"Doing nothing was never an option": Southampton's rebel councillors speak out

Submitted by AWL on 26 November, 2012 - 3:08

Keith Morrell and Don Thomas are councillors on Southampton Council, representing the Coxford ward.

When they campaigned and voted against a budget proposal that would have seen a swimming pool in their ward close, they were disciplined by the Labour Party and eventually left the Labour group, forming an independent “Labour Councillors Against the Cuts” group on the council. Keith and Don spoke to Solidarity about the fight against cuts locally, the potential for anti-cuts Labour councillors to coordinate nationally, and the wider politics the labour movement needs to articulate to mobilise a real fightback.


How did your campaign begin?

Keith Morrell: Soon after the Labour Party took power in May 2012, we began setting a “mini-budget”. We expected it to simply be an opportunity to make some small improvements, and cosmetic changes. There were some savings, but they were really accounting savings, rather than cutting anything. Instead, we got an email from the cabinet member for housing and leisure telling us that our local swimming pool was closing down. That came completely out of the blue; it had been shut for some repairs to be carried out, and we were expecting it to reopen a week or two after the point at which we received the email.

The pool is used by hundreds of people every day, including dozens of local schools, disabled and elderly people. It has an experienced, well-trained staff, who were shattered by the news.

Don Thomas: We were also very upset by the lack of democracy in the Labour Party. There was no consultation, discussion, or debate within the Labour group in the run-up to the decision. We were just presented with it by the cabinet member.

Keith: We had a meeting with the Leader of the Labour Group and he literally told us “it’s closing, get used to it.” No further debate, move on. During the election, Sally Spicer – the new Labour candidate in our wards - ran a campaign explicitly saying that the pool was safe with Labour, as the Tories had been threatening to close it. We stood with her on that, and the three of us said that in all confidence and sincerity that Oaklands pool was safe with us. We called the closure a betrayal; that might sound strong, but that’s we saw it, and I think that’s how most constituents, pool staff, and users saw it.

Someone leaked the mini budget in advance of its publication. The inference was that it was Don and I who leaked it. It wasn’t, but we were demonised within the Labour group.

Don: The leaks have actually continued since we’ve left, even though we no longer have access to the same information available to the Labour group!

Keith: Unfortunately, that was used to distract debate away from the issue of the pool closure itself. We felt we had no recourse but to go public with our opposition to the closure, and go to the press. That upset a lot of people in the Labour group.

Don: At that point in time, we said that we’d stand by every leaflet we’d distributed, and every pledge that we’d made. Keeping Oaklands open was a Labour Party election pledge, and we wanted to stand by it. Sally Spicer initially said she’d make the same stand, but that changed very quickly. I think Labour Party hierarchy got to her. She was relatively inexperienced and I think the pressure got to her. We bear her no malice whatsoever, but we are disappointed. Clearly, we would have been stronger if three of us had made the stand rather than two.

How did the Labour Party respond?

Keith: Don and I spoke against the closure of the Pool at the full Council meeting and voted against the mini-budget. We were told immediately that we would subject to a disciplinary investigation. The dragged on for over two months. The Chief Whip even apologised to us for the way the process was handled and conducted.

Don: We both received a letter from the regional party office informing us that we’d been suspended from the party for three months. We replied to say that the proper process hadn’t been conducted locally, and the local group hadn’t reached that decision. The regional party apologised and told us they thought the decision had already been made locally, so we could tell from that the decision was effectively made in advance by the region. The Chief Whip compared the Labour Party to a cricket club – she said, when you join a club, it has rules, and if you don’t follow the rules you should expect to be thrown out!

Keith: I thought that, just on the basis of basic justice, we might win. Based on the way the decision was made, and the fact that we were not given any opportunity to have this debated in the group or in the party, the fact that the investigation was so drawn-out and disorganised. Even the local MP indicated to us that the process was conducted wrongly.

Don: We went into this with our eyes wide open, and knew some of the reaction we might get, but we always wanted to work this out within the Labour Party and its structures. It was the party officialdom that prevented that from happening. This isn’t a position we wanted to be in, but it’s about principle. We weren’t prepared to sell out the local community. Once the full scale of the cuts Labour was going to propose became clear, we felt our position was untenable and we resigned from the Labour group. We said we’d stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who wanted to make the same decision that we’d made.

