Pressure is growing on Labour councils to fight cuts. All have imposed attacks on workers and services then blamed Tory cuts, sparking angry protests and some strikes.
Now Bristol’s Labour mayor has unveiled a plan to lead a delegation to Whitehall and demand an end to council funding cuts. And he wants other councils to join him.
Marvin Rees has written an open letter to council leaders in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. Together with Bristol these ten make up the “core cities”—and nine are run by Labour councils.
Rees called on them to “harness” the mood against austerity and lobby a “weakened” government on 12 September. He has also asked the People’s Assembly (PA) in Bristol to join the action.
It comes as cuts devastate key services across Britain.
Huw Williams is a parent and campaigner in Bristol. He explained that Rees’ plan has encouraged activists to push for more resistance.
“The PA in Bristol has said that Rees should lead a demo in the city in September,” said Huw. “It feels like this has got legs. The PA meeting last week was very different to what it’s normally like. The South West TUC was there, as were regional officials from the Unite and PCS unions.”
Huw said Labour members report big support for the protest in local party meetings.
“Now the mayor has said he will challenge the cuts, people see this as a march not against him but the Tories. There’s a good chance it will be on a serious scale.”
Bristol City Council is committed to £104 million in cuts by 2022. Councillors plan to slash £33 million this year alone.
The cuts include halving school crossing patrols, closing all but ten libraries and shutting every public toilet. Services to help vulnerable people live independently also face the chop.
There is a plan for “faster recovery of housing benefit debt” and an “enforcement team” to collect debt—that means more hounding of poor people.
Over £1 million will be “saved” by slashing a fund that supports people who need short term help to pay for food or utility bills.
That’s on top of cuts to social care, schools and other key services. At one Bristol primary school, every teacher left at the end of this academic year. The NUT union said workers were “exhausted by overwork”.
Over 5,000 people protested against school funding cuts in May. Parent Jazz helped to set up the Fair Funding For All Schools campaign in Bristol. She told Socialist Worker, “I could see these cuts weren’t isolated but huge and everywhere.
“Ninety-nine percent of children will be affected. And worse, most people I spoke with seemed to have no idea what was happening or that it was such a crisis situation.”
Jazz hopes to “spread awareness, encourage people to actively object, and ultimately try and reverse these cuts”.
Parent campaigner Rish from nearby South Gloucestershire told Socialist Worker, “We’ve lost so many good teachers. You can see the writing on the wall.”
Parents and children have also protested against the cuts to school crossing patrols. Last month over 150 blocked a main road into Bristol for around half an hour.
The council is so rattled that the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Jeff Lovell, denounced protesters as “a disease”.
It is this anger that has led to the shift by Rees. Tellingly his letter said, “If we don’t lead this energy, someone else will.”
The situation in Bristol is mirrored in towns and cities across Britain. In South Gloucestershire the council has already cut £43 million and wants to slash £40 million more by 2020.
It presents this as a way to “empower our communities to play a bigger role in delivering services”. In fact the cuts are piling more pressure onto ordinary people.
In Bristol Rees and Labour councillors think involving people in deciding which cuts to make will somehow lessen the impact.
Rees told a recent consultation meeting that people had to make “internal self-sacrifice”.
But this accepts that there is a need for cuts when many people rightly want none at all. As Rish put it, “They’re trying to pass the buck. So they might say we’ll keep the toilets but we’ll reduce support for homeless people. How is that right?”
Rees has refused to set a “no cuts” budget. But when the Tories are on the backfoot, a coordinated refusal by councils to implement any cuts at all would seriously deepen their crisis.
It is long past the time that Labour’s national leadership launched its long-promised national campaign over council cuts and urged the unions and local communities to mobilise with them.
Big meetings during Bristol council’s “consultation” have seen people heckle Rees. “There is anger towards the mayor,” said Huw. “But there’s also a sense that he’s ‘one of us’. “If Rees leads protests that has the potential to mobilise a large number of Labour Party people.
“Councils that refuse to go along with cuts would be in a very strong position. If Rees refused to implement cuts he would get mass support. And it would put the crisis back with the government.”
The cuts are politicising more and more people. As Rish put it, “Before I had a vague interest in politics. But now I just see the injustice everywhere.”
The September protest already has the backing of Bristol Labour, the South West regions of the TUC and the Unite and PCS unions, Fair Funding For All Schools Bristol and the NAHT headteachers’ union Bristol.
Bristol PA hopes that anti-austerity groups elsewhere will protest on the same day. It said the protests “could lead to a wave of campaigning in cities being hit badly by cuts”.
The People’s Assembly has called a national protest at the Tory party conference in Manchester on 1 October. It’s a real chance to deepen the crisis of Theresa May’s government and help force it out.
Coaches are already booked and being filled from across Britain including from London, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Portsmouth and Barnsley.
The Unison union has now backed the demonstration.
Its Portsmouth City branch signed up 20 people for its coach on one pay protest last month.
Jon Woods is branch chair. He said, “We think we’ll need at least two coaches from Portsmouth. We are encouraging other union branches to book coaches.
“And we plan a public meeting in September to publicise the demo.
“The pay cap is a big mobilising factor for people. It’s a long journey—we’ll have to leave at 6.30am—but lots of people feel they have to be in Manchester.”
PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka told Socialist Worker the Tories had “lost their mandate to govern in June and we need to keep the pressure on them”.
He said, “An immediate challenge is the struggle to end the public sector pay cap. All workers can unite around this.
“If we march together and strike together we can break the pay cap.”
In Barnsley some 15 people signed up for a coach to Manchester on a recent “May Must Go” demo. George Arthur, assistant secretary of the trades council, said, “We’ve got 22 people so far and we’re planning more events at the end of the summer to publicise it.
“We have a cut-out of Theresa May that we encourage people to put messages on. It’s a good way of attracting attention.”
The Unite union is putting on coaches in Birmingham.
Bridget Parsons from the local PA group said, “Unite has said that the PA can block book seats on the coaches. Mark Serwotka is speaking at a public meeting in September to publicise the demo.
“And we have an organising meeting next week.
“It’s looking good as quite a few striking bin workers are coming. Other workers in dispute are getting involved too.”
In South Gloucestershire the council has increased council tax—claiming this is partly to “ringfence” adult social care spending.
But ordinary people are paying more for less and vulnerable people are suffering.
Rish is a parent and campaigner against school cuts.
She told Socialist Worker, “My mum is disabled, partially sighted and has limited mobility. She gets five hours of support—to take her to appointments, help with shopping, changing the bedding and so on.
“Her contribution to that support has recently gone up by 70 percent.
“But I don’t see any increased pay for her carer.”
Rish explained that the amount of care available isn’t enough for what’s needed. “There’s a lot of things that social services won’t help with,” she said. “But working full time there’s only so much we can do.
“It’s really hard.
“I do a lot for my mum. I give her injections every day.
“And now I have to do a lot of the admin for the support she receives from the council.
“I’m having to manage the time sheets and deal with paying the company.
“It’s just another stress.”
Rish worried about the impact of the cuts on people who have less support. “They are pushing responsibility for care back onto families,” she said.
“All that’s going to do is produce more vulnerable people.”
Sunday 1 October, Manchester
Take back Manchester festival
Saturday 30 September till Wednesday 4 October, Manchester
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth