It’s better to break the law than to break the poor
We need a little perspective before discussing the cuts. The fact of the matter is that the cuts will beyond any doubt kill people. M Harvey Brenner showed through his meta-analysis that for every million extra unemployed 10,000 extra people die. Although disputed at the time further longitudinal studies have shown that the level of death caused by unemployment is at least of the magnitude of thousands. For example Hugh Gravelle showed that the the high level of unemployment in the 1980’s resulted in 3000 extra deaths. The causes of death maybe ascribed to suicide, heart attacks, alcoholism, drug abuse, lack of concern with physical health etc. But it is the poverty and psychological distress of unemployment that killed these people. Most estimates expect the cuts to leave a million more jobless on top of the million who have already lost their job’s due to the recession. According to Brenner’s formula this will result in the deaths of approximately 20,000 people. Yet the true horror of the cuts only comes into focus when we consider the further loss of life resultant from the cutting of crucial hospital services and social programs.
The impacts of unemployment are well known, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the result of cutting hospital wards. In a lawful society it is considered murder to knowingly cause the death of someone and to knowingly cause the deaths of thousands of people is considered to be mass murder. What we are witnessing then is the nothing less than a genocide of the vulnerable. To stand by and do nothing in the face of brutality is to accept that brutality and to be as responsible as the perpetrator. In 1921 Poplar councillors recognised this and refused to carry out the governments devastating cuts. Instead they railed under the banner that “it is better to break the law than to break the poor”, faced with huge public pressure as thirty councillors were imprisoned indefinitely, the government was forced to make council funding fairer.
In the 1980’s councils again faced devastating government cuts and 15 councils launched a campaign of indefinitely not setting a rate (the predecessor of council tax), and in effect not setting a budget. There are many myths about this campaign:
1. That it was a small campaign of trotskyists
2. That it was hugely unpopular with public
3. That it failed strategically
1) It is a natural condition of the centre left to characterise anything left wing as being constituted of an undemocratic minority of the ultra left, as it is prerequisite of being on the centre left that you can not fathom that anything left wing could ever be popular and therefore everything left wing that has some semblance of being so must be the result of an undemocratic plot. Such a view, however, grates with history. The fact is that the campaign was supported by the Labour Party, which carried a motion of support at its conference. Obviously Militant Tendency was an important force in the campaign but so too were figures such as David Blunkett, Margaret Hodge and Ken Livingstone.
2) It is claimed that the campaign was unpopular amongst the general public especially after the Liverpool Council issued redundancy notices to its staff, however, election and polling data suggests otherwise, Harris found that 47% of people blamed the government compared 33% blaming the council in Liverpool. Whilst in the 1987 election Militant MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, both increased their majorities, whilst long-standing Militant member Pat Wall was elected in Bradford.
3) The most important question is whether refusing to set a cuts budget was strategically flawed. It is clear that the campaign was a failure, all 15 councils in the end backed down and set a budget, however, it does not necessarily follow that the strategy of refusing to set a cuts budget was fundamentally flawed. As only one council ever actually committed to not setting a cuts budget. The success of the campaign was contingent on creating a large body of political pressure on the government by highlighting the injustice of the cuts. But instead of setting no-cuts budgets that would have broken the law and thus created that pressure, the councils opted to use a legal loophole to delay the setting of the budgets.
This strategy meant that rather than collectively opposing the government the councils isolated themselves by sitting on the fence and waiting to be picked off one by one. A further tactical difficulty was that the GLC (the largest of authorities) unlike the councils had to set a budget and once Ken Livingstone realised the councils where refusing to set a cuts budget he became unwilling to risk being left on his own facing the courts. In the end only Liverpool Council set an illegal non-cuts budget, but one council was never going to be enough to force the government to back down. This was confounded by a crucial tactical error, in attempting to gain more time to campaign, they issued a 90 day redundancy notice to all 3000 council staff. Although they tried to explain that this was a legal tactic and no one would actually lose their job it constituted a massive PR disaster; with council workers understandably outraged and the unions dropping their support for the council.
However, the situation today is tactically simpler in a number of ways, firstly it is illegal for councils to delay setting a budget meaning that the movement could not be split by councils sitting on the fence this makes collective campaign easier. As soon as a council refused to set a budget the government would step in and set one this would mean that unlike in the 80’s councils would not lose revenue due to the delay in payment of government funding, with councillors avoiding the resultant large fines. Already the LRC which represents the left of the Labour Party has committed itself to not voting for any council cuts and some Labour councillors such as six in Hackney have said they will follow this line. At its conference this weekend the Green Party must also commit to voting against any council cuts and support a broad campaign for setting illegal no-cuts budgets.
It is claimed that the setting of illegal budgets will only result in the banning of decent councillors with auditors stepping in and setting the budget anyway, resulting in even more painful cuts. But such arguments miss the entire point of such a campaign, of course if a single council sets an illegal budget it will be singled out and punished without achieving anything but if a critical mass of councils were to do so in a collective manner it could create a huge amount pressure and act as a catalyst for further direct actions, strikes and protests which may lead the government to rupture. That we should simply try to limit the worst effects of the cuts is inconceivable when we have the knowledge that the cuts will result in death for so many. The only moral position open to councillors is to refuse to be the executioner for this government of millionaires, when faced with such brutality, words without actions melt into meaninglessness.