A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bitter bite of Tory cuts

We are now getting an early taste of just what Tory Britain will be like and it's a bitter taste indeed. For all of those who argued that there was no point in a Labour vote at the recent general election, it should be a sharp lesson. There is no doubt that new Labour was far too close to the Tories and Lib Dems in its policies and there's certainly no doubt that we were never about to see a social revolution brought about by Vladimir Illyich Brown. But the butchery that we are seeing brought into existence now is far more extreme, far more drastic and far quicker and less thought out than anything projected by Labour, so much so that that tens of thousands of people are facing harm to their lives that could have been avoided or at least postponed and more vulnerable to trade union pressure had there been a Labour government. In a matterof days, Tory Chancellor George Osborne and his Lib Dem henchman David Laws have dreamed up £6 billion of cuts to land on us all within a few weeks in an emergency Budget that shows all the signs of being more like a butchers bill than a logical programme. Lofty talk about not cutting front-line services begs the question of whether such front-line services can function without the administrative and technical backup that allows them to get on with the job and, of course, they can't.

The Lib Dems appear to have undergone a Damascene conversion to cuts that, not a fortnight ago, they were damning as over the top and irresponsible. Evidence of things to come is seen most clearly in the NHS, which has been instructed by the Department of Health to set aside a £2 billion pot to pay for one-off costs such as redundancies. A DoH spokeswoman said that "2010-11 will be the last year of significant growth for the NHS. "The NHS will need to plan now so it can continue to deliver service and quality improvements in the future. But with £2 billion worth of redundancies facing the service, that will be a damned sight more difficult to do than to talk about. Rather than "service and quality improvements," we can expect to see jobs go in the thousands and, when jobs go in a labour-intensive NHS, service standards will inevitably go with them. And that's not even counting the jobs that will have to go to pay for the £2 billion that is to be spent on the cutbacks. It's a downward spiral which will be difficult to halt, because the effects won't only be felt within the service. Taking up to 36,000 staff out of the service and onto the dole queues will remove a huge chunk from the spending power that manufacturing, wholesale and retail trades rely on. Shunting tens of thousands onto benefits will have an equally calamitous effect on public expenditure, which will then result in this cuts-mad and callous government attempting to slash the bill by restricting the amount of and access to benefits. With the same thing happening across the public sector, all the signs then point to the much forecast and much dreaded double-dip recession.

This brutal hacking back of the economy is so potentially damaging that it's impossible to forecast where such a downward spiral would end. The coalition of the ungodly clearly believes that the private sector will somehow recover and plug the gap created by the public-sector massacre, with new jobs appearing out of thin air, created by a market revived and fertilised by government largesse to the rich and the entrepreneurial. But faced with a manufacturing sector that is dying by inches and a consumer market crippled by job losses, how this would happen is beyond the understanding of mortal man. Not, apparently, by the Bullingdon butchers aided by their Lib Dem chums. It's just that no-one has yet explained how the conjuring trick is going to work. While the nation was swept up in the furore of the general election, the local elections sneaked by without a bat of an eyelid. Although some might argue that ultimate power lies at No 10, this doesn't mean local councils are mute when it comes to how to spend their government-allocated money. Just as there's a national budget, each local authority has its own mini-budget too. And many councils make their most progressive changes when coming head to head with an opposition government. So for Labour voters there's hope yet. Not only did left Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott increase their majority in the general election, Labour fared remarkably well in the locals.

Let's go through some of the statistics. Labour has gained 415 seats on councils since the last election, increasing its number of councillors to 2,945 - its best performance since the party's landslide victory in 1997. Labour has also gained control of 17 councils across the country, 10 of which are in London, bringing the total number of local authorities under its control to 40. Out of the 23 councils that Labour retained control of, it gained seats in 20, made no change in the two local authorities of Manchester and Preston and only lost seats in Stevenage, losing just three councillors. It is also the only party to have complete control of any council in the country, with the two London authorities of Newham and Barking & Dagenham, where it fought off the BNP threat. By contrast, the Tories lost a number of councils, most notably those to Labour in the London boroughs of Ealing, Harrow and Enfield. The latter has long been seen as a young, up-and-coming Conservative stronghold compared with its neighbour Barnet - a traditional stuffy Tory borough that won't be going red for some time. Not only was Barnet Margaret Thatcher's old stomping ground during her time as MP for Finchley & Golders Green, its current mayor and Assembly Member for Barnet & Camden Brian Coleman once described Haringey as a place "where respectable folk have to lock their car doors as they drive through it." And let's not forget the well-publicised comments of Barnet's Mill Hill Councillor John Hart, who said of Marxists that they "were the laziest bastards on Earth."

