George Barratt, an independent socialist councillor in Barking and Dagenham reports from last Saturday’s meeting of Councillors against the Cuts (CAC) conference in Birmingham.
It was attended by about fifty people including about a dozen councillors and John McDonnell MP. There were delegates from trade unions, trades councils and anti-cuts campaigns from Birmingham, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Coventry, Warrington, Hull, Liverpool, Chelmsford, Harlow, Lambeth, Barnet, and Barking and Dagenham. Overall, the CAC campaign was geographically widespread, with Labour and trade union movement implantation, but appeared to be quite thin on the ground.
The agenda and text for the morning session on The state of the campaign set out the position of a socialist tendency inside the Labour Party attempting to reclaim the radicalism of the past. It aspired to winning the Blairite wing of the party from elitist to egalitarian politics. But despite working for the return of a Labour government, it recognised the vulnerability of a Labour Party which would only be able to offer continuing austerity after 2015.
In the morning session, John McDonnell suggested that although people were questioning the obvious failures of the economic system, they were not yet questioning the existing political structures. He cited as evidence of this the Eastleigh by-election, in which TUSC failed to win more votes than the Elvis Loves Pets Party.
The CAC campaign nationally appears to be uneven at the present time. The three Hull councillors have made a very public protest against the cuts and have secured a body of local support. Around Merseyside, many local groups have sprung up in opposition to the bedroom tax. Similar campaigns are developing in other major urban centres. However, they are hampered by heavy-handed discipline from the local Labour parties and a lethargic trade union bureaucracy. It was proposed that a steering committee for CAC should be set up with a meeting date of Saturday, 20 April.
The afternoon sessions on Supporting union campaigns, Defending councillors from victimisation, and Building a united Labour party and trade union campaign did not carry a strong message of resistance. Instead, there was a return to discussing the ongoing problems of the loss of jobs and services and the future crippling of local government. Some time could be bought by using council financial reserves and borrowing. The proposals of the rebel Southampton councillors were held up by TUSC as an example of this. But there appeared to be little scope for a fightback.
CAC appeared to be hampered by an inability to think and work outside the existing Labour Party and trade union structures. It could be politically outflanked by the public response to even greater austerity and hardship. A UNITE activist from Liverpool stressed the grassroots anger at the bedroom tax and the grassroots hostility to the local Labour Party in the face of upcoming council elections.
Outside the traditional Labour movement structures, there are many groups who are suffering because of cuts in benefits. There are tenants associations, disabled people, claimants, child poverty and boycott workfare groups and anti-bedroom tax campaigns. All these people can be brought on board to strengthen our movement. John McDonnell had commented earlier that “There is a tinder box out there, waiting for a spark”. It may be that the bedroom tax is the spark.