At a spritely 44 years-old, Ranjit Banwait is the “cherubic” Labour leader of Derby City Council — a position he has been privileged to hold since May 2014. But while Cllr Banwait is a firm supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leader’s firm opposition to austerity, this support does not necessarily translate into meaningful action at a local level.
Since 2010, Derby has already made £115 million of cuts as a result of Tory austerity, and a further £45 million is planned to be cut over the next three years. But while Cllr Banwait says that he has been forced to continue the thankless task of carrying through such swingeing cuts, there is different, more progressive option that would be more consistent with his rhetoric commitment to opposing the dangerous politics of austerity.
This alternative would be for Derby City Council Labour Group to refuse to implement further cuts to public services, and strive to build a huge grassroots campaign to demand from the government the money that is needed to maintain services. To be successful this campaign would necessarily need to unite Labour Party members across the country in defiance of Tory austerity.
But instead of taking this principled and realistic approach, Cllr Banwait, like most other uninspired Labour Council leaders is overseeing massive cuts. This is all the more galling because Cllr Banwait does this at the same time as ostensibly leading a public campaign against austerity; last year he even joined an anti-cuts lobby of his own Council budget setting meeting that went ahead and agreed they could do nothing but carry through Tory cuts.
Yet Cllr Banwait acknowledges the folly of adopting such a defeatist position, and earlier this year, in a one-to-one interview with Labour MP Keith Vaz (Leicester East) he noted that making the necessary £45 million cuts that are “required in the next three years” would be “be impossible to deliver without the closure of public services – a position that is both political and electoral suicide.”
Cllr Banwait takes his “greatest inspiration from the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement”; those “who took enormous personal risks” to fight for justice, but fails to so himself. During his interview with Vaz, Cllr Banwait made special reference to the famous South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, explaining that he hopes Biko’s ultimate sacrifice (of his life) “was not in vain”, even though he himself is unwilling to what is comparatively speaking a far smaller political risk with his own career (not his life).
As a leader who is proud of his working class heritage, as a son of a postman and a school cleaner, Cllr Banwait is presently forcing changes upon Derby’s school support workers which will seem many staff lose 25% of their salary! As one might expect, this attack quickly led to the development of a powerful campaign of resistance which is being backed by Unison the union. Cllr Banwait has responded by abusing his position of authority to mislead his fellow Council members by casting doubt on the legitimacy of Unison’s activism on behalf of their members (see “Teaching Assistant Crisis: Did Banwait mislead the Council over UNISON?”).
Moreover it gets worse, as Derby City Council’s appalling response to this united act of defiance on behalf of their employees has been to describe themselves as “Margaret Thatchers”; liken the school support staff to “striking Miners” and assert that they will “starve them back to work”. As Derby Unison branch secretary, Nicole Berrisford, observed: “We are keen that our members aren’t starved back to work. They are not miners; this is not the 1980s.” So in the face of a Council committed to “political and electoral suicide” hundreds of support workers across Derby will be taking strike action this Wednesday (September 14)
Notably, when Jeremy Corbyn spoke to a 3,000 strong crowd in Derby last month, he spoke briefly to Nicole, and reported said very clearly “You have my support!” This is hardly surprising on Corbyn’s part, but it is good news that Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has also just announced that she is backing Derby city school support staff, as is former Labour MP for Derby North, Chris Williamson.
Nevertheless, in order that they win their dispute against Cllr Banwait’s visionless Council, which they must, it is clear that Derby’s support workers will need all the local and national aid that they can muster (donations to their strike funds can be made here https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/unisonderbyschools). But just as importantly, the highly problematic nature of this ongoing and entirely unnecessary dispute tells a lot about the urgent need for new and principled Labour councillors who willing to take “personal risks” (read: career risks) in order to fight for justice and to stand up for the needs of their constituents. Now that is not too much to ask, is it?