, then they should be 'shoring up' vital services in every way possible until more money came back to the city". But they voted instead for cuts.

Could you be a council candidate?

In this current round of council budget-setting meetings Labour has shown again that both locally and nationally it will not break with the austerity consensus.

But an important lesson to draw from the Leicester and Hull experiences, and the role of TUSC-supporting councillors in Southampton, Warrington and Walsall, is the impact just one or two councillors can have in putting Labour on the defensive and shifting the whole debate on austerity.

That's why the TUSC national steering committee is making its appeal for the widest possible number of trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to come forward and stand in the local elections that are taking place alongside the general election on May 7th. In many ways the council elections are as important as the general election in deciding what will happen to vital local services, as the best that will happen at Westminster is a change of 'management style'.

If you agree with the TUSC Local Elections Policy Platform - which commits TUSC candidates, amongst other points, to oppose all cuts to council jobs, services, pay and conditions if they were elected - you could be a candidate (see http://www.tusc.org.uk/policy for the full platform).

Prospective candidates need to complete a TUSC Candidate Authorisation Application form, copies of which are available on the TUSC website at http://www.tusc.org.uk/candidates.php . There is a guide for prospective candidates and agents, including an explanation of TUSC's procedures, available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/317.pdf

The official nomination period opens in four weeks' time. What is stopping you from being an anti-cuts council candidate on May 7th? The last few weeks have made it clear - if there is no trade unionist or socialist candidate standing as an alternative to the austerity parties in your area, a cuts candidate will win unchallenged.