By James Ellis, Hastings Socialist Party
The May 2012 local elections saw Labour retaining control of Hastings council, gaining 5 seats from the Conservatives in the process. The Liberal democrats lost all of their seats. When viewed in the context of events nationally, this result is a rejection of the Con-Dems policies of austerity. It is also plea to the Labour party to defend the interests of ordinary people and protect them from this governments savage cutbacks. Council leader Jeremy Birch claimed that with this result the people of Hastings had “sent a message to central government that they are not happy with the policies of the two coalition parties." So then, it is the task of the Labour party to stand up for the people of Hastings in opposition to these brutal austerity measures. However, thus far, they have been doing quite the opposite.
Since its election in 2010 the Con-Dem government have been adamant that in order to solve the economic crisis public services must cut at an alarming rate. The working people of this country are facing attacks on multiple fronts. Pensions are being slashed, unemployment is spiralling, the NHS is being sold off, public services are being gutted, charities are going bust, and young people are being forced out of education. This list of attacks goes on and on. What this essentially means is that even though this was a crisis caused by big business and the banks, it is the working people of this country that are being made to pay. Hastings has been one of the hardest hit by the cuts.
Over the 3 year period from 2011/12 to 2013/14 Hastings Borough Council will see its government grant slashed in half from £12.7m to £6.6m, a loss of £70 for every person in the borough. On top of that it is likely there will be the loss of all the government capital funding for housing renewal which has been worth £1.5million per year to Hastings. Jobs have been lost in housing, waste, street wardens and regeneration, with more losses expected to follow. Funding to help homeless people stay in B&B’s has been cut, and youth services, like Connexions, have been forced to close. Hastings council, after seeing the East Sussex county budget for children’s services reduced by £20 million, decided to make the greatest cuts to open-access early years services and youth centres. This will see many parents unable to get care for their children and reduce support for young families. This is only a selection of the many cuts facing the people of Hastings. What this essentially means is that Hastings faces a toxic mix of rising unemployment, reduced prospects for young people, and the removal of vital support systems. All this is on top of the attacks on benefits and healthcare! Hastings needs its council to defend it against these cruel cut-backs.
However, both nationally and locally, the Labour party has not been standing up to these cuts. Infact, it has been supporting them and implementing them. The leadership of the Labour party has declared it believes these cuts are necessary. It claims it would cut back slower, but essentially still endorses the idea that the way out of this crisis is to make working people pay for it. Recent reports show that these cuts are not working; in fact they are making the situation worse! Government borrowing is on the increase and the deficit has risen by 3.4 billion in the past year. So why exactly are the cuts necessary when all we have achieved is a reduction of the quality of life for the majority of working people and an increased level of national debt?
The government is pursuing these cuts because of its links with the finance sector; it can see no way to achieve profits in the British economy other than backing those who demand low taxes for big business and the rich, and significant cuts in public spending in order to improve the prospects of their colossal financial investments.
It is true that while there are those in Labour that fully support the idea of the cuts, there are also those who do not like them but think there is no other option. Labour councils claim they have no choice but to pass on these governments cuts. However, a look back at recent history shows that there is indeed another option.
In 1984 the Liverpool city council was being led by members of the Militant (an organisation that worked within Labour, and has since left to form the Socialist Party), and all 47 Labour members in the council agreed to follow Militants lead and oppose Thatcher’s planned cuts to the Liverpool budget. The government's policies meant that in order to balance the books a local authority would either have to increase the rates, sometimes massively, to compensate for Tory cuts, or savagely cut back on jobs and services. Liverpool council refused to implement these cuts, and instead demanded extra funding for the creation of houses and jobs. As well as actively defying Thatcher by not making cuts, the Labour council, led by the policies of Militant, also arranged a demonstration on budget day in March 1984, when a one-day strike took place supported by 30,000 local authority workers. 50,000 marched through the city in support of the council's proposed deficit budget. In the end Thatcher gave up and Militant achieved a victory that secured extra funding which enabled the council to carry out its electoral programme. This included the building of 5,000 houses, opening six new sports centres, creating 2,000 jobs and refusing to carry out £10 million-worth of cuts.
