Defiance or destruction: that's the stark choice facing elected councillors and MSPs across Scotland as they debate the budgets for local councils in the context of the Scottish government's recent Local Authority Funding settlement.
Defiance of Tory-initiated cuts to public sector jobs and services, or destruction of at least 20,000 council workers' jobs this year alone, and decimation of vital, lifeline services to children's education, and care services for children, frail elderly people, and vulnerable adults.
IN THE DEAD OF WINTER
Every one of Scotland's 32 local councils is embroiled in decisions about this year's budget, to be voted on in the next few weeks. In the dead of winter, when most people were preparing their family Christmas, the Scottish government announced its budget, which included what John Swinney euphemistically termed "a challenging settlement for local authorities". In honest English, it actually means a 3.5% cut to council funding from Holyrood (which is overwhelmingly the main source of council funding); a loss of £350m this year alone.
SNP DEVOLVE TORY CUTS
The SNP rightly condemn the annual cuts to the block grant from Westminster. But when John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon claim that they've been 'very fair' to councils, and that "local authorities' share of the budget has remained fairly steady" over the past five years, they're playing with words to hide the truth. Councils' share might be similar, but with overall cuts to Scottish public spending as a whole, the savage truth is revealed by Audit Scotland in their 2015 Report: in just three years, from 2010 to 2013, Scottish government funding to councils was slashed by 8.5%. Even the SNP-Labour council in Edinburgh admits a fall of 14% in its real budget from Holyrood since 2010.
And now a further 3.5% is to be hacked off last year's funding, which itself led to thousands of job losses, service cuts and exorbitant increases to service charges. Indeed, 40,000 local authority jobs have vanished in the past five years.
NEW SAVAGERY IN 2016
The savagery facing Scotland's 250,000 council workers and communities depending on vital services this year and next makes the recent past look like a Golden Age! Cosla, which represents 28 of the 32 councils, has warned of 15,000 job losses. The union UNITE forecasts 20,000 - this year alone.
And councils of all political complexions are plunging the knife like maniacs, with Labour-led Glasgow threatening 3,000 jobs to 'save' £131m this year; SNP-led Dundee seeking 'volunteers' for redundancy amongst its 6,000 non-teaching staff to slash £23m; and the SNP-Labour coalition in Edinburgh city council no longer guaranteeing that they'll avoid compulsory redundancies as they seek to butcher 2,000 jobs as part of this year's £141m cut.
Vital services face decimation. One of the flagship policies of the SNP government is to close the education attainment gap between the richest kids and the rest; a gap that is yawning as wide as ever under their watch. Contrary to any such goal, even the Scottish Parliament Information Service (SPICE) reveals that the national education and lifelong learning budget is being cut by £83m (2.3%). In turn this threatens the loss of specialist teachers and support staff in most local authorities.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD??
So what should councils - and indeed the Scottish government - do, instead of meekly passing on a menu of brutality ultimately drawn up by Westminster's Tories?
Some councils, such as Tory-led Moray and Independent-led Highlands, are threatening to defy the SNP government's 9-year-old council tax freeze. But the Council Tax is a pernicious, regressive means of collecting in £2billion for local authorities... still only about 15% of overall council funds, which predominantly depend on funds off Holyrood. So jacking up Council Tax bills (by 18% in the Moray Tories' plans!) will hit the poorest and middle-income households hardest.
Putting up the Council Tax is death by financial strangulation rather than death by a thousand cuts.
DON'T FREEZE THE COUNCIL TAX - BURY IT!
On the other hand, the SNP's freeze on Council Tax bills also helps the better-off more than lower-income families, and adds to the squeeze on council spending, jobs, services.
As the SSP has persistently argued, the Council Tax shouldn't be frozen, but put into cold storage, killed off, abolished, and urgently replaced by emergency legislation in the Scottish parliament with a progressive, income-based Scottish Service Tax - which we've demonstrated would mean 77% of people paying less, the very rich a damn sight more, with funds thereby raised for councils literally doubled, from £2billion to £4billion.
