In an interview in the August edition of Environmental Health News, Bill Randall, Leader of Brighton Council, said that while the Green Party in Brighton won with a manifesto that promised to resists the cuts to the greatest possible extent, the council cannot actually stop them. He said he is not going to defy the government, adding ‘I am not going to be a George Lansbury.’
Of course, he was referring to the 1921 Poplar Rates Revolt - the refusal of Poplar councillors, led by George Lansbury, to collect a precept for the LCC and other London wide bodies in protest against the unfair burden the then rating system placed on a desperately poor borough like Poplar. The majority of the borough’s councillors were committed to prison for contempt, but after six weeks, in the face of huge public support for the councillors and other councils starting to threaten to take the same action, the Government backed down, releasing the councillors and rushing a Bill through parliament which effectively equalised the burden of rates between rich and poor boroughs.
‘I think times have changed a bit since George Lansbury’ said Bill and of course he is right. Up to a point. The situation is different in two significant ways. First, subsequent to the failed rebellion by various Labour councils against the 1984 Rates Act, the law has been changed to make such another such rebellion physically impossible. Chief Finance Officers effectively have a power of veto on council budgets and are, legally, ultimately accountable to central government rather than local councillors. Councillors might set a deficit budget but would be completely unable to put it into action and would rapidly be suspended from office by the Standards Board for England for even attempting it. Second, although popular opposition to the cuts is growing, it is - as yet - largely at the level of unfocussed resentment. Willingness to take on the government is very patchy among trade unionists and within local communities organised opposition is still focussed on saving specific services rather than more generalised resistance to the cuts.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that councillors shouldn’t ever consider open defiance as a tactic; but that’s what it is - a tactic, rather than the only correct strategy. For example, when Poplar councillors defied the Tory Government (and the leadership of the Labour Party) on the issue of rate equalisation they knew that they had huge support that extended well beyond the boundaries of Poplar. While Lansbury and his comrades were undoubtedly brave and principled, they were not just striking a heroic pose when they marched to the High Court led by flying banners and a brass band. They knew that the rebellion was likely to spread if they were prepared to be bold, and that the government was on shaky ground and could be forced to retreat. However, the other issue of dispute with national government was Poplar’s policy of paying a minimum wage of £4 a week to its workers. When this was finally ruled unlawful in 1925 the Council, realising that it could not mobilise any support among other councils to spread the dispute and that the unions were not going to take on the government on the issue, gave in and cut wages. But that was not a betrayal of principle, it was a tactical retreat.
Now, I happen to think that as cuts start to really hurt in the coming year there will be a need for some local authorities to take a lead in challenging the Government. The role of the union leaderships is obviously critical, but they will only, at best, take up a defensive posture (and I still doubt the resolve of many of them to do anything at all). Local campaigns are likely to remain fragmented - and it any case, by and large, don’t have much leverage (unlike the poll tax campaign) beyond occupations and similar militant protests. In this context, councils moving into open defiance and challenging the Government to close them down if it dares could provide a dramatic focus of opposition an already slightly shaky Coalition.
However, it is tactically quite legitimate for Green councillors in Brighton and those Labour councillors elsewhere who genuinely want to fight the cuts (and there are some of them) to respond by saying that one local authority can’t defeat the Government. And, of course if that was all that was happening, they would be right.
But I think that it is tactically quite legitimate to respond by asking ‘so what is Plan B? How best, then, can we set about organising popular opposition in order to defeat this Government’s plans to ravage public services?’ My fundamental criticism of all Labour councils and Labour councillors (and, I fear, most Green councillors I have talked to) is not that they are too cautious in their tactics for fighting the Government but they do not have a strategy of fighting the government at all. They don’t have a Plan B; their strategy is simply to manage things as best they can and minimise the damage that the cuts they are forced to impose are causing.
I have no wish to put our comrades in Brighton on the spot and certainly not to criticise what they have been doing in their first few months in office - they seem to be doing an good job in difficult circumstances and are proving to be a breath of fresh air in the musty corridors of municipal administration - but history has put them, as the first Green Council - on the spot. The municipal Labour Left, if it exists at all, has completely failed to develop a strategy for taking on the Government (or rather, it has a strategy of not taking on the Government). So that leaves us in Brighton.
I would suggest a twin track approach over the coming months. First, in Brighton itself, our Councillors could engage in a genuinely joint budget setting process with the unions and local community organisations based on two pledges; first, to have a genuinely open books policy, with all financial information open to the unions and the community (senior officers will fight this tooth and nail), and second, not to implement a budget until there is a broad consensus on it with the unions and local community organisations. If such a consensus budget proved to be unnacceptable to the Government through its proxy, the Chief Finance Officer, it would mean that if the Green Councillors were forced towards confrontation they would do so not isolated, but at the head of a wave of both local and national support.
Second, on a national basis, the Green group could attempt to organise a national conference aimed at establishing an alliance of all local authorities who want to find viable ways of subverting, sabotaging or out and out defying the Governments plans. Such a conference could also aim to drag in the leaderships of the main unions involved - Unison, Unite, GMB and the teaching unions in order to develop a united front with a common programme of action. Such a programme would most likely be very cautious, but it would be a start in establishing the idea that local authorities can and must start to fight back rather than just acting as the Coalition’s (reluctant) local agents.
No local council can, on its own, take on and defeat the Government. And the Green Party, on its own, can’t mobilise a mass movement which can bring the government down. But the Green Party in Brighton, and nationally, is in a position to play a key role in establishing a real opposition to the Government that can stop it in its tracks. It is a responsibility that we just can’t shirk.