How Can We Make Labour Councils Fight Austerity? The View From Bristol

by Joe Hayns

8 December 2017


On 9 September, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees led an anti-austerity march through Bristol city centre past a banner reading ‘Marvin: contempt for court, not the poor’.

The ‘biggest protest in the city’s history’ wasn’t organised by the mayor’s office, but by the People’s Assembly in conjunction with Momentum – which now dominates the local Labour presence – with trade unions also in attendance.

But despite appearances, Momentum members report wondering whether the march should have been led against Rees rather than by him; one activist from the militant tenants’ union Acorn said it was “strange for a mayor to call a demo against themselves.”

Rees tacked with the demo’s anti-cuts current, using it as forward force for a meeting the following week with Sajid Javid, secretary of state for communities and local government.

Javid and the rest of the Cabinet ultimately declined to meet, but the no-show hardly mattered – the consensus is that the trip was less about Rees delivering an anti-austerity message to the Tories than delaying having to elaborate one to constituents.

Now, almost three months later, different tendencies are suggesting distinct paths beyond austerity, both against, through and beyond the city’s Labour administration.

24% in favour.

Eric Pickles’ 2011 Localism Act was meant to “give local authorities new freedoms and flexibility” – municipal leaders were further empowered to attract capital by lowering business rates, though discouraged from any council tax increases, with any rise over 5% (3% of which must go to social care) requiring a referendum.

The act further encouraged directly-elected mayors instead of councillor-elected leaders, with its plain English guide explaining that “people will know who is responsible for a decision and where the buck stops.” A subsequent act prompted referendums on the position across the major cities, with only Bristol voting in favour of a directly-elected mayor on a miserable 24% turnout.

Labour’s Marvin Rees was beaten to newly created position by independent George Ferguson in November 2012, whose base, one left-winger put it, was “well-to-do Clifton liberals who wanted a vaguely green candidate” – the Georgian-era cathedral district being the only base available since Bristol hardly wanted a mayor outside the wealthier suburbs.

Affluent Henleaze, Westbury on Trym, and Bishopton showed 34%, 31%, and 26% support for a mayor, versus Southmead’s 12%, Hartcliffe’s 12%, and Filwood’s 10% – all places that many people like living in, despite their long-term decline. No-one except the Tories much wanted a mayoral position; the wealthier boroughs’ less-than-half nod was just enough in Bristol.

Directly-elected mayors are naturally more visible than council leaders, with a something like a ‘presidential’ role in the council – all this seeming power, but with less and less funding each year from central government, with the revenue support grant to Bristol City Council down £23.5m in 2014/15, £30.5m in 2015/16, and a further £20m in 2016/17 – “57% during a four year period” with no obvious way to raise serious money otherwise.

New faces, about-faces.

There were “hundreds of people on the streets” for Rees’s springtime 2016 mayoral campaign, one Momentum activist said.

Bristol Momentum formed in the early winter of 2015, quickly combining former Labour members who had left with clause IV or Iraq together with post-2008 socialists. From there it scored wins at the constituency level, building good relations with the extra-parliamentary left, in particular People’s Assembly and Acorn.

It was fun, and funny, to begin winning internally – one group of younger Momentum activists laughed about young Labourites using anti-migrant rhetoric against them (‘taking positions away from hardworking people’). Quickly Momentum became a place to talk about parliament, trade unions and services.

But not just talk. With Momentum well-organised long before the election on 5 May, Rees easily beat incumbent Ferguson on both first round and transfer votes. Labour took the council too, winning 37 of 60 seats, with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens splitting the remainder.

How did they sell Marvin Rees? “We didn’t sell him,” said one activist.

“Momentum got on and campaigned for Marvin because we wanted a Labour council – a Labour majority council. And we wanted a Labour mayor. From our perspective, we can put pressure on labour councillors and labour mayors, because they’re a Labour representative. Yes, we got on with it, and the result was fantastic, especially the council elections.”

Was that left-wing mobilising really about centrist Rees, or Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour? A Bristol-based officer of a national trade union said “if there was any enthusiasm, it would have been an enthusiastic hatred of Ferguson.”

