Even after the October 20th announcement, the full detail of the cuts won’t become completely clear for a couple of months. It’s unlikely for example that individual local authorities will have a clear picture of where they stand until mid November and the full implications in terms of council budgets, cuts and potential redundancies won’t be known probably until February or March.
The extent of the cuts in each local area will also vary according to the size of any reserves that councils hold, as well as the political makeup and priorities of each local authority. Many councils were badly affected by the collapse of the Icelandic banks which will also have an adverse effect on budgets and services.
What this means is that there is a long run-in to the crunch dates in February and March. It is entirely possible for the trade unions to coordinate resistance to the cuts nationally, regionally and locally building up towards that point, already there has been a series of demonstrations and actions around the European TUC day of action on September 29th. The next key date is October 20th and there will be other opportunities over the next few months. Workers will be demanding a clear lead as the government starts to stick the knife in.
But, how will the trade unions defeat the cuts? It is evident across the whole of Europe that the response of the bourgeois to the economic crisis on a world scale and to the cost of the bail out of the banks is a whole period of austerity. The gloves are off and already the Irish, Greek, Spanish and other European workers have experience of the outcome.
In Britain, the austerity programme has been delayed for a period because of the General Election. Also, the position of the Labour leadership was that to introduce severe cuts in the middle of the crisis wasn’t a wise idea. From an economic perspective the effect of cuts in a recession would have been to aggravate the crisis. The effect of such cuts at any time would be significant, but it also has to be said that the political fallout from implementing huge cuts in the run up to the election was far too much of a risk for Brown and Darling to publically contemplate. But under the Tory Lib Dem coalition the cuts will be far deeper and more destructive than even under the Thatcher government in the 1980’s.
Local government has much less control over what it can do and how much money it spends than it had in the 1980’s. The potential for “creative accountancy” or recouping funds through raising the Council Tax or by setting a deficit budget is far less than it was in the past. Many of the tactics that Labour councils used in the past to fight the cuts were made illegal by the Tories in the 1980s. The reason for this is clear. The Tories were not prepared to allow Labour councils, employing thousands of workers and with significant control of government money to represent an obstacle and a political opposition.
But the opposition that Labour councils represented in the past didn’t drop from the sky. The Labour Party had swung to the left during the 1970’s on the back of the industrial struggles under the Heath Government and the battles against the Labour Government’s cuts at the end of the decade that became known as the Winter of Discontent. Unions like NUPE had become radicalised in the process. While the national Labour Party and the trade unions failed to offer a fighting opposition to the cuts, pressure from below forced many local councils to make a stand. There was a serious debate within the party on a local level about the way to fight the cuts.
The left initially argued that councils should raise the level of rates (precursor of the Poll Tax and the current Council Tax), arguing that the poorest and most vulnerable would be covered by rate rebates and that the burden would be carried by the middle class. The right wing developed a position known as the “Dented Shield” approach, in other words damage limitation. The Marxists argued for no cuts and no rate rises, but for a mass struggle to defeat the cuts and the Tories. This was the position that was maintained in Liverpool between 1984 and 1987.
The situation today is somewhat different. The Labour Party is relatively empty and the room to manoeuvre for local councils is far more limited. The focus for opposition to the cuts has shifted towards the trade unions. But, it would be extremely short sighted to ignore the political struggle. While many councillors will continue to see themselves as managers above all, it is inevitable that the opposition to the cuts will be reflected within the party and even among a number of councillors at a certain stage.
Most of the struggles that will break out against the cuts are likely to be local and specific to stop the closure of schools or hospitals or to fight redundancies or cuts in services. Local Councils are different to National Governments, they are far more subject to pressure and it is possible to defeat specific cuts and redundancies. But the key element of the struggle against the cuts will be political. The struggle to defend public services and to fight the cuts has to be combined with a fight for a socialist programme.
At its height the Marxist led Liverpool council mobilised tens of thousands of workers and their families in a struggle that directly confronted the Tory government. That movement was ultimately letdown by the Labour Leadership, but it is extremely important to remember that the first year of the struggle began during the miner’s strike. Confronted by serious opposition, the Tories backed off, in part because they were concerned about a second front opening at a time of heightened class struggle.
The anger and opposition generated by the Tory cuts has to be channelled effectively through the unions and then into the party. The reason why the Marxists were able to win a political majority in Liverpool Labour Party in the 1980’s was a clear political programme, building up support for the ideas of Marxism amonst workers and youth. The Marxists were witch hunted in the Labour Party precisely because the ruling class were frightened of the influence and effectiveness of Marxist ideas.
But, in truth the only way to defeat the cuts is through exactly that sort of mass movement, but not just in Liverpool. The trade union leaders have talked about a mass campaign of civil disobedience. They have even spoken about the mass movement around the Poll Tax which involved some 14 million people. What is key however isn’t just the size of a movement, but what ideas and methods it’s armed with. Sections of the trade union leadership, most notably in UNISON have already indicated that their biggest concern is the threat of the Tories provoking an all out battle with the public sector. Under these conditions, it’s most likely that they will try and seek some sort of compromise with the Tories. Their dilemma is however that weakness invites aggression. Most of the struggles against the cuts will be local. Therefore the trade union leaders have to back each and every local struggle that breaks out.
But at the same time, there are common issues and battles to be fought on a national level. One key battleground has to be public sector pensions. The press are full of lies and distortions about gilt edged pensions. The debate over the future of public sector pensions is already under way and the PCS have already taken strike action prior to the election. However there are extremely worrying reports in the Local Government Chronicle and other papers about possible deals being touted already by UNISON around changes to the Local Government Pension Scheme a mere two years after the last lot of major changes were introduced. It is quite possible that this is the sort of area that the Trade Union leaders might look for a deal to offset some of the cuts.
But, as in the case of Ireland, it’s probable that any deal will be full of holes. The trade union leaders have to fight fire with fire. There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years about coordinated national action. That is precisely what’s needed to defend pensions, and other terms and conditions, but more than that the movement needs to build towards a one day general strike. Only a mass movement of the working class, a rebellion against the cuts can defeat the Tories.
However, ultimately, even if the Tories are defeated, the reason for the assault on the working class throughout Europe lies with the Capitalist system itself. The banking crisis and the crash in the world economy reflect a sick and senile capitalism. In the 1930’s Trotsky depicted the ruling class as “tobogganing to disaster with their eyes closed”. The intervening years have created a world that is far more interconnected and where the world market dominates every country in the world. The next few years will see more instability than at any time since the 1930’s. The only way out is through the socialist transformation of society.