Monday, May 09, 2011

Four more years?

After Thursday's local (and national) elections, the labour movement needs to work out where, other than the ballot box, we direct the political momentum of half a million marching through London on 26 March.

With workers being laid off, and services closing, we cannot afford to wait for a (possible) Labour Government to start repairing the damage in 2015. Thursday's votes expressed opposition to cuts which are being made now.

Where Labour was the vehicle to express opposition to savage cuts in public spending - and particularly to the role of Liberal Democrats in facilitating these - the Party did well.

Where voters were offered electorally credible progressive options other than Labour, as by the SNP in Scotland or - on a smaller scale - the Greens in Brighton, they took them with some enthusiasm. The predictably miserable failure of candidates of the socialist left does not therefore signify that Labour can rely upon winning as a result of anger at the Coalition. A strategy of waiting for the next General Election wouldn't only be a betrayal of all those suffering now, it might well fail even in its own narrow electoral terms, whether because the Tories consolidate their own support at the expense of their Lib Dem stooges, or because other options to express disagreement with the Government grow and develop.

For socialists in the labour and trade union movement, our focus must be on placing demands upon Labour, both as local administrations and as a national opposition, alongside developing the campaigning and industrial response of our trade unions.

Ed Milliband's current slogan ("What do we want? Fewer cuts! When do we want them? Later!) is not only terminally unappealing but in any case fails to reflect the actual practice of Labour administrations in local government, balancing budgets at the expense of unbalancing local communities.

Now that there are Labour Council Leaders once more in many large cities, as well as many London boroughs, an alternative approach is readily available.

Labour Councils could spend the summer consulting local communities on their needs in order to draw up programmes for service delivery to provide a basis for "needs" budgets to be set in 2012.

In the autumn a nationwide series of marches could set out from Labour local authority areas to focus political pressure on the Government to make a financial settlement for local government which would enable these needs to be met, building towards a massive demonstration in London.

In the context of such a campaign a real discussion could take place about the viability of a significant number of authorities refusing to set budgets which did further social damage to our communities. Labour politicians could have a dialogue with trade union and community activists about the relative priority of their roles as administrators of the local state and leaders of local working people.

All of this may seem a long way from the here and now - but what are the other options? What do we, as trade unions, tell our members facing redundancy that we are doing with their political funds and our political influence?

Unfortunately, at present, it is not clear that UNISON Conference will be able to have a full debate about a political strategy for the largest local government union, since motions reflective of the policy of our Scottish Council (of support for politicians refusing to make cuts) have been ruled out of order.

If our trade unions will not make a clear and unequivocal demand that there must be no more cuts we shall be unlikely to exert the pressure that would open up the possibility that Labour might adopt a policy and campaigning stance closer to the policies of UNISON and the interests of our members.



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