The below is the text of a leaflet being distributed by Leeds Socialist Party members at the forthcoming AGM meetings of Leeds Unison.
Leeds City Council has, like other local authorities, seen huge reductions in its funding of over 40% which has translated into the Labour leadership of the council passing cuts budgets for the last 5 years. This has seen around 2500 staff posts lost alongside cutbacks and closures ofcouncil run and funded services. A further £76m is being cut this year.
With the Tory government re-elected and more years of austerity being mapped out by George Osborne, then it is clear that there will be year-on-year cutbacks to local government funding and that this burden will disproportionately fall on urban, mostly Labour-held local authorities.
But it is also clear that more money can be found if pressure is applied. Osborne found £300m to give mostly to Tory-controlled authorities after backbench Tory MPs threatened to block the Local Government Finance Settlement, which demonstrates this.
The question is, how can Labour-controlled authorities do the same? The Socialist Party believes that councils and councillors need to build a mass campaign to force the money necessary to fund local public services from the government. An important step in this direction would be for Jeremy Corbyn and the local government unions calling a national demonstration against council cuts, demanding that funding be restored.
Councillors could assist such a campaign by taking a clear stand against the cuts, rather than implementing them. The Socialist Party believes this could be done by councillors passing a no-cuts budget which would give the time for such a campaign to develop and succeed. Such a budget can be passed legally if councils were to draw upon their reserves and borrowing powers to comply with its duty to pass a ‘balanced budget’.
The council for, example, at the end of the 2014/15 financial year had around £390m in usable reserves, an increase of £64m on the previous financial year. These are usable reserves in the sense that the money is immediately available (as opposed to fixed assets or long-term investments), although a proportion of this is legally ring-fenced such as school reserves and housing revenue reserves. Other parts of the reserves may be allocated to future spending or have restrictions on spending (capital reserves can be only spent on capital investment or debt repayment). We believe that the council could review its previous allocation decisions, to see what funds could be released to help balance a no-cuts budget on a short-term basis.
Similarly, the council can exercise its own prudential borrowing powers to fund revenue expenditure. As anti-cuts councillors in Southampton found when they proposed use of such powers, a QC employed by the council found there was no legal obstacle to doing so. Debt liabilities incurred and reserves that need replenishing would be topped-up on the basis of a successful campaign.
The Socialist Party believes that given these options, it is entirely possible for councillors to put together a no-cuts budget and encourages councillors, trade unionists and service users to come together to discuss how this could be done. We helped Unite Community & Youth Fight for Jobs organise a recent ‘People’s Budget Conference’ to this effect and would urge Unison to involve itself in the campaign coming out of the conference.
It is not only the Socialist Party who argue for this. Both the local government executives of Unison and Unite support such a stance. The political links of both Unison & Unite with the Labour Party should be used to pressure councillors to take such a stand, with the full support of the unions being given to any councillor who took such a stance, both against the Tories using the limited powers they have to intervene, but also against the bureaucracy of the Labour Party who have driven anti-cuts councillors out of the Labour Party in cities and towns like Southampton, Hull, Leicester and Warrington.
Many of the tools that central government could have used to attack councillors who resisted cuts has been taken off the statute book, and indeed when councils in the past have challenged local government they have generally proved ineffective or have not been used for the fear of provoking an even bigger backlash against the government.
But time is running out, as further cuts come through to local government services then more jobs and services will go if there isn’t a serious fight to defend them. Every year that passes, the cuts become deeper and more services are lost. We urge Unison members to discuss urgently the need for a serious campaign to defeat these cuts.