SET 'NO CUTS' DEFIANCE BUDGETS
More immediately, while pushing ahead with such a progressive form of local taxation reform, the Scottish government and local councils should refuse point blank to pass on Westminster's cuts and set No Cuts Defiance budgets. Not as a feeble political gesture, but as the starting gun for a massive campaign built amongst council workers and local communities to win back some of the £billions stolen off Scotland in recent years.
The SNP swept the elections by claiming to be 'anti-austerity'. Jeremy Corbyn replicated that by storming into the Labour leadership position with his 'anti-austerity' message, which included a call on Labour councillors to "combine and refuse to implement Tory cuts."
Both the SNP and Labour have a mandate to defy Tory austerity; now they need to start practicing what they preach.
BUT WHAT IS A 'NO CUTS' BUDGET?
For several years the SSP has advocated Defiance Budgets, No Cuts Budgets, at both Scottish and council levels. But what do we mean?
It means setting out spending plans that protect every single job, wage packet, local service and community facility. It doesn't even have the ambition of being a 'needs budget', or a 'people's budget', with advances and reforms; merely the modest aim of defending what little we already have.
WIN BACK THE FUNDING SHORTFALL
Then, due to successive years of cuts, that would leave an inevitable shortfall compared to income from government funding, council tax, service charges and rents. But instead of punishing the working class by hikes in Council Tax bills or service charges, we advocate a systematic mobilization of workers, user groups and communities to force funds out of the greedy fists of Westminster.
But that would be illegal, and just lead to fines, sequestration and jail for councillors, cry the Labour (and SNP) benches. Wrong! On several counts, wrong!
In one of his disappointing retreats in the face of treachery in his own party and the media frenzy, Jeremy Corbyn has more recently circulated Labour councillors insisting they "must not set illegal budgets". There's no need for such capitulation to threats of being branded 'illegal'.
DISMISS THE SCAREMONGERING ABOUT FINES AND JAILINGS!
For starters, councils (and the Scottish government) could temporarily fill much of the spending gap for this year's budgets by use of existing powers over their (annual!) underspend, reserves, borrowing powers and cancellation of debt repayments. On just the latter mechanism, since Scottish devolution, local authorities have forked out £3.6billion in interest charges on their £2.5billion debt!
Such financial mechanisms would only be a very temporary reprieve, a delaying tactic to help mount a serious struggle to win back funding off the Tory thieves. They would not be a solution in themselves, but a means of buying some time to mobilize for the real solution: more funding from central government.
And fines and sequestration of councillors were abolished in legislation 15 years ago, giving councillors more room for maneuver than the socialist councillors in Liverpool enjoyed in the 1980s.
A MANDATE TO DEFY TORY CUTS
In any case, MSPs and councillors weren't elected to obey David Cameron or George Osborne. Instead of whining about Tory austerity and then passing it on to local people and their own workforce, SNP and Labour politicians should discover the collective spine to stand up to the Tory cuts, defy them, set out a No Cuts budget, and then build a Scottish rebellion to force the Tories into retreat, to win back the funding to balance the books.
IT CAN AND HAS BEEN DONE!
It could be done. It has been done. I was at the heart of the mass movement in Liverpool which involved regular workplace mass meetings, college students meetings, public rallies in the communities, one-day regional general strikes and demos of up to 50,000 in Liverpool in the '80s. The result? Working class people won back over £60million (about £100m in today's money) off the hard-faced Maggie Thatcher - through a mass struggle inspired by a group of socialist councillors prepared to defy the Tories and go all the way to win the funds to vastly improve working class people's lives, housing, jobs and incomes.
And that was in one city, smaller than Glasgow. Imagine even a few councils in Scotland, in alliance with the Scottish government, staging the equivalent defiance, demanding back some of our stolen £billions, from the far-weaker Tory government of Cameron?
MAKE COUNCILLORS & MSPs STAND UP - OR STAND ASIDE FOR THOSE PREPARED TO FIGHT
As we head towards the budget-making meetings, workers, communities and socialists should pound Labour and SNP councillors and MSPs to stand up for the working class majority, defy Tory cuts, and set out on the road to a mass struggle that could defeat the worst savagery in at least a generation.
And hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully! If these politicians fail to give a lead, and bow the knee to Westminster cuts, they should be forcibly reminded of the forthcoming Scottish elections, where the SSP and other socialists will advocate precisely the option of defiance, not destruction.