‘Councillors against the Cuts’: a health warning

Recent history of ‘left’-Labour rebellion is far from encouraging.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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A ‘new’ movement announced its arrival recently, calling itself ‘Councillors Against the Cuts.’ What are we to make of it?

Whilst the dominant pattern within most local councils is still that of Labour councillors going along with, or directly implementing, the budget cuts demanded by the government, a small minority of Labour’s foot soldiers in the council chambers are getting so rattled by the erosion of their ‘leftist’ credentials that they have started edging nervously towards a formal position of non-cooperation with capitalism’s austerity agenda.

Labour councillors in authorities dominated by the Tories or the LibDems may sometimes pluck up the courage to cast their votes against the passage of a cuts budget, able in this way to make themselves look good in the local community without fear of much in the way of practical consequences. At worst they may court some disapproval from the party whip, but in areas hard hit by the crisis they may prefer to risk the wrath of the party rather than that of the electorate.

Even this show of independence may be a bridge too far for some timeservers though: in LibDem-dominated Bristol City Council recently all the Labour group bar one simply abstainedon the crucial budget vote. (Rumour has it that the one who actually voted against only did so as a result of failing to grasp the new voting system in operation!)

In local authorities where the Labour group dominates, however, the wiggle-room is more limited. Voting through a cuts budget in harmony with all the other capitalist parties invites the contempt of the workers they claim to represent. Conversely, voting down a cuts budget, or voting up a deficit budget, in the teeth of opposition from both Cameron and Miliband, has consequences which threaten to seriously disrupt the fine balance of demagogic posture and practical collaboration which keeps the average left-Labour career spinning merrily along. This plunges ‘left’ Labourites into something of a quandary.

Under the impact of the crisis, a significant minority of Labour councillors are starting to grow restless and cast furtive glances in the direction of political principle, all too aware of the growing disaffection and hostility generated by the sight of Labour councillors meekly implementing so-called ‘Tory cuts’ – or, to cut through the flannel, capitalist cuts. To assess the significance of such a ‘rebellion’, we need to look back to the 1980s.

Liverpool in the 1980s

It is not the first time that this problem has presented itself to Labour councillors. Back in the 1980s, when the capitalist state started in earnest on the demolition of the Keynesian consensus which for three decades had partially concealed the split in the working class between the minority of privileged workers and the proletarian majority, Labour councillors on Liverpool City Council found themselves similarly challenged.

There was an upsurge of popular anger on Merseyside from a working class facing the prospect of further cuts in education, social services and council-house construction and upkeep. Whilst this was happening to workers everywhere, Liverpool was hit particularly hard. Services had been deteriorating long before Thatcher came along to squeeze funding and enforce rate-caps on local authorities. The Toxteth uprising of 1981 already served as an accurate barometer of the potential strength of proletarian resistance that was brewing.

The ‘Militant tendency’, forerunners of today’s Socialist Party Trotskyites who, at that time, still preached the virtues of ‘working from within’ the ‘mass party of the working class’, convinced themselves that by gathering a sympathetic majority of Labour councillors around their campaign they could harness that popular anger and lead a successful challenge against the government.

From a strong position on the District Labour Party they proposed that, far from being further cut, Liverpool services should be restored. Furthermore, rather than rely upon a rise in the rates to pay for this, the people of Liverpool should demand that central government shoulder the cost. The idea was that the council should unite with the Labour and trade-union movement to fight for the money needed from the government. This stand won widespread support in the community, reflected in a substantial vote for Labour in the local elections in 1983, ending 10 years of hung councils.

Buoyed up by this, the Labour council went ahead and set an illegal deficit budget, confronting the government with a stark choice between stumping up the funds or seeing Liverpool go bust. At this point, the Labour party (upon whose supposed reconversion to socialism Militant encouraged workers to rely) promptly demonstrated its fidelity to capitalism by pulling the rug out from under the council.

Just like Miliband today, Kinnock told councillors to stay in office and try to minimise the effects of cuts (ie, make them ‘fairer’, ‘slower’ etc), whilst Blunkett declared that the “time was not ripe for law breaking”. Enough Labour councillors were cowed by this pressure to defeat the proposed illegal budget, and the failure to pass a legal budget either left the city’s finances in limbo.

With hopes still high that the council would lead a serious battle against capitalist austerity, a further election in May 1984 increased Labour’s majority, giving the upper hand to those pledged to setting an illegal budget.

Alarmed by the popular mood – and confronted by the mighty struggle of the miners – the government chose this moment to send an emissary to Liverpool to offer concessions saving the council around £20m … of its £160m shortfall! In addition, the council claimed that the government had promised a further £130m in housing allocation for the following year. However, this ‘gentleman’s agreement’ was never minuted and was flatly denied by the government.

Yet the council naively hailed this pig in a poke as a great victory, raised rates by 17 percent, and indulged in some ‘creative accounting’ to reschedule debts, rolling them over to the following year, thereby in practice postponing confrontation to a time when the government was no longer preoccupied by the miners. Meanwhile, cuts in education and refuse collection slipped through, putting a dent in the council’s credibility.

On 3 March 1985, the miners returned to work. On 14 June 1985 the council again set an illegal rate. This time, however, there was to be no emissary from the government bearing gifts. Instead the council was left staring blankly at a deficit of £117m.

