I received an email from Bristol & District Anti-Cuts Alliance this week. I nearly always agree with BADACA, but on this occasion I think they need to have a look again at the situation that all of us in the anti-cuts movement find ourselves in.
I went on the march on Saturday against the regional pay cartel that the Coalition is foisting on South West health workers. It was an occasion that showed the economic illiteracy of the government’s approach and strengthened the resolve of all those present to fight the cuts at all levels. I have also been helping with the 38 Degrees CCGs campaign in challenging the Clinical Commissioning Groups to use their constitutions to keep services in-house and not make them open to “any willing provider”.
However, I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding of the role and scope of local government as it presently stands. In Bristol, we in the Green Party have always argued for greater abilities to raise and retain revenue. In Barcelona, over 50% of all taxes raised and spent in the area are handled by the city authority, but in the UK the percentage is more like 17%. This creates a significant imbalance between central and local government, which recent policies, such as business rate relocalisation, do not go far enough to address.
So this is the context in which I read everything. The BADACA email began:
BRISTOL & DISTRICT ANTI-CUTS ALLIANCE BULLETIN – 30th November 2012
Ferguson’s Cuts Cabinet – Outside Fighting Is The Place To Be
Mayor George Ferguson is committed to carrying out the government’s dictat – £32 million more cuts in Bristol’s jobs and services next year. His attempt to lure Labour and Green councillors into his cabinet should have been seen for what it was – trying to show that these parties have no alternative to the cuts and then to share the blame as the opposition grows. As such it was an invitation that should have been rejected out of hand.
Labour’s decision not to take part, although made rather ham-fistedly, is entirely correct. But the alternative is not to sit in the council chamber making minor criticisms of the mayor’s cuts package. It is building resistance to the cuts. Is that where we’ll see Labour councillors and Labour party members? And will the Greens withdraw from Ferguson’s Cuts Cabinet too? The first meeting of the Cuts Cabinet is now scheduled for December 20th.
Here is my response:
1) Yes, mayor George Ferguson is committed to carrying out the government’s cuts. So would any of the other candidates for mayor, including the Green, Respect and TUSC candidates. You cannot set a needs budget without it being deemed illegal and civil servants stepping in to do your job for you.
2) I admit that there is a widely-held suspicion that George is some sort of Machiavellian schemer, but even I baulk at the idea that his intention for getting all parties to the table to advise him was a plot to show that Greens have no alternatives to the cuts. Within the first month of the Coalition government, Green MP and former leader Caroline Lucas had this to say: http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2010-06-19-callous-cuts-report.html
Greens have alternatives to the cuts and we will be working both inside and outside the cabinet, in a variety of ways, to fight austerity and deliver the fairest possible budget for Bristol.
3) The Green Party will not share the blame for these cuts. They are not ours. They are the Coalition government’s.
In that sense, neither should local councilors be blamed. The only thing that local government can do to reduce the scale of the cuts is increase council tax. Last year we proposed the maximum legal increase of 3.49%. This increase would have meant that we would have been £6.3m better off this year. No other party supported us with this measure, preferring to freeze council tax and accept the government bribe. George Ferguson has announced that he will be increasing the council tax by the maximum amount, which has now been reduced to 2% by the Coalition. We support this rise, although it will not be universally popular.
So the “choice” (such as it is) is between cutting services or raising council tax. There are more opportunities to mitigate the effects of council tax rise, and so I think it is better to do this, particularly as there are a lot of people in the city who can afford to pay a bit more.
4) George, being an economic liberal, has a different approach to the Green Party in many ways. But is it better for one of us to be sitting there saving vital local services, or carping from the sidelines and having no direct line of influence? Essentially, with this mayoral model (which the Green Party campaigned against vociferously, but now have to accept until there is an opportunity to change it), you are either in the mayor’s cabinet and influencing it, or you are without any executive power.
5) Scrutiny and opposition are DOUBLY important now we are working under the mayoral model, and those of us in the anti-cuts movement should be bringing our activism to bear on these committees and meetings.
6) The Labour Party national policy is not significantly different to the Coalition’s. The Green Party’s national policy involves radical change, including an end to austerity: http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2010-06-19-callous-cuts-report.html
Bristol City Council is not the correct place to to argue about national policy. Indeed, no part of the Tory-led Coalition’s policy can be changed by speeches at City Hall (nee Council House). Just remember: when you begin to hear Labour Party councillors make speeches about how terrible the cuts are (and they will be right), please ask yourself: “nationally, who has argued against the cuts at every turn and provided reasoned economic alternatives, and who blithely accepts that it is just the pace and quantity of cuts that can be altered?”