Keith: There’s a case for saying that we should have stayed in the Labour group, and continued fighting our corner. We believed that everything was stacked against us, and we were surprised by the extent to which the Labour group as a whole closed ranks and appeared willing to rubber stamp the situation. We knew what was coming, so we just fast-forwarded the process. I didn’t get any sense whatsoever that there was any possibility of wider opposition to cuts from within the Labour group.

Don: A lot of people in the Labour group look at the years of experience and service to the Labour Party me and Keith have, and can’t understand what we’ve done. In our DNA, we’re still Labour Party people, but there’s a lot of blind loyalty and naivety, and some people just don’t get questions of democracy. But there’s also another element which knows exactly what it’s doing, and I think the party officialdom and hierarchy is exploiting some of the inexperience and naïve loyalty of the newer layers. The party officialdom encourages new councillors to see their role as being basically managerial, and they get overwhelmed with that.

Keith: The experience has been traumatic for us. All of a sudden, the Labour Party seems to have become the enemy. We’ve tried to maintain fraternal relationships with other Labour councillors, but that’s been difficult.

How did the local government unions respond?

Keith: We approached the trade unions, Unison and Unite, and they were both supportive. They gave £1,000 to our campaign. We distributed 6,000 leaflets opposing the closure in our ward, twice, which the unions funded. They also supported the organisation of a public meeting in the ward, which was attended by over 200 people. We were overwhelmed with support from constituents.

Don: Momentum built up very quickly. The support wasn’t just localised; we had support right across the city, and we were also receiving messages of support from right across the country. We were wondering how people even knew about the issue! I had the task of trying to reply to all the people who were emailing us, and I had to resort to copy-and-pasting a stock reply, because the volume of messages was just too great. The people who came to the public meeting we organised gave the cabinet member, who spoke, a really hard time.

Keith: People were pleased with the fact that someone was making a stand. We didn’t know where we were going with this. We’d been let down by our own party, and the people we represented had been let down. People began to gravitate towards us because we’d made a stand. In September, the mini-budget was discussed and voted on, and Don and I voted against it.

Don: We made it clear at that point that we weren’t just opposed to Oaklands pool closing down, but that we were against any cuts to public services or jobs, and that we’d support anyone who wanted to fight against that. We drew a line in the sand at that point.

Keith: When we made the decision to leave the Labour group, the Unison branch secretary and the Unite convenor were the first people we went to speak to and tell. We were told, there and then, that the unions wouldn’t be opposing the setting of the budget.

Don: They were still supportive of us to an extent, and respected our stance. But the trade unions are in an unusual position in Southampton. They’ve just come out of a two-year conflict, and there is a level of exhaustion there. The local leaderships of the trade unions desperately want to work in harmony with the Labour group, and we were very integral to facilitating that happening previously. But with me and Keith out of the Labour group, I think that relationship might break down, and I can foresee a lot of conflict in the future.

Keith: The branch leaderships within the unions were disappointed at our decision to leave the Labour group, because they’d regarded us as a voice for the unions within the Labour group on the council. Mark Wood, the local Unite convenor, got a resolution passed by Unite’s National Industrial Section Committee for local government supporting us explicitly, which was endorsed by Unite’s Executive, but there’s a bit of a gap between those policies being passed and that being turned into action locally.

What are the prospects for organising a fight in Southampton between now and the February meeting at which the budget is set?

Keith: We know that there are people who want to fight. On 15 November, there was a mass meeting for all union members, and on 22 November, there was a meeting of youth workers, who are in the firing line as all youth and play provision is being axed. We weren’t present at that meeting but we know that there was a lot of anger, and lot of people expressing support for our stance. I think a mood for fightback will develop more widely, and not just amongst the people directly threatened by the new cuts. You don’t go through two years of combat and then just give up. People learned lessons during that period about their own strength, and you can’t just put that sort of thing back in the box.