At this moment, when a huge responsibility sat on the council’s shoulders to live up to its promises and lead a mass struggle against the government, it instead announced a hare-brained scheme to make the council’s workforce temporarily redundant, pay them redundancy money which in most cases would be less than their wages, then rely on the government’s redundancy fund to make up the difference. This disastrous gambit put public services in jeopardy, divided the workforce (some better-paid workers would lose out) and demanded a gigantic leap of faith that workers would be hired again when the dust had settled.

Yet even without support from most of the unions, the council pressed on and issued the redundancy notices, effectively giving the kiss of death to the r-r-revolutionary ambitions of the Trot entryists and handing Kinnock the perfect stick with which to beat them.

Having betrayed the heroic miners’ strike, it was hardly to be expected that Labour would afford any kinder treatment for the petty-bourgeois mock-heroics on Merseyside. Indeed, as our comrades noted at the time, “It has to be admitted that the Labour Party decimated the Militant would-be revolutionaries far more effectively than the Conservative government could have done. Tory assaults would have made the Militants martyrs to whose calls the masses were prepared to rally. But Labour’s onslaught drained all the strength, vitality and support of the Militants, humiliated them and finished them off.”[sup] 1[/sup]

Whilst some of the councillors on Liverpool Council made personal sacrifices in the struggle, it was the working class of Liverpool who paid the highest price, not only materially but also in terms of class consciousness. All their finest proletarian instincts for struggle were dragged back behind social democracy, demonstrating yet again that, “so long as the Labour Party retains any influence over mass struggle, that struggle is bound to fail”.

Learning from history

And yet the Socialist Party still dines out on the supposed triumphs of its Militant grandfathers back in the day, and still supports such rascals as Labour placeman Len McCluskey on the strength of his support for Militant in 1980s Liverpool. Its leaders conveniently ‘forget’ that the Trot entryists did not voluntarily jump ship; rather, they were chucked overboard.

And they continue to sniff disconsolately around the Labour party to this day, for all their noise about workers needing ‘a new party’. Now, no less than in the 1980s, the luminaries of the Socialist Party remain incapable of grasping that “however hard and arduous it may seem to build up a genuine working-class party and to break the hold of the sham working-class party, the Labour Party, this is the only way forward”.[sup]1[/sup]

And if the SP Trots have learned nothing from their own history, the same is doubly true of the jokers now hanging around the resurrected ‘Labour Representation Committee’, persuading anyone who will listen that we must all reinvent the wheel of social democracy and ‘reclaim’ the Labour party for socialism and the working class.

The fact that it is the LRC which is sponsoring ‘Councillors against the Cuts’ should be enough in itself to get proletarian hackles up. A glance at the history of the real LRC, as opposed to the rest home for deluded left social democrats currently trading under that name, should be enough to tell us what the score is.

The original Labour Representation Committee

As British capitalism came up against increasing competition from the US, Germany and France in the last decade or so of the 19th century, it forced a number of bitter defeats upon some of the craft unions whose members had hitherto enjoyed better conditions than their fellow workers thanks to Britain’s now fast-eroding industrial monopoly.

The TUC, happy enough hitherto to let the Lib-Lab alliance represent its interests in parliament, in 1900 set up the Labour Representation Committee with the aim, as Keir Hardie put it, of getting “working class opinion … represented in the House of Commons by men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement”.

Given the fact that the LRC was set up to defend the interests of the roughly one tenth of the working class organised in privileged craft unions, it is not surprising that the Social Democratic Federation’s preferred formulation – demanding a “party organisation separate from the capitalist parties based upon a recognition of class war” – was turfed out on its ear, beginning a long history of open hostility to communism and slavish loyalty to British imperialism.

Right from its very inception, the Labour party (as the LRC came to be known) was at heart a party of the labour aristocracy. It has never deviated one jot from the imperialist agenda in all the ensuing years.

Yet now, as if the whole bloody and treacherous history of the imperialist Labour party were no more than a blank slate just waiting for the proletariat to inscribe its socialist future on, the new, self-styled LRC has chosen this moment to advertise the socialist pretensions of the Labour party – now, as capitalism once again drags society back down into the ditch of slump, fascism and war, demolishing the welfare state concessions provisionally granted during the years of the Keynesian consensus and cutting out the ground from under the feet of the working class.

Labour’s reluctant rebels

So it is that the born-again LRC has taken it upon itself to sponsor a new network of local councillors, ‘Councillors Against the Cuts’, pledged to vote against all cuts to services and jobs, increases in rents and charges, and increases in council tax. On the basis of this promise, everyone is invited, “whether you are a councillor, local government worker, other trade unionist, anti-cuts campaigner, community activist or Labour party activist” to get involved in their new campaign.

Whilst welcoming this further evidence of disarray in the ranks of social democracy, cannier workers will treat with extreme caution a campaign sponsored by those whose avowed political mission is to reconcile the working class to the pro-imperialist Labour party.

A glance at the last 10 years of the anti-war movement will clarify the situation. The same Labour party which in office initiated the criminal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also helped to organise (more accurately, disorganise) the movement protesting against them. The pattern will assuredly repeat itself in the anti-cuts movement if Labour politics are allowed to infest it.

By all means let the LRC’s new network of Labour mutineers quit their party allegiance and join the counter-offensive – minus their social-democratic baggage. Meanwhile, the struggle to uproot social democracy in the workers’ movement is more urgent than ever.


1. From ‘Liverpool showdown: the collapse of Trotskyite dreams of “Socialism in one city”’ by Ella Rule, Lalkar, December 1985, reprinted in H Brar, Social Democracy: the Enemy Within. This book is also the source of the information on the origins of the Labour Representation Committee.