Councils agree savage cuts – fightback begins

With the ConDem decision to cut central government funding for local authorities by 26% over four years, proposals for huge cuts in local services were inevitable. Councils in more affluent areas, mainly in the south of England, suffer less from this reduction because they get a much higher proportion of their income from local business rates and council tax than do the mostly Labour-dominated councils in poorer, more working class areas such as parts of central London and the north of England. Yet not a single Labour-run council has stepped out of line and refused to implement cuts to services on which working class people and especially the elderly and disabled depend.

When an FRFI supporter in Sunderland challenged Labour councillors at a public meeting on 10 March, calling on them to refuse to implement local cuts, council leader Paul Watson attempted to justify his council’s cuts of £59 million as a defence of the people of Sunderland! Even worse, Islington Labour councillor Phil Kelly has claimed that Labour councillors are ‘in the leadership of the anti-cuts campaign’. Far from leading any campaign against the cuts, Labour councils have acted as executioners on behalf of the ConDem coalition and the City of London. Local Labour leaders are not alone. A pattern has emerged where trade unions have offered little resistance, and in many cases have participated in deciding where the cuts should fall, negotiating voluntary redundancies as services are decimated and jobs lost, whilst most of the British left have failed utterly to challenge the Labour Party and trade union leaders and to build a movement independent of their control.

London Labour councils wield the axe

By early March, 27 London councils had voted through cuts budgets, resulting in at least 7,500 job losses. Under the slogans of ‘savings’ and ‘efficiencies’, London Labour councils are approving brutal attacks on working class people. Libraries, day centres for the elderly, respite care facilities for carers of the disabled and  residential care homes are being closed; meals on wheels services and park maintenance are being cut – and this is just the beginning.

On 17 February, Labour-run Islington council passed a cuts budget of £52 million, which requires 350 job losses and massive cuts to vital services. FRFI supporters were among local residents who heckled the councillors from the public gallery and who were dragged out by police on the orders of councillors. Islington’s cuts were followed by other Labour councils including Lambeth (£40 million), Camden (£35 million), Haringey (£46 million), Hackney (£44 million), Southwark (£33m) and Newham (£47 million).

Members of the supposed ‘Labour left’, like Islington council’s Charlynne Pullen, have labelled it ‘idealist’ to oppose the cuts and have voted for them. On budget day in Islington one person conveniently missing was Jeremy Corbyn, left Labour MP for Islington North. He was away in Sheffield proclaiming his hollow opposition to cuts while some of his constituents were being dragged out of the council chamber by the police for opposing the cuts in practice. He has since signed a public letter supporting the council.

The attempt by Labour councillors across London to position themselves at the front of opposition to the cuts is grotesque. Islington Labour councillors even wanted to lead an Islington contingent for the TUC march on 26 March. Islington TUC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) called for ‘unity’ with these self-same councillors. When an FRFI supporter voiced opposition to such unity at a meeting of Islington Hands Off Our Public Services on 14 March, an SWP member proposed that the meeting should move straight to next business.

FRFI supporters have participated in actions to defend services: attending meetings at the Millman Centre where Camden Council proposes to close services to over elderly people, and supporting the campaign to prevent Islington council closing Sotheby Mews day centre for the elderly, a struggle which has been partially successful following the threat of an occupation. We have also challenged Corbyn and Labour councillors constantly on marches, at local anti-cuts meetings and in the letters pages of local newspapers. Regular street work, engaging with local people on the issues, has reinforced our conviction that there are many working class people who will not be deceived by the hypocrites who flock to the aid of the Labour Party.

Newcastle Unison collaborates with cuts to care services

Newcastle City Council voted through cuts of £44 million on 2 March, with 650 redundancies and cuts to services across the city. A promised demonstration by Unison on the day of the vote failed to materialise. Chirton House Resource Centre for older people and Westerhope Day Centre for people with learning disabilities will be closed down as £2 million and 70 jobs are axed from services to vulnerable adults. Chirton House provides local respite, emergency, rehabilitation and day care services. Getting out to a day centre once or twice a week may be a person’s only social contact. Rehabilitation services help people relearn lost skills and regain independence after strokes, illnesses or accidents. The closure of one out of the existing three respite centres in the city will undoubtedly lead to fewer respite care beds and longer waiting lists.

Day Centre provides services for adults with disabilities and mental health problems. Closing the Westerhope Centre will mean that service users are battling for access to remaining services. Gladys Salkeld, whose daughter attends the centre four days a week, told FRFI:

‘For my daughter it’s a loss of community, her hours will be dropped from four full days to four hour slots, she’ll be left stagnating in her house [a supported housing setting] with four other service users because there’s not the staff to take them out … she hasn’t got a voice, she can’t speak, they’re putting the closure through quietly because they can’t speak up for themselves. The council is rough-riding across all the young people.’

