BY CLLR PHELIM MAC CAFFERTY
Last night saw a devastating cuts budget passed for the city of Brighton & Hove, which will hit vulnerable older and disabled people, children and families hard as vital services are stopped. The budget scraped through only after Labour capitulated to Tory demands to cut trade union support for council staff, to pay for a Tory wish-list.
Labour were clearly feeling the pressure.
In an otherwise incredibly sombre evening, one of the few moments of light was an emotional singing protest. The minute Councillor Warren Morgan began to “proudly” introduce a £68m cuts plan for the city, protesters burst into the trade union anthem ‘Solidarity forever’ with clenched fists in the air. The protesters brandished signs saying ‘They cut we bleed’ in an effort to highlight the disproportionate impact of Council cuts on women.
The protest caused the meeting to adjourn and the entire Labour delegation scuttled off with their tail between their legs. On their return, they were less than sympathetic to the group who had felt their only recourse to the impending cuts was a very visible protest to the decision-makers themselves. Labour members in the public gallery insisted that instead of listening to the protesters’ message, the protesters should be forced to leave. Green Councillors meanwhile smiled and sang along to show our support.
For Labour and the Tories, I imagine the protest was a terrible inconvenience for their councillors, eager to get on with the business of stripping vulnerable people of vital services.
Perhaps if Labour had genuinely listened to the concerns of these protesters in the first place, they wouldn’t have felt the need to disrupt a council meeting. But we know listening isn’t something that comes easy for Labour, as shown from consultations on children centres and libraries where strong opposition was ignored in the pursuit of cuts.
The Conservative group, on the other hand, presented a raft of amendments to save a handful of services. Staggering hypocrisy from Councillors portraying themselves as saviours of local services, when the national party they represent has slashed local government funding and put these same services at risk.
On the first attempt, the budget was voted down by both Green and Conservative councillors. Greens opposed the budget, urging Labour to reconsider the magnitude of cuts on the most vulnerable residents in the city. In the deadlock, Conservatives saw an opportunity to push for their wish list of budget proposals.
What followed next was less of a negotiation than an unconditional surrender by the Labour administration quicker than they could find a white flag to wave. Despite talking up the value of trade unions to the council (including an impassioned speech from their Whip), and the tens of thousands they save by preventing or avoiding workplace disputes, Labour rapidly ditched their principles and agreed to sack one of their trade union officials when pushed by the Tories. And so the budget was passed.
The cut to trade unions is bad news for Council staff facing redundancy consultations, or those who will face increasing workloads and stress as services are required to deliver more with less. At this critical time, it is more important than ever that staff can organise to ensure their work conditions remain fair and reasonable. With an organisation the size of the Council, it’s all too easy for workers to become trampled by the system.
Trade union facility time is not just a luxury. Recent analysis by the University of Bradford and the TUC found that for every £1 spent on paid facility time for public sector union reps to represent their members, taxpayers get at least £2.31 back in savings. Union representation improves staff retention, reduces illness and boosts industrial relations. It’s an investment that pays countless dividends.
The next year will be hugely damaging to the city, and the damage to council staff morale will be just one of the consequences of stripping local government. Greens will be keeping a very close eye on what happens next and ensuring Labour and their Tory partners are held to account every step of the way.