On Wednesday night I attended the “City Mayor’s Question Time” meeting in Hamilton — an event which was recorded by BBC Radio Leicester.
I submitted my own question via the council’s web site in advance of the event, and have transcribed the Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s responses to my question below.
As a brief introduction to the comments made by our city’s Labour bosses, it is important to note that the City Mayor deliberately confuses calls for setting a legal budget for an illegal one. Sir Peter Soulsby also invokes the example of Liverpool City Council (1983-7) to suggest that it is impossible to oppose Tory cuts, but in actual fact this example proves the opposite to be true.
The mass campaign built by the Liverpool Labour council during the 1980s managed to force the Thatcher government to give their city an extra £60 million between 1984 and 1985. This allowed the council to continue their political programme of council building houses (just short of 5,000), freezing rents for five years, and creating 2,000 jobs and creating apprenticeships. The council also developed social services, introduced new nursery schools, built a park, built six new sports centres – all of which are concrete examples of what can be achieved if Labour councillors make a stand and back that stand up with a mass mobilisation of the working class.
Wearing his distinctly New Labour politics proudly on his sleeve, Sir Peter appropriates Neil Kinnock’s slanderous 1985 Labour conference speech to justify his attack on the inspirational achievements of Liverpool. Kinnock being the same pre-“New Labour” leader during who in July 1984 was publicly humiliated by the 100,000 strong-crowd at the Durham Miners’ Gala because of his open turn against the National Union of Mineworkers.
It is important to note that while Liverpool Labour council’s electoral support increased year-on-year during their time in power, the opposite was true for the national Labour Party whose right-ward turn simply made them unelectable.
Question and Nonresponses!
ME: This year the national local government committees of two unions, Unite and Unison, have passed motions calling upon Labour Councils to set legal no-cuts budgets, by using reserves, capitalising eligible general fund expenditure and borrowing prudentially to generate resources.
Union representatives have been calling upon our City Mayor to do this for years, and so I wanted to know why he has ignored this option? More than this, he has actually laughed at such propositions when they were put forward in Council last year.
The setting of legal no-cuts budgets could be used to help launch a city and nationwide fightback against the Tories hated policies of vicious cuts. But unfortunately Sir Peter Soulsby’s only response to these requests have been to ridicule the people who suggested them, and then to lie in the media. For example, when this issue was raised earlier this year he said that the people raising these issues were off their trolley. [Sir Peter clearly said we had “lost touch with reality” (February 22, Leicester Mercury)]
Sir Peter: Well the straight fact is that councils up and down the country have a legal obligation to make a budget that balances, and if they don’t the so-called Section 151 Officer does it for them. That applies to all councils, and whether or not one is attracted to making the sort of gesture we are being asked to make, the fact is it is not the type of gesture that is open to Leicester City Council or any other council.
What we are being asked to do in these resolutions is to make an illegal budget and that is the road to disaster; do you remember the speech that Neil Kinnock made about Liverpool? Well we are being asked to do what Liverpool did. And what Neil Kinnock quite rightly drew attention to was the obscenity of the council having to hire taxis to send round redundancy notices; and that’s what it leads to, having to send out redundancy notices and close your services! Well, not only is it not legal, it’s not morally right either, and I’m not prepared to do it.
What Leicester City Council is facing is a level of cuts that we haven’t seen ever — not just in recent generations, but ever — in local council services! We are losing from central government the best part of £150 million, and that’s every year. Now, no amount of illegal budgeting, and no amount of posturing and silly gestures will make that go away. That money is just not coming to Leicester, and it’s just not there to spend. And that is the reality of the situation.
ME: Sir Peter Soulsby has made this response every time. We made it very clear – there was a lobby outside of the council as well – that is was a legal budget we are asking for. This is what the unions are demanding – a legal budget. So to say that we are calling for an illegal budget is just plain wrong to start with.
