Ratecapping: What went wrong?

Submitted by AWL on 10 November, 2008 - 12:55 Author: Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean, who resigned as leader of Hackney council when the council decided to knuckle under to the Tories, analyses the ratecapping battle.

A recall Labour Party local government conference was held in Sheffield last summer before it was known which councils would be rate capped, and we discussed a national policy there.

A very good policy was passed at the Labour Party conference last autumn.

It emphasised non-compliance with the Rates Act and the need to defeat it in its first year.

The problem was not the policy but how it was implemented.

There was just no support from Neil Kinnock for the policy that was agreed at Labour Party conference.

As soon as the list of rate-capped authorities was announced, it was clear that it would be very difficult to have total unity. Apart from
political differences there were also real differences in their economic situation between councils like Basildon and Thamesdown, and those like Hackney and Lambeth,

Then there were councils and councillors who saw themselves very much in the traditional mould of Labour local government-just looking towards protest publicity campaigns-and a minority who have seen ourselves as campaigning in a different way, not within the framework simply of the council chamber.

There were lots of reasons for the campaign petering out.

The first thing, of course, was the miners' strike. The decisive phase of the campaign against rate-capping took place after the defeat of the miners' strike.

The particular tactic adopted by the councils also led to problems-the tactic led to problems-the tactic of not setting a rate, or rather deferring a rate.

Hackney Labour Party had the view- and I agreed-that we should go for a deficit budget, a policy of no cuts, no rent increases, and no rate increases above the level of inflation. That would have brought things to a head very early on.

However, we dropped that in the interests of unity and under considerable pressure from London Bridge and the Hackney Joint Shop Stewards' Committee.

We argued that the 'no rate' tactic was very ambiguous, and unfortunately that has proved to be true. Many councils only agreed to defer making a rate; they did not say that it would be impossible to make a rate until the rate support grant was returned to the borough, which was what we did in Hackney.

'Deferring' was done on the basis of legal advice-which was thus allowed to dominate and determine the political tactics.

The Government did not intervene as it had done last year in Liverpool, but rather stood back and let the district auditor and the courts entangle councils.

The courts were unwilling to get involved, and therefore councils were trying to maintain momentum where there was no open and obvious intervention against them.

There were then two possibilities. One was to up the ante - which had to be done through the council chamber, since it was difficult to get trade unionists to take industrial action when there were no cuts taking place. The other - which I argued for - was simply to stand firm.

People here in Hackney were angry rather than demoralised. We believe that the right wing has to take responsibility for the cuts they have pushed through, and be seen to be doing this by the people of Hackney.

There is not a mood of despondency or demoralisation. Everybody is committed to continuing the fight against the cuts, be it inside the council chamber or outside.

Reselection had been discussed now so that next year none of the right wing councillors will be selected.

Unless there are large-scale resignations in the councils that were rate-capped this year, you will have essentially the same councillors going into a campaign next year. I'm not sure at present what particular tactics one would talk about in future campaigns. It seems to me that the major problem will be a great deal of cynicism amongst working-class organisations, including trade unions, about the councils' willingness to be involved in any serious campaign against the government's policies.

There needs to be an assessment, particularly in the local Labour Parties, of what particular tactics you employ. What I am worried about is a basically syndicalist response to the situation, saying "Well, councils always let people down. There's no role for the councillors. Everything should be left to the unions". Although I can understand why people would feel that way, I don't think that is the most constructive way forward.

I think that as socialists, we have to discuss how to build up an alliance between different sections of the community, including socialist councillors, and the Labour Party, for future campaigns.

The collapse on rate-capping is quite significant in relation to what is happening in the Labour Party nationally.

While on ideological issues, councillors like Ken Livingstone have taken a progressive stand, when * has come to key economic and financial questions, there has been a real absence of left strategy.

If, for example, you look at the GLC's campaign against abolition, it has not centred on a close working with the unions, nor did their campaign against rate-capping. It was centred far more on propaganda aimed at the population of London in general, rather than at the
labour movement bodies that are capable of organising people in trade union action.

You cannot take a socialist stand in relation to issues like women's oppression or racism without at the same time taking on board the economic factors that materially affect people's lives.

How can the GLC on the one hand make all this propaganda about having a GLC Women's Committee and supposedly take notice of the interests of women in London while ~e same time it draws back from the fight for adequate resources for such facilities?

That is to miseducate people about the nature of women's oppression, which is seen on the level of ideas in people's heads rather than the economic way in' which women are discriminated against.

Most councillors, in the campaign against rate-capping, have not seen their role going beyond the traditional role of councillors in the council chamber, despite the left rhetoric that has been put about.

They have reinforced Kinnock's position by saying that when it comes to a crunch, when it comes to a question of illegality, that you just act in an extremely traditional way, albeit that you have women’s committees and anti-racist committees and so on.

What should the left be doing now? There have recently been calls for left regroupment.

I believe there is a need for the left to organise on a broad basis, with differing currents on the left working together far more closely.

The left has in recent years tended to focus on internal Labour Party issues which are seen by many non-activists as totally esoteric, rather than concentrating on the type of organisation you actually need to carry out policies.

There is also a strong tendency for the left to regard the passing of motions by GCs as the be-all and end-all, rather than looking at how to organise on the basis of those policies within the wider community.

Any regroupment that takes place in the Labour Party left has to look at those wider issues of how you make links outside the Labour Party.

* Hilda Kean was talking to Mick O'Sullivan. From Socialist Organiser
June 12, 1985, slightly abridged.

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