Former Barnet Council leader and newly elected MP for Finchley & Golders Green Mike Freer defended Hart's comments by saying Hart had formed his opinions "when he used to work with Marxists at his university's student union." The local polls also saw Labour gain control of 13 local authorities which previously had no overall control, including Camden and Islington in London and Coventry and Doncaster elsewhere. What's interesting this time around is, aside from it being far from a landslide Tory victory in the general election, Labour has done extraordinarily well in the local elections, particularly in London," said Keith Flett, socialist historian and chairman of the TUC in Haringey. In 1997 the Tories were practically wiped off local authorities but this time around, at a time when Labour has had a lot of bad press, the party has actually become the ruling party on many councils. I see this as being a key battleground over the next year. Working people have voted Labour because they don't want Tory cuts." In Haringey Council in north London there were just a few seats separating the Liberal Democrats and Labour, which has run the council for over 40 years. In the wake of bad press following the child protection failings that led to the death of Baby P, everyone thought the Lib Dems might just clinch the public vote and rule the council. But Labour support in the poorer east of the borough was unwavering and, instead of the Lib Dems winning three seats to gain control of the council, they lost three. Flett added: "You ask any Afro-Caribbean living in Tottenham how they voted and they will reply: 'We vote Labour' - and that's all there is to it. "People's intelligence goes beyond the expectations of the sensationalist tabloid media to the extent that voters realise that the death of Baby P has very little to do with party politics." The tabloids might think they can bend public opinion at will, but you can bet The Sun was left nursing a bruised ego following the Tories' underwhelming performance.

Despite getting the full backing of the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, despite the Iraq war inquiry and despite Gordon Brown's howling gaffe of calling a pensioner a "bigot," the Conservatives still could not muster enough support to win an overall majority of the vote. In fact they did appallingly considering the circumstances - showing that local people were not fooled by the tabloids' ranting. Deputy leader of Haringey Council and Tottenham Hale Councillor Lorna Reith believes the local electorate did not buy into the press reports surrounding Baby P. "The issue of children's safeguarding and baby Peter didn't come up on the doorstep," said Reith. I think those residents who were particularly concerned had probably followed the stories in the press and were aware that our Ofsted report in January showed we were making good progress. In 2006 borough turnout for the local elections was just under 36 per cent and this time it was 60.3 per cent. A higher turnout is usually beneficial to us." Even the Lib Dem leader in Haringey Robert Gorrie had to confess he was not surprised that Labour won again. "Disappointing, yes. Surprising, no," he said. "The Greens and Conservatives again won no seats and, as such, the Lib Dems remain the only alternative to Labour in Haringey." Perhaps turnout was a key factor here. Local elections are not normally held on the same day as general elections, which means that in some areas double the number of people voted at the locals compared with 2006. Could this be a sign that the majority of people in the country who choose not to vote would vote Labour if it came to it?

Robin Wales was re-elected as Newham Council's mayor with a staggering 64,748 votes - a majority of nearly 50,000 over the second-placed Tory candidate. The borough is led by the mayor and cabinet and got the largest swing to Labour in the country. "Across London the results show that the Labour vote held up well," he said. "Although the national result was disappointing, winning back London councils is a real achievement. Clearly the general election turnout was beneficial because it made it more likely that our voters would turn out to cast their vote. And London voters have had first-hand experience of a Tory administration through the Mayor Boris Johnson - the results indicate they don't like what they've seen. In Newham we got the largest swing to Labour in the country and this suggests that we benefited from more than just increased turnout. For example, we've got the biggest range of free events in London, we give all primary school children free school meals and last year we made £12 million available for locally directed projects." A Labour Party spokesman added: "We are very proud of the hard work and dedication from our Labour teams across the country, which meant we took back control of a number of councils. Once people see the reality of Conservative or Lib Dem councils, they are keen to return to the progressive policies of the Labour Party." Britain will certainly be seeing the reality of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition all too soon, as the parties of the right formulate their slash-and-burn policies. Lessons will have to be learnt - but the tragedy is that we'll be learning the hard way.

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