At the parliamentary level, a left-wing MP’s aide said that “lefties here are wary of Marvin, but are supportive of him. The attitude towards him is ‘let’s push him as far as he can go’ – he seems to be flexible, and recognises that the Corbyn thing might be electable.”

‘Sharp’ is the word most-used when referring to Bristol’s mayor – one Acorn activist reports how he “shifted on a dime” with Corbyn’s first leadership win.

And especially against the red trouser-wearing, benign-green Ferguson, Marvin Rees – who grew up in the working-class, historically African-Caribbean Easton neighbourhood – is both politically savvy and socially sensitive.

Eyes open to Momentum’s local power, he kept quiet during 2016’s shadow cabinet resignations – not so, Bristol’s three Labour MPs – and again during the September leadership election.

Flexibilities and constraint.

With the revenue support grant decreasing precipitously, the Localism Act has merely invited councils to manage their own austerity-driven decline.

The coalition didn’t invent beggaring councils whilst talking up their increased power under the guise of devolution  – Margaret Thatcher’s governments fought and won against local government, and with New Labour there was “a sense of parent-child relationship between central and local government”, as one former long-time councillor put it to me.

The expectation is “there’ll be nothing but [social] care by 2020” as one Labour councillor said to a Bristol Momentum meeting recently, with social care already ground-down through cuts and privatisation.

None of the councillors elected on 5 May 2016 were ‘Corbynistas’ – selection took place after the first leadership election with a ‘nine months’ membership’ demand – but many are painfully aware of the cuts’ social damage. Some have been socialists their whole lives, utterly opposed austerity.

They administered relatively minor cuts to council services in the summer of 2016, but in April this year, Rees announced 828 council jobs losses.

The strongest Labour party response came after the 9 September demonstration, with 16 of 28 members of the advice-only Labour local campaign forum motioning that the council pass a no-cuts budget, partly via reserve spending.

One Momentum activist with professional financial experience said the budget for 2018/19 showed “ultra-prudency in favour of, rather than avoiding, some of these cuts and that’s a decision you’ve chosen to make.” Another said it showed that “[Rees’s] politics are not anti-austerity.”

Waiting for Corbyn?

There are two pro-Corbyn approaches to austerity and Marvin Rees in Bristol, the tension – for the moment – being over means rather than ends. No-one wants the cuts; everyone wants a Corbyn-led majority – but in which order?

On the first, one People’s Assembly organiser of the September demo said: “Okay, there could be a movement around council funding, but there’s a huge national strike around postal workers, and we’ve got a huge hospital [ward] closing in Weston-Super-Mare. The danger about talking about cuts is that it brings us into internal left debates.”

Similarly, a trade union officer said: “I don’t want to be advocating a completely fatalistic sit and wait-for-Corbyn approach… [but] local governments do not have the power to overrule central government.”

So are activists waiting on Corbyn?

A thoughtful pause from a socialist: “If pressed, I’d have to say the priority is getting the government elected.”

The second tendency thinks Momentum should push much more forcefully against the ‘pro-balance’ and therefore de facto pro-cuts section of the Labour council – inevitably, then, against Rees.

The first group tends to think “there is a bit of an obsession with Marvin Rees”, which is largely “misdirected energy” according to the same trade unionist.

But the latter group’s most discussed policy is the ‘progressive council tax’ (PCT) – known locally as the ‘Clifton tax’ – which would see higher bands paying up to 200% more, with lower bands’ council tax frozen through provisions in the 2012 Local Government Finance Act (LGF).

The LGF means the rise can be ultra-progressive, with lower bands’ rates held.

As Chris Williamson, the pro-Corbyn MP for Derby North put it: “You can either have an increase of council tax across the board and be paying more for less public service” – since both cuts and the 5% council tax rise near-inevitable, in Bristol as everywhere – “or have your council tax frozen, and see public services enhanced.”

“There will be some opponents, obviously. Some of the people – the well-heeled individuals – may rail against being asked pay a bit more. Quite a lot more.”

The PCT goes with the letter but against the spirit of the Localism Act, which requires – but whose authors may not have expected – referendums over council tax rises.

This referendum requirement is a huge political boon – it would force Momentum and Labour to convince people far outside the party to ‘tax the rich’, as one Momentum activist put it.

