Faced with an unprecedented assault on local government finances, the Lewisham branch of Momentum is reported to have called on the Labour council in the borough to set a “no-cuts” – i.e. an illegal – budget. It’s an issue that was bound to come to the surface after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in Labour leadership election – how should Labour-led councils react to Tory funding cuts?
And underneath all this is the more serious question – will the Corbyn leadership be able to make the fundamental changes to the economic debate that will allow them to come into government with a clear anti-austerity programme (the premise on which I supported and voted for Corbyn)? Or is it going to blow the opportunity in a blaze of self-indulgent gesture politics?
For those of us with links to Brighton and Hove, the issue is familiar. The former Green administration consistently toyed with the idea of setting an unlawful budget, egged on by Green Party activists both inside and outside the city. The divisions within the Green Party over this issue undoubtedly contributed to the Greens’ crushing defeat in last May’s local elections. And the issues remain the same – that an illegal budget will mean that senior officers, overseen by Whitehall , will decide the Council’s priorities, without any democratic control or oversight. And that means redundancies, and even more savage cuts in which there will be no possibility of mitigating the impact on the most vulnerable. Moreover, there is nothing the Tories would like more than the ability to use the cuts to split Labour authorities and impose a localism agenda which is really about turning local authorities into nothing more than commissioners of statutory services from the private sector. And – while the word “solidarity” is bandied about incessantly on the left, what about solidarity with our Councillors, making heart-breaking decisions in order to mitigate the effect of the cuts?
We have been here before of course. Anyone with a political awareness of the 1980s will remember Neil Kinnock’s devastating exposure of Liverpool Militant – his image of the grotesque chaos of a Labour council sending taxis scuttling around the city handing out redundancy notices to staff. But the passage that follows is equally significant. “You cannot play politics with people’s jobs and services… Some of our colleagues, it seems to me, have become like latter-day public schoolboys – it’s not whether you won or lost, or how you played the game”. A reminder that the voice raised in favour of no-cuts budgets, whether in the Labour Party or the Green Party, is often the voice of privilege; that we can only bring about change if we win elections; that, to paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, we should never forget that party unity is the natural decent instinct of people who want to make real change.
And they might want to look to Wales – where, despite swingeing Tory cuts the Labour administration elected in 2011 has delivered its manifesto in full – free prescriptions, the continuation of EMA, Flying Start in addition to Sure Start, no PFI, no privatisation in the NHS, and with Carwyn Jones leading real opposition to the Tories’ plans to roll back devolution. Would Lewisham Momentum really have said that in 2011 Labour should have folded its tent and not taken office in the face of cuts? Would they not agree that despite the cuts, Welsh Labour has made Wales a better place than it would otherwise have been? And, as the Plaid Cymru vote continues to slump – beaten into fourth place behind UKIP at the General Election – isn’t there a lesson about electability – certainly in comparison with Scotland – here too?
The stakes are very high indeed just now. Corbyn’s victory was an opportunity to move the economic debate in the UK on to more grounded, more rigorous territory – to abandon the mindset of deficit reduction above all else that is driving the fail in living standards, the soaring inequality, the casual viciousness of the Tory approach to the vulnerable. It was also a high-risk strategy; it depended on the Party having the maturity to unite around a narrative that challenged the existing economic narrative and that could replace a set of economic assumptions failing on its own terms, but still dominant in public discourse. And that means being credible and persuasive and outward-looking. It means those on the Right accepting the scale of Corbyn’s victory and of his mandate for change; but it also means the Left having the maturity to understand that things have changed and that discipline and credibility matter. One reason why Corbyn won was that it was clear that the economics and politics of New Labour, founded in the economic growth of the 2000s, had nothing to say in a post-crash world; but that does not mean that the battle-cries of the 1980s are any more relevant. This is new economic and social territory; both Left and Right have to realise this and adapt.
My fear is that we on the Left might just be blowing it. I hear lots of talk on the Left about internal party politics, less about the vital strategic task of outlining an alternative economic approach to a sceptical public, or asking the questions about why here in Wales some of the poorest communities – those left devastated by Thatcher, never really recovering – turned to UKIP in significant numbers. The Corbyn leadership has made mistakes – like appointing a senior policy adviser with a track record of saying inflammatory things on Twitter – and we need to be honest and critical about those; this is no time for self-congratulation. We need to deal with those who continue to use the goldfish-bowl of social media to tweet offensive, often mysoginistic comments about comrades who do not necessarily share their world-view; remind ourselves that we are a broad church. And some in the Party need to accept that Jeremy Corbyn has an unprecedented mandate, and stop spreading their bile over the Sunday tabloids.
But above all the one thing we cannot afford is gesture politics. The situation out there is just too serious for that; and the people we need to bring back to Labour are at the sharp end of that situation. We need to hold dialogue with people, not lecture them; this isn’t the Green Party, after all. We need to win sceptical hearts and minds, and offer something that goes far beyond the tired Westminster consensus. And we on the Left have to understand that this could be our last best chance and behave accordingly.