At a recent full council meeting in Preston I proposed a motion that the council should commit itself to a policy of no cuts, no job losses and no privatisation of services.
The motion was widely discussed locally and got the unanimous support of Preston Trades Council and Preston Against the Cuts.
These are broad based forums where people from across the left come together and work against the cuts.
Five local Labour councillors voted for the motion at these meetings.
Yet, when it came to the council meeting, not a single Labour councillor voted for the motion.
Many in the public gallery were shocked that Labour councillors who had spoken in favour of the motion at public anti-cuts meetings, now spoke and voted against the motion.
Labour councillors proposed an amendment arguing for voluntary redundancies and “natural wastage”, with compulsory redundancies as a last resort.
It argued that while Labour councillors were opposed to cuts, privatisation and outsourcing, they would be prepared to make those decisions if necessary.
Both the Tories and the Lib Dems voted for Labour’s amendment.
Between now and April councils across the country are going to set their budgets for next year.
These will involve pushing through massive job losses and fundamental changes to local service provision and delivery.
Anti-cuts groups should target these council meetings in the same way that campaigners against the poll tax protested against similar meetings.
But the meetings are likely to throw up questions about the role of local councillors—particularly the role of Labour ones.
The Labour Party holds all sorts of contradictions.
On the one hand it has a continuing connection with the trade union movement, both nationally and locally.
It portrays itself as, and is often seen as, the party of the working class.
Given the scale of the attacks, it is not surprising that the party is experiencing a growth in membership.
These new members are joining because they are against the cuts and we have to work alongside them in non-sectarian ways.
On the other hand though, the Labour Party has always portrayed itself as a responsible party of government, putting the interests of the nation first.
In reality this means that the interests of the powerful—the banks and the captains of industry—will be prioritised at the expense of the interests of ordinary working people.
At local government level, however, these contradictions don’t always work themselves out in predictable ways. Local councillors are closer to the communities they represent.
There are historical examples where Labour councillors have been pushed by local campaigns to challenge cuts.
The most famous was the case of the London Poplar councillors.
In the 1919 local government elections Labour won 39 of the 42 available seats in Poplar.
Council leader George Lansbury famously said, “Labour councils must be different from those that they displace, or why displace them?”
He and his councillors set about establishing and protecting local services, and paid for them by refusing to pay precepts (general rates) to London-wide services like the police and utilities.
They said that better off boroughs should pay for these services—because the rich in areas like Westminster and Chelsea paid proportionately less tax for better services than people in poorer boroughs.
The result was that 30 councillors were jailed for six weeks.
But their sacrifice was part of a successful and militant campaign that united local communities, trade unionists and activists in defence of jobs and services.
It offered a glimpse of what a principled and determined campaign against cuts can look like.
Yet rather than celebrate Lansbury’s victory, the Labour Party denounced him.
London Labour leader Herbert Morrison denounced the action as “unconstitutional” and made two claims that still ring true within Labour circles today.
First he said that the best way to fight the cuts was “to educate people to vote Labour”.
And he claimed that Labour at local government level had to show that they could run services smoothly and efficiently—proving that they are fit to govern.
It was the same thinking that led Neil Kinnock to denounce poll tax protesters as “toytown revolutionaries” in the late 1980s.
He called for a “dented shield” policy, arguing that Labour would administer cuts and outsourcing, but more humanely than the Tories!
Rather than the Lansbury tradition, it was the Morrison and Kinnock tradition that dominated the actions of Preston’s Labour councillors.
And it is this tradition that is likely to dominate the actions of Labour councillors over the next few months in council meetings across the country.
While we stand and fight alongside our Labour Party colleagues in anti-cuts groups, we have to be clear: a cut implemented by a Labour council is just as painful as one implemented by a Tory or a Lib Dem council.
We will support every Labour councillor who takes a stand against cuts and job losses.
But we must retain the right to act independently against any council and any authority that implements the cuts.
Michael Lavalette is an independent socialist councillor and member of the Socialist Workers Party