What we’ve said so far is that if every single Labour Council across the country took all their reserves collectively and redistributed them across different Labour councils, then not a single cut would be needed to be made right now. And that’s very, very important, because Labour have to pose a difference to the Conservatives. The Conservatives are in crisis and we have a Labour council that have been making cuts upon cuts upon cuts.
Sir Peter: Michael has made it personal to me and particularly to Leicester. The simple question to him: if it is both legal and possible why is there no a single council in the UK that’s doing it? Name one?
ME: I can tell you why not a single Labour council is doing it. It is because you quoted Neil Kinnock, a right-wing member of the Labour Party, precisely because the Labour Party has moved so far to the right.
Sir Peter (interrupting): Name a single council under any control in the UK that is doing it?
ME: Jeremy Corbyn was elected without the support of a single Labour councillor in this city. That is outrageous. Not a single one of our 52 Labour councillors supported Jeremy Corbyn.
The point of setting a legal not cuts budget right now would be to build a big, mass campaign. Just not making the cuts by itself is not a solution. What you need is to build a big groundswell of people, just as they did in Liverpool; and in Liverpool they did succeed in building 5,000 council houses during the 1980s, more than every single city in the rest of the country. Peter Soulsby talked about the taxi-drivers and redundancies; he has made thousands of redundancies in this city, while in Liverpool none of the redundancy notices that were sent out in taxis actually resulted in redundancies. But Peter Soulsby couldn’t even send out redundancy notices in taxis because he is in dispute with them, because he treats their union [the RMT] with utter disrespect, as he does my own union, Unison.
Deputy Mayor Rory Palmer: It’s not quite that simple in a sense because of course we have to maintain some reserves for emergency situations and unforeseen events, but at the same time, we are using our reserves in significant quantities to sustain our services through this financial climate. Local government finance can be quite complicated and complex, I accept that. But local government finance is also incredible simple as the Mayor has outlined. If the money is not there in our accounts from the grants we get from government we cannot spent it.
What I did last year to fight the cuts was spend hundreds of hours trying to elect a Labour government, who would have provided a much fairer settlement for local government. Unlike Mr Barker and his party, who were probably trying to do the opposite? I would challenge Mr Barker, ‘how many doors did you knock on last year to try to elect a Labour government?’
ME: I didn’t count. Maybe you can keep track of exactly how many you’ve knocked on because it’s so few, but I spent countless evenings do it. I mean what a ridiculous thing to ask, ‘how many doors did you knock on’?!
Deputy Mayor Rory Palmer: I will leave Mr Barker to continue writing his silly satirical blogs about us, which do provide a little bit of amusement despite their utter un-factual and fictional basis. But look we are going to disagree on this.
ME: I think you will find that I haven’t written a single lie. Although I would like to make one point, because Peter Soulsby did lie a moment ago.
Deputy Mayor Rory Palmer: Our politics is based in the real world as we find it, and the situation as we find it, and we deal with it within the legal framework in which we have to operate based on a real and sensible understanding of the world as we find it.
ME: I just wanted to point out that the gentleman at the front [during an earlier question] was very right about the Section 106 agreements; this council does not fight to make sure they get the money. For example, when the 200 odd buildings were built at Wheatsheaf the council got zero percent affordable housing200 odd buildings were built at Wheatsheaf the council got zero percent affordable housing. In the council’s own documents they say they strive for 30%. And not long afterwards [in another development of 1190 housing units at Abbey Meadows] they got 20% [I meant to say 10%]; and now they are in an agreement with another company [Morris Homes] who have a track record of not committing to affordable housing. And the council are giving away land for almost nothing at the moment.
Sir Peter: Can I just comment on that Wheatsheaf one. Has anybody seen that? It’s the former Co-op’s factory. It is a brilliant conversion.
ME (speaking in background): Leicester doesn’t need luxury housing it needs affordable housing.
Sir Peter: I am delighted we have managed to bring that to Leicester.
ME (speaking in background): Your council has just cut 200 bed for homeless people.
Sir Peter: …and I am delighted that that former factory, the largest shoe factory in the world, has been brought back into life as a place for people to live. I make no apology for that at all.