Under pressure from workers, full time officials from Unison Newcastle City branch organised a series of public meetings on the closures of Chirton House and the Westerhope Centre, but have blocked every attempt to organise anything beyond negotiations with the council. These union officials have willingly cooperated with the closure of the two centres, with official Paul Gilroy insisting at a public meeting on 21 February that the starting point for any union action has to be acceptance of the need for cuts, and that discussion should be limited to where these cuts should be made and how quickly. Workers, users, carers, community members and activists are now organising to build a campaign outside the control of the union against the closures.

Scotland: battle lines are drawn

In Scotland, significant opposition has yet to emerge, as the main parties manoeuvre in the run-up to Scottish parliament elections due for April or May 2011. UK Treasury funding to Scotland has been cut by £3.3bn. In January the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration dutifully vowed to implement the required cuts over three years, with cuts of £1.3bn already set out in this year’s budget. Local councils announced budget proposals on 10 February which included thousands of job losses, pay freezes and cuts to services such as housing, community centres, libraries, social care, schools and nurseries which will devastate working class communities. FRFI supporters joined over 2,000 staff and students in Glasgow on 19 February on a march against education cuts of £20 million, and militant protests outside a meeting of Dundee City Council’s education committee on 1 March, but as yet protests have been limited compared to England.

Regardless of the results of the upcoming election, it is clear that all the main political parties are committed to unleashing yet another assault on the Scottish working class. Labour, Liberal Democratic, SNP, Tory: all are thoroughly discredited. In Glasgow, the Labour Party has controlled the council for 50 years. Mired in corruption, it has led the way in the privatisation and transfer of public housing stock, community facilities, culture, construction and transport, enriching itself in the process. Over 40 Glasgow city councillors have received some £260,000 between them for sitting on the boards of ‘arms-length organisations’ which they themselves privatised.

A massive social crisis is in the making. April will see 36% of households, 109,000 people, in Glasgow left poorer by changes in housing and council tax benefit changes. There are currently 283,000 people in Scotland claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB), including 51,000 in Glasgow alone. From April, everyone on IB will be  reassessed by private medical firm ATOS, and based on a pilot-scheme in Aberdeen, 30% of people will be deemed fit to work immediately and transferred into the ranks of the unemployed on Jobseeker’s Allowance. FRFI has joined others in leafleting outside ATOS and more actions are planned. The Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee, meanwhile, has recommended a 24% rise in the salaries of Scottish councillors. The battle is underway.

Thomas Vincent, Joseph Eskovitchl,

Murray Andrews

MARCHING FOR THE REAL ALTERNATIVE

On 26 March up to 500,000 people from across the country marched through London on the TUC’s demonstration ‘March for the Alternative’.

Determined to ensure that the demonstration remained respectable, in its phrase ‘family friendly’, TUC officials joined the Metropolitan Police in their control centre to direct the march. The TUC’s idea of the alternative was made clear with its invitation to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband to speak at the end rally. Claiming that the demonstration stood in the tradition of the Civil Rights movement in the US, the Suffragette movement and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, Miliband ignored the fact that none of these movements would have achieved anything without civil disobedience and being prepared to use violence. ‘We need jobs to cut the deficit. Unemployment is never a price worth paying’, he said. Yet Miliband agrees with the ConDems on the need to cut the deficit – and that necessarily means job losses and more unemployment.

Not everyone was deceived by Labour’s verbal opposition to the spending cuts.

Demonstrators heckled ‘left’ Labour Party leaders and councillors responsible for implementing local cuts as they marched past. FRFI supporters held an open-mic speakout in Hyde Park, which attracted hundreds of people throughout the afternoon, and in which dozens spoke in opposition to the cuts and to Labour Party hypocrisy.

Nor could the TUC or the Met contain the anger of thousands of young people, as they targeted stores, banks and hotels in Piccadilly, one of the poshest parts of London. UK Uncut supporters occupied Fortnum and Mason, caterer to the Queen, daubing its walls with slogans like ‘tax the rich’, proclaiming ‘we are the alternative’. Others targeted the Ritz hotel. Earlier on protestors threw missiles and paint-bombs at Topshop in Oxford Street, splattering the police guarding the store. Topshop owner Sir Phillip Green is a billionaire, adviser to the government and a serial tax-dodger.

The TUC and Labour Party will be seeking to distance themselves from the actions of these young people because they want to stop any effective resistance. We say that without this class anger, without this hatred of the rich and their politicians, we will achieve nothing.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011

 

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