Rebel councillors: something brewing in Barking?
Hundreds of low paid Barking and Dagenham council workers facing a ¬£2,000 cut to their annual income protested outside Barking town hall on Tuesday 7 October, reports Pete Mason, who stood as a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) local election candidate in the borough back in May.
Joining them were a number of Labour councillors who face suspension from the Labour whip and potential expulsion from the Labour Group if they carry through their declared intention to vote against the proposed cuts at the 1st December full council meeting. Labour took all 51 seats on Barking and Dagenham council (in east London) in May's election.
Refuse collectors parked their dustbin lorries in a long line outside the town hall and hooted their horns. The GMB and Unite members and the protesting councillors then marched into the public gallery, where deputy leader of the council, Dominic Twomey, told the cabinet meeting that the council needs to cut ¬£53 million during the next three years. Some council workers fear losing their homes if their income is cut by ¬£2,000, GMB activists say. The borough already has the highest level of repossessions in London. Further cuts proposed include closing care and homeless centres.
The Labour council leadership would not allow any discussion at the cabinet meeting. "It was like North Korea", rebel Labour councillor Sam Tarry commented on the stormy meeting which took place. "Job losses and cuts should not be nodded through. They are gagging democratically elected councillors".
Councillor Rocky Gill was one of those who spoke up despite council leaders repeatedly telling the public gallery "for the last time" that no discussion was allowed. Gill, both a former deputy leader and former cabinet member for finance, declared he "cannot believe" he was denied the chance to discuss the budget strategy on behalf of local residents.
Gill is correctly in favour of using the council's reserves instead of imposing cuts on frontline staff and services. "What are reserves for", he told me, "if not to protect frontline staff and services?" Councillor Dan Young also spoke out during the cabinet meeting: "I feel it makes a joke of democracy that I can't ask any questions on behalf of residents". 410 public sector jobs could be at risk over the coming three years, the Barking and Dagenham Post reported (7 October 2014) adding that Labour council leader Darren Rodwell said: "It is important residents understand the scale of the cuts needed... We are not simply trimming fat - that has already been done. We now need to make cuts that may hurt".
This is shameful and unacceptable for a Labour council at a time when London has become the 'billionaire capital of the world' according to the Sunday Times Rich List. Cuts have already hurt vulnerable people such as the elderly in the borough.
No cuts alternative
The question posed to the rebel Labour councillors - who Rocky Gill estimates number more than 20 - is whether they will unite around a bold 'no cuts' alternative budget proposal and campaign upon it across the borough. Such a proposal could initially draw on the ¬£27 million of reserves, but must ultimately campaign for more funds from central government, following the example of the 1921 Poplar council just five miles from Barking town hall, which declared that it was 'better to break the law than break the poor'. Abolition of the surcharge law which punished the Liverpool 47 councillors in 1987 who took a similar stand means that there is no personal risk involved to councillors today.
With the support of the trade unions in the council, the rebel councillors would be seen as the first line of defence by the wider working class in the borough if they campaign around clear anti-austerity policies. Media coverage for a significant split in the council on socialist lines - measured in terms of defending jobs and wages, housing and public services - would be guaranteed.
A number of the rebel councillors fear a rise of UKIP if the Labour Party does not return to its roots. But UKIP would be undermined if the rebels present a political alternative championing workers' interests.
Barking TUSC has drawn attention to the examples of Southampton, Leicester and Hull, where rebel councillors have or are drawing up alternative budgets. Councillor Keith Morrell in Southampton was re-elected overwhelmingly this May after taking a principled stand against cuts.
TUSC supporters in Barking intend to stand a candidate against Barking MP and millionaire heiress Margaret Hodge in next year's general election unless she agrees to take a strong anti-cuts stance - which must now include opposing the council's present round of cuts. A letter to Hodge has already been signed by branch secretaries of the RMT, Unite, GMB and Unison trade unions that have members working in the borough.
Although there are no council elections in 2015 in London, by standing and presenting a real socialist alternative nationally, TUSC will be putting pressure on councillors just at a time when councils are under enormous pressure to - in the chilling and contemptible words of Darren Rodwell - "make cuts that may hurt". TUSC candidates can make a difference.