This stand was unfortunately not repeated across the country, and the then leadership of the Labour party concentrated on attacking those like the Liverpool councillors who stood up to Thatcher, eventually helping to get them removed from office.
Hastings Labour council needs to follow the lead of the 47 Labour councillors from Liverpool. Their example shows that every council does have a choice when it comes to the cuts. The Labour council has not been forced to implement the cuts, it has chosen to. The choice is clear. Either attack the working people of Hastings while apologising and declaring not to have any other option, or take a stand and defend the interest of the people that this council claims to represent. Hastings council should refuse to make any further cuts, and demand that the government gives them increased funding to embark on a programme of house building and job creation that is so desperately needed in Hastings. Standing alone the council would be unable to do this, but if they organised the working people of Hastings and created a mass campaign to back them up, involving demonstrations and strikes, then they could win. If this strategy was taken up by multiple councils across the UK then the cuts could be stopped. There is huge anger locally about the cuts, and Labour should channel this anger into action against these savage austerity measures.
Some Labour councillors have already taken an admirable stand and voted against the cuts in their council. Two councillors from Southampton, Don Thomas and Keith Morrell, refused to follow the party line claiming “we didn't become Labour councillors to make cuts and we won't”. Other Labour councillors have resigned over the cuts, such as Lynn Jeffries from York who attacked the party for not listening to local residents and deciding to make cuts to care services before any consultation had taken place. However, these councillors are in the minority within Labour, and most councillors are not willing to follow their lead.
Whilst it is clear what all Labour councils should be doing, are they likely to do so? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The leadership of the Labour party has come out time and time again in favour of cuts and has consistently refused to back strike action to defend workers rights. Whilst there are still those within the party who are committed to fighting for the working class, they unfortunately do not and cannot take over the leadership of the party due to an undemocratic internal life and a lack of numbers to push for such a change. It is an often said these days that there is little difference between the main three parties, and this is clearly the case. All the parties would rather see the working class pay for the economic crisis, than lay the blame where it belongs, at the door of big business, the banks, in short: capitalism. For this reason, there needs to be a new mass party of the working class who would be willing to stand up for workers rights and fight the cuts, and also have a clear programme of how to get out of this economic crisis.
There is the beginning of such a party in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). While still a small coalition, it has the backing of several unions including the RMT and PCS, and is the only political party who oppose all cuts. There are many alternatives to the cuts that are being ignored. For a start simply taxing the super-rich at a higher rate would bring in a lot of revenue. Closing the tax loop holes and stopping tax evasion by big businesses and the rich could bring in up to £120 billion a year, which alone is nearly the entire deficit! It is estimated there is about £700 billion in wealth in the accounts of large private businesses and the banks that they are refusing to invest in the economy as there is nowhere profitable for them to do so. These businesses should be forced to invest this money into the economy and if they refuse their wealth should be nationalised. What is more important, the profit of the 1% or the living standards of the 99%?
We need a party who is willing to make these arguments and stand up for the hard working people of this country. If Labour councils are willing to oppose cuts and defend ordinary people, then they should have the full backing of unions, activists, and the working people in their district. However it is not enough to sit around and wait for the Labour party to take action. If Hastings Labour council are not willing to oppose cuts then the working people of Hastings need to organise, protest, and build a political alternative to Labour who will be willing to make a stand against this cruel coalition. TUSC can be that alternative.
It is clear that such an alternative is needed, and establishing one will be a significant step forward for the working class. It is the opinion of the Socialist Party that while a new workers party would be a big step forward – allowing debates to take place nationally on how to oppose austerity and how to build working class organisation – it is the capitalist system itself which needs replacing with a socialist society. The wealth and potential of society could be run democratically in the interest of the majority, not a tiny minority whose only criteria of success is their own profits. In our opinion, a new workers party would need to have socialist policies aimed at the establishment of a socialist society.