Muncipal Socialism Under Austerity

Joe Cullinane, leader of North Ayrshire Council, writes for the Robin on the challenges facing local government, and radicalism in the face of austerity.

Scotland’s Councils are once again facing cuts to local services and a loss of jobs. Since 2013, the Tories at Westminster have cut Scotland’s budget by 1.6% but over the same period the SNP in Holyrood have cut local government budgets by 6.9%. In total, since the dawn of Tory and SNP austerity, £1.5bn has been cut from the local services delivered by Councils. For next year Scotland’s Councils face a further shortfall of over £300m as a result of the SNP/Green budget.

No Government, of any political stripes, can be serious about delivering a fairer society, tackling poverty and delivering equity for all citizens without adequately funding the delivery of frontline services. From education to health and social care, from economic development to anti-poverty programmes, it is Scotland’s Councils not the Scottish Government who are delivering the frontline services that make a difference day in day out.

Yet, under the SNP, local government is the poor relation of Scotland’s public sector. Things need to change.

Under the leadership of Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour now not only opposes SNP austerity but we are starting to develop a real alternative. That includes a return to municipal socialism. Municipal socialism means doing more than fire fighting against SNP cuts but actually taking control of our own destiny so we can deliver real change.

Labour in local government should be about intervening in rigged markets. Not-for-profit energy, municipal bus services, tougher interventions in the private rented sector are all areas where Labour Councils can take the initiative and push for change. We should take the lead in ending the dogma of outsourcing by bringing services back in-house to protect workers, deliver better terms and conditions and regain control over public services to drive better outcomes. We should not be afraid to be bold on the ownership of local commercial assets. Why, for example, does a local shopping centre need to be owned by venture capitalists who take the profits offshore when those profits could be used by the local authority to drive investment in the area?

It may be the case that Councils have a legal obligation to set a balanced budget but Labour in local government needs to be about more than managing decline. You can see the difference that Labour Councils make by shifting resources to support the most vulnerable in our communities. It was, for example, a Labour Council in Renfrewshire that first mitigated the Bedroom Tax and there many other examples from across the country. However, we do these initiatives within the constraints of Tory and SNP austerity. Imagine what we could achieve with fair funding.

Labour in local government needs to take greater control of our own future, with the support of our colleagues in Holyrood. A Leonard led Scottish Government would end austerity and deliver the funding local government needs but Labour local government then needs to do our bit to forge the municipal road to socialism by being equally radical.

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