But workers won’t just fight for the sake of it, so the difficulty is to build a fightback the people see as having the potential to win. We certainly intend to make links with as wide a section of the council workforce as we can, and we need to come up with a realistic alternative to the Labour group’s cuts budget. We can’t conjure money out of thin air, but we do think the council can draw on reserves, and explore borrowing potential, to at least buy some time.

Don: There may be some trade union action, including a strike, around the setting of the budget itself, but if it’s left until then it’ll be too late and tokenistic. We need to start building now. Our focus in the immediate period will be to organise a series of public meetings, not just in our ward but in the whole city, where people can come and discuss the cuts we’re facing and how we can oppose them.

Creating those spaces where people can engage with politics around issues that directly affect them is vitally important. When people are given the opportunity to engage in that way, they can be mobilised. It’s the lack of those spaces and opportunities that’s behind a lot of what’s seen as apathy or disaffection – people voting in greater numbers for X Factor than in elections, for example. I find it obscene that politicians turn things back on the electorate and complain about apathy and disengagement when they’re responsible for denying people the opportunities to take direct control in their local community or workplace.

Keith: Our role isn’t just to link up existing activists, but to mobilise that layer of people who are disillusioned with politics but who can be reached if they see someone taking a clear stand.

What are your views about the national situation?

Keith: We wanted the Labour leadership of Southampton Council to organise a national conference for Labour councillors and Labour authorities to discuss a local government fightback. It has to start somewhere. I think our stance could be a spark that lights a bigger fire.

Don: We need national coordination. The context to this is national, in terms of a Tory-led government slashing funding for working-class communities and Labour-controlled local authorities, and the situation can’t be dealt with locally. It’s time to say enough is enough, and start fighting back. We send fraternal greetings to Labour councillors in Hull, Broxtowe, and anywhere else who want to resist cuts. We’re still on a journey, and to an extent we’re making things up as we go along, but doing nothing was not an option.

We’ve had a lot of support from ex-Labour councillors, who are looking for something to sign up to. I’m very interested in the idea of a network of anti-cuts Labour councillors. That could be a valuable way forward.

Keith: There are lots of people who’ve been happy to give us lots of advice on what we should be doing next, and there have been a lot of people trying to get us to sign up to things or join their group or initiative. We get on very well with the Socialist Party and TUSC locally; we’ve always had a good relationship with them, and will continue to do so. But we don’t want to be swallowed up by them either.

What wider positive politics are necessary, beyond basic opposition to cuts?

Keith: We’re socialists. I believe the only solution is a democratic, planned economy. We have to find a way of getting over the message that this isn’t just about cuts, or balancing local budgets, but about a social system. That’s sometimes a difficult argument to have, and it’d be very easy to base ourselves on a populist, anti-political platform, but that would be a terrible mistake. It’s easy to be negative and oppose, but we need to translate opposition into a positive political platform.

Don: That’s why we’re putting so much emphasis on organising public meetings. It’s a forum to discuss alternatives, and win people over to these ideas. People need to know they don’t have to swallow the line that councillors need to make “hard choices”, and that if Labour councils don’t make cuts, the government will step in and make them anyway. That’s a defeatist attitude.

In Southampton, the council has a “heritage fund”, from which it’s drawing £15 million to renovate council offices. A lot of people have asked me, “why can’t we use that money to plug the hole in the budget?” Under the current rules, we can’t. So things like that at a local level can be used to explain the need for democratic, economic planning so resources can be used for the things people want and need. Those ideas do make sense to people.

Keith: The Labour leaders, and to an extent the union leaders, are still tied to the idea of a market economy. They’re in a political straightjacket, trying to make this system work. It can’t work in favour of our class. Putting forward an alternative must start with basic working-class policies, like public ownership of utilities, transport, and other public services, as well as the banking system. If a coherent programme was built around these demands, working-class people would response. I think the labour movement leadership would be surprised at the degree of support and enthusiasm there’d be for that kind of joined-up programme and those ideas. These policies are working-class common-sense. We feel we’re at the beginning of a long journey, and although it sometimes feels like we’re alone, we know we’re not. It’s a big challenge, but we just have to have the courage of our convictions.

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