As the butchery of jobs, services, community facilities, and workers‘ conditions looms large and ugly in the setting of Scotland‘s 32 council budgets, Labour and SNP politicians are knocking verbal lumps out of each other. Listening to their excuses for implementing savage cuts, and the feeble ‘alternatives’ they offer, we could be forgiven for quoting the lines from Macbeth’s famous speech: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The noisy clash between the SNP government and the non-SNP controlled councils signifies nothing but cynical party political manoeuvres for the May elections, rather than any genuinely principled opposition to the Tory-initiated butchery of jobs and services. Not one council controlled by Labour, or the SNP, or both combined, has shown the courage to actually refuse to implement cuts. Nor has the SNP government, despite its monolithic mandate from the Scottish people, gained largely by their election talk of being ‘anti-austerity‘.
Context of Cuts
Context is key to mapping a route out of this nightmare. The Tories treat cuts to the public sector as a virtue. The class of super-rich and capitalists they represent have little need of public services, which they regard as a nuisance in their pursuit of profit, and they deliberately dismantle the services provided by councils in order to ‘justify’ privatisation for profit. For the past 20-odd years, successive Tory and Labour governments have felt emboldened to slash council funding, in the knowledge the overwhelming majority of councillors would act as their meek servants, rather than leaders of a rebellion.
In Scotland, successive Labour-LibDem and SNP governments have rightly and noisily condemned cuts to Scotland’s budget by Westminster… only to then quietly pass on the cuts, devolving their dirty work to councils, FE college boards and the likes.
Cut to the Bone Marrow
In the past four years alone, at least £3billion has been hacked off the flesh and bone of council expenditure. Now they are down to the bone marrow, with a further £350million cuts announced by John Swinney in his latest Local Authority Funding Settlement. The SNP repeatedly trot out the mantra that “this is a challenging but fair settlement for local authorities”, as if repetition will take the pain away from the communities and council workers thereby hammered to an extent not seen before. Estimates of 20,000 job losses over the next two years; savage cuts to education; library closures; reduced care services for the elderly, children or vulnerable people; school closures; removal of flexi-time for sections of council workers; monstrously increased workloads for those who remain in a job; sky-rocketing charges for use of those community facilities that aren’t simply shut down… these are but samples of the consequences of the ‘fair settlement for local authorities’.
SNP Council Tax Freeze
The crunch question, however, is what to do to avoid this butchery. The SNP has persisted with its 9th year of the Council Tax freeze, arguing it helps families facing attacks on their income by the Tory government. Of course, low- and middle-income families welcome respite from mounting Council Tax bills. But the richest minority, living in the biggest houses, least in need of frontline services, gain more from the SNP’s freeze. And whilst they claim to be compensating councils for it, in reality it has added to the pressure on budgets.
Raising Council Tax Bills?
The ‘alternative’ of ending the freeze, jacking up Council Tax bills, is entirely unacceptable, however. Tory-led Moray council, and Independent-led Highlands & Islands council were amongst those threatening to end the freeze – with Moray proposing an 18% rise on household bills. Unfortunately, some trade union leaders also advocate this as an alternative to continued cuts.
But that’s robbing the working class with one hand in order to mitigate the theft of their jobs and incomes by the other hand. And since the Council Tax only accounts for about 15% of total council income, the increases to Council Tax bills would have to be massive in order to claw back the sums stolen from councils by central government.
The Deal Imposed
Not content with blowing apart Tory and Labour councillors’ planned tax-hiking ‘alternative’ by argument, John Swinney and the SNP government imposed their Council Tax freeze and £350million cuts settlement with the brute force of threatened multiple penalties, adding up to an additional £408million of cuts. That is the sum they threatened to withdraw from social care and education budgets if councils defied their Council Tax freeze.
Labour Tax on Workers
Amidst the furore between Holyrood and the Town Hall leaders, Scottish Labour stepped forward with a proposal they hoped would outflank the SNP from ‘the left’; a 1% increase on all the bands of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax being partially devolved to Holyrood this April.
On the surface, confronted by drastic cuts, some people might initially see this as a better alternative, with its claims to raise £430million. But just like the option of a hike in Council Tax bills, it would disproportionately hit lower-paid and middle-income workers. The rules of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax concession are that the top rate of tax can’t be raised without the same increase on the lowest tax band. So workers on incomes between £11,000 and £20,000 would face tax increases, another form of pay cut.
An Election Bung!
