Council Tax: Punishing the Poorest?

It is quite obvious that local government is, along with public sector unions, in the front line in the struggle against the Tory government.

It is quite obvious that local government is, along with public sector unions, in the front line in the struggle against the Tory government, both in relation to austerity and cuts to services, and for Labour local authorities to find ways to support its own supporters, the working poor, pensioners, the unemployed.

We know from Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech last September that defending the rights of working people is critical for the success of the Labour Party’s reputation in the country. In the case of local government, it is very obvious to local people how councils are performing. We have seen the fight back by communities and the Labour Party in the London borough of Haringey against losing control of public assets and future rights for council and housing association tenants – some of whom will be former council tenants, shunted into the ‘not for profit sector’.
There are many small and not so small struggles going on around the country against austerity and cuts, but generally they do not make national headlines, unless they can be used to attack the Labour Party. Yet there is no clear pattern to the way Labour councillors are reacting to the financial pressures from the Tory reductions of funding and tax raising powers. Yet, because some Labour councils are better at defending their communities than others, it is possible for party activists to pressure their Labour councillors to do the right thing, pointing to what has been done elsewhere.

Just as we can all now point to the experience in Haringey and demand that corporate takeovers of land and assets are minimised, or avoided altogether with municipal company development vehicles (borrowing from the private sector directly instead of via a developer), so we can also point to a number of councils which have refused to load council tax increases on the poorest residents, that is, those claiming benefits.

Councils have different funding streams depending on assets and location. Thus Camden and Westminster are able to rely on a larger business rates base than Enfield or Swindon. However, even if a council is in very difficult circumstances, there is the potential for two options, both of which should run side by side. To use the proposals aired by Chris Williamson MP, amongst others, for a differential council tax system (which is legally possible) and to work with local authorities in similar circumstances to oppose the government austerity plans, mobilising those affected by cuts to publicly demonstrate their opposition.
The differential progressive council tax proposal has already been explained in New Socialist, and there is now no excuse for Labour councils not to give it a try rather than being complicit in attacking the communities who elect them.

More difficult it would seem is the need to mobilise the public, who we know through recent election results and opinion polls are increasingly sick of austerity and cuts to the services they have paid for with their taxes. However, there are no recent instances of local authorities working together to oppose Tory cuts outside of the routine channels of discussion. Councillors and their associations regularly discuss with senior civil servants and ministers but this activity will never persuade an ideologically hostile government to change course. In addition, chief officers at local authorities are highly unlikely to be interested in mobilising large numbers of angry and hungry people against central government. They are far more likely to be inclined to find subtle and not so subtle ways to load the burden of austerity on those least able to resist.

That is exactly what has happened in a number of local authorities around the country, hence Corbyn’s conference warning to them not to tarnish the reputation of the party.

In Brent, the cuts have been savage, with libraries and other services closed and some libraries and other services dependent on volunteers to stay open. In Hackney, the council has prided itself on its ability to avoid obvious publicly damaging cuts, but that ability is now at an end and the Labour council is now using chief officers’ expertise to find ways to reduce funding and services for vulnerable people. In the last couple of months, Labour has proposed effectively reducing school funding for children with special education needs and disabilities. It has proposed increasing the amount people on benefits will have to pay towards council tax from 15% to 20%.

Both constituency Labour parties in Hackney have opposed the increase in council tax for people on benefits with overwhelming votes at their general meetings; they will meet this month to discuss the cuts to educational support for children. Yet despite the clear message from local party delegates and members, Labour councillors voted 21-11 to go ahead with the tax increases, albeit reducing the pain to 17%. 18 councillors were not present.

It is now clear that the Labour cabinet and mayor will force through cuts to balance the books for the austerity Tory government. No doubt they feel confident they can secure sufficient seats in the council elections in May 2018 to carry on in power and indeed all sitting councillors have been re-selected to stand for their wards. Although a number of new candidates have come forward, they will not be enough to overturn further proposals which will attack living standards and opportunities for local communities.

It is therefore incumbent on the Corbyn-supporting membership to turn up consistently in the remaining three months before the election campaign starts in order to hold councillors to account, encourage those who have opposed these divisive proposals, back options such as differential council tax strategies, and build up mass mobilisation of local communities and workers across all affected boroughs.

This last point will only work with the support of Corbyn-supporting MPs and councillors alongside the mass of party members who back the party leadership. It is possible to kick-start serious public campaigning simply by mobilising party members, which in many metropolitan boroughs around the country are now several thousand strong. When local people see the youth and the left on the march against austerity, then there could be a momentum generated which would seriously embarrass the government in the run up to the next general election, make the local elections in May about opposing austerity, and force councillors to choose between business as usual and mobilising their electoral support base to oppose austerity effectively.