Although Leicester City Council is presently being run by the Labour Party, locally the leadership of the party are still stuck in a Blairite model of governance — one that is far removed from the popular anti-austerity politics represented by Jeremy Corbyn.
Thankfully positive changes are afoot in the Labour Party, and as a direct result of Corbyn’s open rejection of austerity and the cuts to public services that accompanies either Tory (or Labour) austerity, hundreds of thousands of people have joined (or rejoined) the party.
There can be little doubt that the massive grassroots support that Corbyn has so far received within the Labour movement proved the decisive factor in encouraging the leadership of Unison to give their support to Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
But things are not looking so rosy here in Labour-controlled Leicester. I say this because earlier this year City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby — the key powerbroker in the city – disgracefully “joined the calls for his party leader Jeremy Corbyn to step down” (“Labour Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby – ‘Corbyn’s position now completely untenable’,” June 28, Leicester Mercury).
This public challenge to the democratically elected leader of his own party demonstrates both Sir Peter’s contempt for party democracy and of course for the idea that Tory austerity is unnecessary.
This recent background therefore helps explain why Sir Peter’s Labour Council are desperately trying to force through their latest ill-conceived plan to slash £6 million from the wages of Council workers. The Council’s ludicrous plan, as being presented to workers and their unions, entails the following attacks on terms and conditions:
- Forcing workers to accept three days UNPAID leave over the Christmas period
- Downgrading workers’ hard-won sick pay, pay protection and redundancy entitlements
- Removing premium payments for unsocial working hours — which would equate to a 25% pay cut for night-shift workers
At present Unison is consulting their members and non-members as to how they might most effectively negotiate with the Council over their dim-witted proposals. A meeting for Council workers is therefore being organised by Unison to take place on Wednesday 14th December at City Hall from 4pm onwards; and as the union makes clear…
“…our negotiators will NEVER agree to reduce members’ terms and conditions. Any decision about changes to your terms and conditions will have to be agreed by the members affected by means of a [postal] ballot.”
To date the Council has evidently decided to treat their employees with contempt by offering no transparency in the decision making processes that inform their latest proposed cuts, so it seems likely that their ungracious offer will be rejected forthright.
Already since 2011, between “900 and 1,000 council posts have been made redundant” (December 6, Mercury) but times they are a changing. And so now that Corbyn is at the helm of Labour, surely it is time for local Labour Councils to stop attacking public services and council workers, so that they can instead turn Labour’s sights against the Tories.
For a start, both Unison, council workers and the broader public, should demand that our Labour Council set about investigating how they might set a LEGAL needs-budget for our city to help buy Labour the necessary time to launch a national fight-back against the Tories.
This process would be entirely legal – not illegal as Sir Peter keeps pretending – as illustrated by a motion passed earlier this year by the Unison local government committee that called upon Labour Councils to set legal no-cuts budgets, by using reserves, capitalising eligible general fund expenditure and borrowing prudentially to generate resources.
The potential use of Council reserves to halt cuts to public services and the terms and conditions of their workforce is surely something that a Labour Council would want to investigate? They are facing a Tory-made crisis after all!
So to help the Council a little I have looked into their latest “Statement of Accounts” report which clearly notes that they have £15 million of “unallocated general reserves”, and £190 million of “earmarked [allocated] general reserves”.
Our Blairite Council like to pretend that the reserves that they have already labelled “earmarked” are completely untouchable. But this is not the case, as this argument only applies to reserves that have been ring-fenced for projects associated with schools and the NHS (which amounts to £63 million of the £190 million). This means the Council can look into utilising a total of £142 million of their general reserves (£190 million minus £63 million plus £15 million) to temporarily stop cutbacks, in order to launch a mass campaign to win the money back from central government.
Of course the Council will argue that much of their earmarked reserves are being retained to manage future unforeseen risks, but the current risk posed by needless cuts and austerity surely represent a colossal risk. This is precisely why all available money in general reserves should be channelled into building a campaign against further cuts. This is needed right now: not when it is too late and when even more people are jobless or dead because of Tory austerity.
In answer to the question, ‘can a council can legally use earmarked reserves?’ It should be observed that council officers’ guidance typically states, most Earmarked Reserves “may also be used on a short-term temporary basis for other purposes provided the funding is replaced in future years.” Source: Liverpool council budget document, 2013-17 Medium Term Financial Strategy, Section D. Working Balances and Earmarked Reserves, paragraph 14.1, 6 March 2013.