Owing to Leicester’s undemocratic Mayoral system, our Labour City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby can do pretty much as he wishes; hence practical support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity politics has not yet been forthcoming from our Blairite Mayor who actually called for Corbyn’s resignation only last year.
But this dire political situation is finally changing somewhat as more and more new Corbyn-supporting members of the Labour Party continue to demand that their Labour councillors adopt Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda for change. Arguably this new influx of members is the main reason that a handful of Leicester’s Labour councillors are now publicly challenging Sir Peter Soulsby’s decision to divert a £7.4 million underspend from the service budget to Soulsby’s own favourite pet project: his already well-funded Leicester Economic Action Plan.
This important challenge to Soulsby was discussed during the June 22 “Overview Select Committee” meeting, wherein Soulsby explained that this underspend was recurrent, with just over £31 million having been diverted from service funds to his project over the past six years.
The position of Leicester’s rebel councillors was however very simple: this year’s £7.4 million underspend was originally meant to be spent on funding local service provision and so should be used for exactly this purpose.
Sir Peter Soulsby and the scrutiny chairman Cllr Baljit Singh, as one might have expected, voiced their disagreement with this sensible suggestion. And when the discussion was opened up to contributions from ordinary members of the Overview Select Committee no-one spoke up, thereby signalling their effective agreement with Soulsby’s ridiculous decision.
Of those who remained silent we can count seven Labour councillors (Diane Cank, Virginia Cleaver, Elly Cutkelvin, Ratilal Govin, Jean Khote, Mustafa Malik, and Malcolm Unsworth), and the two opposition councillors Ross Grant (Tory) and Nigel Porter (Lib Dem). Shame on all of them.
Some months later at the next scheduled Overview Select Committee meeting held on September 14, Cllr Ross Willmott reiterated the rebel councillors concerns, noting that cuts to youth services could be avoided by using just a small portion of the £7.4 million underspend.
This time around the councillors present at the meeting spoke up during the ensuing discussion. For example, Cllr Virginia Cleaver began her contribution with a tragic story about the destruction being wrought by government cuts, noting how she recently met a member of the public who said “I feel like I want to hang myself”.
On the issue of the potential use of the underspend Cllr Cleaver admitted: “I understand why it has been brought back here and yes maybe we should have been a bit more verbal at the last meeting.” Now that is an understatement, especially given that she didn’t even use her words to support the principled position taken by the rebel councillors!
Eventually after much waffling, the meeting voted as to whether they would reject the (‘call-in’) position taken by the rebel councillors, and unfortunately nearly all councillors present voted in the affirmative bar two councillors who opposed the decision. The names of these two councillors were most likely Mustafa Malik and Dr Lynn Moore, as they were the only two Labour members who spoke during the discussion in support of the rebel councillors. (The other Labour councillors present who supported Soulsby were Diane Cank, Virginia Cleaver, Elly Cutkelvin, Ratilal Govin, Jean Khote, Mustafa Malik, Malcolm Unsworth and Baljit Singh.)
Subsequent to this meeting Cllr Willmott tweeted a short video clip from the first Overview Select Committee meeting with the accompanying message:
A few people have asked about where the money could come from to stop the cuts to the youth service, welfare rights, Sure Start centres and more. In the clip the city mayor explains how £31.5m has been underspent over last 6 yrs! Many think this should be used to stop these cuts. (November 19)
This was a good start from Cllr Willmott and our rebel councillors, and so I used this as an opportunity to ask Willmott:
One question: do you support the Labour Representation Committee @LRCinfo Dec 2015 statement on opposing cuts? (see link) http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/bring-a-new-politics-into-local-democracy/ (November 27)
To which Cllr Willmott responded:
Yes I believe we should all be campaigning against the Tory cuts and to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as PM. As Cllrs we should not be taking money from services to people in need and using it for things we don’t need like Jubilee Square (November 28)
This is a massive step forward for Leicester, as the aforementioned statement from the Labour Representation Committee clearly supports the idea of Labour Councils using all available means to set legal no-cuts budgets right now. So this is a positive change of political direction for Cllr Willmott, who had previously rejected the legal no-cuts budget that had been proposed by Leicester UNISON branch in February. So let’s hope that Cllr Willmott now seizes the opportunity presented by this week’s full Council meeting (on November 30) to publicise his change of direction and to garner further support from other councillors and from the people of Leicester for resisting Tory austerity in practice not just in words.