Salford people marching from Bexley Square on 30 November 2011
The last time the Tories were in power they had a clear plan, based on what we now call a neo-liberal agenda. This involved the destruction of much of manufacturing, the privatisation of nationalised utilities and the promotion of the financial services industry. In the years following 1979 the battlelines were clear, with Labour councils from the GLC to Manchester, Salford and Liverpool lining up alongside the trade unions, the left and many community groups to hallenge the cutbacks.
In 2012 we are in the midst an economic crisis akin to the 1930s, in which the poor and unemployed are expected to pay the cost. This time round, however, there is a weakened left, the New Labour Government pursued its own privatisation agenda and now only feebly challenges the Tory cuts, whilethe main public sector unions have failed to organise themselves to oppose the large scale cuts. They did call a one day national strike on 30 November 2011, but this was to defend pensions, rather than a rallying cry for opposing the Tory agenda of wholesale privatisation of the public services.
Labour Councils have had their spending budgets cut by millions of pounds: in Salford a cut of £24 million in 2012-13. Salford Council has said it will “protect the most vulnerable who live in the City”, but beyond such rhetoric it’s only response has been to manage the cuts, which has included paying staff to leave through voluntary early retirement, cutting grants to the voluntary sector and privatising services and jobs.
So where has the opposition to the Tory government come from this time? One of the most dynamic local anti-cuts campaigns is in Salford which emerged from the local Trades Council. Trades Councils have struggled to survive in modern Britain but recently have shown their key role in bringing together not just trade unions but also individuals and groups to challenge the Con/Dem cuts.
Salford Against the Cuts, started in October 2011, and which brings together trade unions, community groups and individuals. Salford Unison, which openly opposes the Labour Council agenda of “managing the cuts”, is a key partner.
Vice chair of SAC Paul Gerrard explains, “Our agenda is to demand the Council challenges the government over the cuts. The council budget should be based on the needs of the local community and Salford Council should be demanding their money back.” Taking a highly political stance SAC have challenged the Labour Council to a debate on the cuts. They produce regular newsletters and leaflets, funded by Unison, and cheekily have used the Salford council colours of magenta and black as their branding. From the outside the SAC looks like what the Labour Party used to be in its pioneering days of Keir Hardie.
SAC’s recent campaign to save two day centres involved publicising the threat of the cuts; building links with the staff, the users and local communities; lobbying the council – and winning. They are not under any illusion that if they win in one area, then the council will announce cuts elsewhere and the whole cycle starts again. As Paul says, “No sooner have we won a reprieve on the day centres then we are onto our next battle.” That is why their overall strategy is about challenging the cuts on a national level. “Councillor Merry (leader of Salford Council) said he’d protect the vulnerable from the cuts. Why is the council just passing on Tory cuts, why aren’t they fighting the government?” Unison in Salford have managed to unite different groups within the borough including workers, user groups and the general population.
A recent survey by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that only 6% of public service cuts had been made so far. As the economy sinks into a recession, unemployment increases and people become more angry about the economic downturn, it will be interesting to see if they start to blame Labour Councils, as well as the ConDem government, for the deterioration in their living standards. In cities such as Salford where Labour used to be the natural opposition to a Tory government is that role going to be taken by organisations outside party politics? Increasingly in these anti-cuts organisations people who are natural Labour supporters asking “What are Labour Councils for?”