‘Neo-Poplarism’: already dead?

Is the PCT game worth the council-level electoralism, or is there the potential for more ambitious organising?

There is a third anti-cuts tendency which, just emerging, could only appear after a surge of enthusiasm for parliamentary socialism, but before any real working class gains.

When 30 Labour and Independent Labour party councillors from Poplar were threatened with prison in the autumn of 1921 for “violating their fiduciary duty” – with mass unemployment in the borough, they’d exhausted council funds on poor relief – council leader George Lansbury said “if we have to choose between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court.”

Hence the banner at the Bristol rally.

Poplar won – 10,000-strong crowds protested the arrests outside Brixton and Holloway prisons, the 30 councillors were released. Poplar council got more funds, which it spent on unemployed workers, housing repairs and healthcare. Infant mortality halved – Poplar had “lowest rate for the 95 largest towns in Britain” by 1923.

‘Not reformism but reforms’ is already working in Bristol. The militant tenants’ union Acorn has used mixed tactics to force Rees to scrap a consultation on raising council tax for benefits claimants.

“Yeah, we won that. £9m worth of cuts stopped, which was a big deal,” said a prominent Acorn activist. The victory was secured through a combination of protests and “applying pressure directly to labour councillors.”

Raising benefits claimants council tax had seemed essential, but no. What about austerity in councils generally? “Call [the Tories’] bluff is my personal opinion. Are you going to let this weak, weak government kick out the elected representatives of a major British city?”

There are two key differences between Bristol now and Poplar then.

First, leadership – “Rees. Won’t. Set. An. Illegal. Budget. That’s it,” one Momentum member said. The mayor explained why last July: “A balanced budget would be forced on the city. So not only would locally elected politicians lose control and not lead on the priorities we choose, but the no cuts budget would never be implemented.”

All of which is true, and indeed it’s worse – central government comes down very, very hard on independent-minded anti-austerity mayors, as the swift deposition of Tower Hamlets’ Lutfur Rahman showed.

Far more important than either leaders or the law is that there are not – yet – 5,000 or 10,000 people organised to break from the laws governing austerity; no base – yet – to defend rebel councillors against Rahman-like depositions. But after a decade of austerity, the broad left’s sails are up.

The PCT strategy has its advantages over ‘neo-Poplarism’ – it makes fiscal sense, and won’t get anybody arrested, and requires that hundreds of Momentum activists are convinced enough of radical reformism to win a referendum (with, hopefully, more than 24% turning out this time).

Referendums might feel democratic, and doorstepping like real organising. But beyond a hard-core, the PCT strategy assumes and risks abiding passivity, asking nothing much beyond a ‘tick’ from what would likely be a minority of Bristolians – whereas the neo-Poplarist strategy requires building an active, extra-electoral politics.

A small group of militants pressuring a relatively left-wing Labour council to commit administrative suicide through unlawful budgeting could possible now, but arguably useless.

But organising mass support for a councillor rebellion against austerity would acknowledge and, hopefully, demonstrate that only working-class self-activity can go against and beyond the governmental norms that have bound Labour councils and, still, Labour nationally.

Three paths?

At Labour’s local government conference this year, Corbyn said “local authorities have always been – and continue to be – in the vanguard of innovation.”

Marvin Rees isn’t a leftist, but heading the September demonstration was “probably the boldest stance against the cuts of any civic leader” as the People’s Assembly organiser put it – the result of a longer effort of leftwards pressure from Bristol Momentum, People’s Assembly, Acorn, and Rees’s sharp instinct to ‘go with it’.

But ‘it’ – the pro-Corbyn, anti-austerity grouping that drove Rees to Javid’s door – agrees less than it did before September.

Javid and the Tories were never, ever going to let Rees in, with their last manifesto showing again that the government is 100% committed to austerity in the provinces (except, cough, Surrey) – all the more so if it’s Labour’s city-scale presidents enacting it. So, stood outside, where, how and who to push?

Anti-Tory but waiting on Corbyn; anti-cuts but potentially anti-Labour; or an as-yet unrealistic neo-Poplarism, beyond both austerity and electoralism – three choices, after Corbynism, before Corbyn.

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