Conscious of this, Labour proposed a £100 annual rebate to people in that income bracket. Apart from failing to deliver any detail on how this would work, Labour utterly fails to answer the charge that over a third of all those eligible for other existing rebates – such as Working Tax Credit – never claims them, which means about 150,000 low-paid workers would pay Labour’s tax hike but never get the £100 lump sum back.
Furthermore, since the average wage in Scotland last year was £27,200, the average-paid worker would be clobbered by Labour’s ‘Tartan Tax’ without even the sop of a £100 bung… a sweetener designed to win Labour votes, rather than win the fight against cuts.
Labour and SNP Cuts
Just like the SNP’s 1999 ‘Penny for Scotland’, this is a regressive proposal, once again robbing wages off the working class to ease the theft of services and jobs from the working class!
Likewise, the SNP’s attacks on Labour’s tax proposal – as “shifting the burden of Tory austerity onto working people” – reeks of rank hypocrisy, and electioneering opportunism, since their £350million cuts package is a grand theft of wages, jobs and public services from the same working class majority population.
Demand No Cuts Budgets
So what should be done to avert these, the worst attacks on council provision in memory?
Since our formation in 1998, the SSP has persistently opposed a single penny in cuts to services, a single job loss, and advocated a twin-track alternative: defiance of Tory-inspired cuts by setting ‘No Cuts’ budgets both at Scottish and local government levels, as a platform to launch a mass rebellion demanding back some of the £billions stolen by Westminster, and immediate legislation in the Scottish parliament to abolish the regressive Council Tax and replace it with a progressive, income-based Scottish Service Tax. That’s the alternative we’ve argued for in council unions, in community groups, on the streets and through SSP councillor Jim Bollan in West Dumbarton.
Increasingly, trade unions representing council workers have adopted a version of this ‘No Cuts Budget’ strategy – including all five unions in Labour-controlled Glasgow city council and those in SNP-controlled Dundee city council.
Instead of passing on the punishment meted out by the ‘Westmonster’ Tories, the SNP government and Labour/SNP councillors should discover the collective backbone to ‘stand up for Scotland’; the Scotland of workers and working class communities, not the Scotland of the millionaires and billionaires who are dictating public policy to a compliant Cameron government.
Setting No Cuts budgets wouldn’t on its own transform people’s lives, but it would be a firm launchpad for a serious struggle to win back the funds to save jobs, workers’ conditions and local public services.
Rejecting Cuts and Buying Time
As a very short-term tactic, to buy the time to build such a mass campaign of council workers and communities – and to simultaneously pass legislation to replace the Council Tax with one based on ability to pay – MSPs and councillors could devise budgets that avoid cuts by use of reserves, budget underspends, rescheduled debt repayments, and borrowing powers.
For instance, the Scottish government budget for 2014/15 was underspent by £350million. And that’s an annual feature (it was £444million the previous year), as the SNP seek managerial respectability, instead of even contemplating leading a serious fight to defy and defeat Westminster’s financial butchery.
A year ago, Audit Scotland reported that Scotland’s councils had a combined total of £1.8billion in what they termed ‘useable reserves’.
So there’s no basis for the plea by SNP and Labour politicians that ‘we have to balance the books’; that they’re obliged to pass on Tory cuts.
There’s plenty of room for short-term devices that would buy precious time to mount a ferocious campaign to win back some of the £billions stolen off Scotland to fund tax breaks for the millionaires and big corporations. And to push through an income-based Scottish Service Tax which – based on 2015 figures – would double local tax revenue from £2billion to £4billion, but would also mean 77% of people paying less for council services than they do in Council Tax.
Defiance not Destruction
With the exception of the SSP’s Jim Bollan, no councillor has so far emerged willing to lead this route out of the swamplands of cuts and tax hikes that hammer ordinary people. So trade unions, community campaigns and socialists need to pound the MSPs and councillors in the squabbling Labour and SNP camps with demands of defiance, instead of different roads to destruction for workers and those depending on local services.
The SSP and other socialists are advocating this alternative, alongside growing numbers in the unions; principled opposition to the butchery dictated by Cameron’s capitalist Cabinet, rather than the vote-seeking posturing of both Labour and the SNP leaderships.
Lobbies and demos at council meetings should be just the start of a struggle to resist and defeat cuts, even if not a single local authority, when setting its budget, discovers the courage to defy Holyrood and Westminster.
Source: Richie Venton: NEITHER COUNCIL CUTS NOR TAX HIKES – build mass defiance