A debate is opening up about how best to respond to the attacks on the welfare state. I was invited to speak at an anti-cuts meeting in Lambeth recently and a lively argument broke out between members of the Labour Party which took me back to the 1980s – what should a Labour council do when faced with budget cuts?
Ted Knight, who was vilified by the press in the 1980s because as a council leader he led a campaign against the Tory cuts, argued they should refuse to implement the cuts. But one Labour councillor argued there was no alternative but to implement the first round of cuts, because breaking the law was irresponsible. Instead he would invite constituents to discuss with councillors where to cut.
This approach was dubbed the “dented shield” in the 1980s – the argument went that it was better that Labour make “humane” cuts than leave the Tories to push through savage ones. But this is a false argument. There is always an alternative to pushing through Tory cuts – organise resistance to them.
All the Labour councils in the 1980s eventually caved in, though some, notably Lambeth and Liverpool, went considerably further than most in resisting. But the campaigns did all start with resistance. Today some Labour councillors are pursuing a dented shield policy before the fight to save our services has begun.
The Tories originally introduced ratecapping to penalise “overspending” Labour councils. The left took up this challenge by launching a campaign to create socialist councils that would stand up to these attacks. They were successful. In 1981 Ken Livingstone won the leadership of the Labour group that took control of the Greater London Council (GLC). Across London the left took control of a number of key boroughs including Camden, Lambeth and Islington – famously known as Fortress Islington – where Margaret Hodge as council leader, now MP for Barking, compared the council to the Paris Commune!
The left were also successful in Liverpool and Sheffield, which proudly called itself the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. In all, 42 Labour councils pledged not to set a rate and to defy the Tory government, and they mobilised significant numbers of workers through the unions and community organisations onto the streets to demonstrate.
In London Livingstone led a mass campaign against the law lords’ decision to overrule the GLC’s decision to cut transport fares. As many as 63 percent of Londoners supported the campaign, and a quarter of a million signed a petition in support of the GLC.
The Labour council in Liverpool, which was run by supporters of the Militant Tendency (forerunners of today’s Socialist Party), led one of the most significant battles. In 1984 the elections were fought as a referendum on the budget issues, and the result was a resounding endorsement of the policies of the Labour councils to defy the government and the law. In March of that year up to 50,000 marched through Liverpool in support of defying the Tories.
These campaigns took place against a vicious and aggressive media smear campaign against councillors and councils. They were derided as “loony left” and attacked for “political correctness” – opposing racism, sexism and homophobia.
The lessons to be learnt from the 1980s are twofold. Firstly the left within the councils did resist. Passing on the cuts would have hurt the very people they were elected to protect. Passing on the cuts would also have demoralised the very people who could mount a fightback.
Unfortunately these campaigns petered out as the councils blinked first and implemented the cuts. Some councillors were surcharged and disqualified from office. Despite many of the councillors’ commitment to “extra-parliamentary activity”, elections took precedence over leading those who wanted to resist. Divisions between council workers and the users of the services were not challenged, allowing the right wing media to portray council workers as being self-interested – only caring about their jobs and conditions of service.
For example, in 1982 in London at the height of the Fares Fair campaign there was a solid one-day strike among tube and bus workers in defence of the policy. The GLC and the union leaders missed the opportunity to unite users of the services with the workers who provided them. If we are to be successful this time round we must fight to defend jobs within the framework of defending public services for all.
As Tory cuts begin to bite in the coming months we will come across councillors and their supporters who genuinely want to be part of a movement against the cuts. We should not shun them. We should welcome anyone into the movement who wishes to fight. But we need to argue that there is an alternative to implementing Tory cuts and that imposing cuts locally will make building a national fight far more difficult. In Blackpool councillors remitted the cuts plans back to the council cabinet. We should be arguing for every Labour council to do the same. Councillors could then organise meetings in every council workplace, community organisation and pensioners’ group to get support for their anti-cuts proposals.
By doing this we can unite workers, users and councillors in one movement that can not only stop these savage attacks, but also turn this defensive battle into an offensive one fighting for market-free public services for all.
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