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.
I wrote this over a year ago so I can’t remember my exact sources but I think I largely based this on what I was told by various councilors and then checked this against the law (I am not a lawyer so I may well have got the wrong end of the stick) but as I understand the Tories brought in two changes of law to stop a similar campaign happening again. In the Local Government Act 1988 gave auditors the power to issue a ‘prohibition order’ which would negate any decision by a local authority which would lead to a breach in the law and secondly the power to initiate a judicial review of any decision or failure to act which might have an effect on the council’s accounts. While the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 required local authorities designate one of their officers as a “Monitoring Officer” who would have the duty of alerting the Director of Finance to any legally questionable decision
Combined this would have the effect of a legal budget being set defacto by the state. This still stands as far as I can see as according to the Audit Commission Act 1998 “The auditor for the time being of the accounts of a body subject to audit other than a health service body may issue an order under this section (a “prohibition order”) if he has reason to believe that the body or an officer of the body—
(a)is about to make or has made a decision which involves or would involve the body incurring expenditure which is unlawful;
(b)is about to take or has taken a course of action which, if pursued to its conclusion, would be unlawful and likely to cause a loss or deficiency; or
(c)is about to enter an item of account, the entry of which is unlawful.”
Perhaps I could have worded this better but the result remains the same. The symbolic act defiance would happen immediately [See(b) above], before a council even tried to set a an illegal budget! Meaning that any damage to council employees or services would be none existent.
You’ve written that the rules were changed so that “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.”
This is not true. If a budget meeting does not set a budget it is required to have another budget meeting within ten days – and then again and then again. It’s perfectly possible for councils to delay setting a budget if they cannot agree on one – but obviously not indefinitey.
The key rule change (for the purposes of this debate) was that in order for budget proposals and amendments to be put, the council officers have to first check them as legal/they add up etc. It is no longer *possible* to actually put an illegal budget on council floor.
You can want to – you can even publicise the budget you would have put but you cannot actually *put* an illegal budget to the vote. All you can do is continuously refuse to set any budget at all – in which case local residents might be quite grateful for the national government stepping in and allowing their public services to continue to be funded.
Thanks for your comment, I would certainly agree with your first point and most councils will see budget cuts for the next 4 years and even then they are unlikely to start moving back towards anywhere near what is necessary based upon social need. I would have liked to have gone into specifics of how the campaign could work this time, but felt that would have made the article very long.
Rather the purpose of the article was to try dispel common misconceptions of the campaign
in the 80’s.
On your second point I think moral relativism is generally quite a dangerous view point and it logical application can lead you to quite dark places if applied to policy. But I suppose I would have to cede that perhaps there is a utilitarian case for your point of view, if there was no alternative. However, as with life in general, I think that it is actually quite rare that there is no alternative. And the point the article was to try and demonstrate was exactly this. There is an alternative – a mass campaign of illegal no-cuts budgets combined with other actions could cause the government to rupture and end the cuts.
Therefore I’m not arguing that individual councils or councillors need to try and set illegal budgets this year as it needs to be mass campaign but we need to start building that campaign.
1. It’s too late for “a critical mass of councils” to refuse to set balanced budgets for this year (possibly something worth thinking about for the future), as many of them have already set them.
2. If you’re really going to argue about morality and use terms like “genocide of the vulnerable”, then I simply can’t understand how you could advocate a course of action which would lead to deeper cuts and hence more people dying. On your own logic, trying to limit the worst effect of the cuts is the only moral position, as it saves lives.