Jeremy Corbyn has told Labour councils that there is no point setting an illegal budget in response to local government cuts, spurning calls to emulate the party’s resistance to Whitehall-imposed budget cuts in the 1980s.
Labour faces a difficult round of English council elections in May, defending more than 1,000 council seats won at a high-water mark for Labour in 2012. Councils will be responding to the local government settlement announced this week by setting their budgets in the new year.
Some council leaders in the 1980s, including some close to the current Labour leadership, deliberately set council budgets in excess of the limits set by central government; and there have now been calls in some circles, including by the Socialist party, for councils to draw up budgets based on people’s needs, as opposed to council finances. But Corbyn has decided not to ask the Labour party to follow the same route in the runup to next May’s council elections.
In a letter sent jointly with John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Jon Trickett, the shadow communities secretary, Corbyn points out that councils must set a balanced budget under the 1992 Local Government Act. The letter says: “If this does not happen, ie if a council fails to set a legal budget, then the council’s section 151 officer is required to issue the council with a notice under section 114 of the Local Government Act 1998. Councillors are then required to take all actions necessary to bring the budget back into balance.”
Failure to set a balanced budget can lead to action against councillors under the code of conduct, a judicial review and, more significantly, intervention by the secretary of state, the joint letter states. It continues: “It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities. Their priorities would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us.”
The letter cites McDonnell saying in September that there is no point in setting an illegal budget.
It is known that Corbyn’s office has discussed various forms of defiance strategy with council leaders, such as setting a needs-based budget. This idea has been raised at some meetings of Momentum, the pressure group set up by Corbyn supporters to retain his support in the wider Labour movement. According to a Socialist party account, some Momentum group meetings are backing illegal budgets, and are planning to call for them early next year.
The account states that a conference is being planned to oppose budget cuts: “Given that we were told that Bristol has the largest Momentum group outside London, with a network already of over 800 names, there is real scope for a conference to be an important milestone in our campaign. It was explicitly agreed within both the Action Hub and the plenary session that part of the campaign against local authority budget cuts should also involve writing to every Labour and Green councillor and candidate, demanding that they refuse to comply with any cuts budgets.”
In the council elections, according to Labour’s local government association, Labour is defending 1,324 seats, the Conservatives 885 and the Liberal Democrats 347 seats. Of the 128 councils up for election, a total of 58 are controlled by Labour, 42 by Conservatives, three by Liberal Democrats and 25 under no overall control. There are separate elections in Wales and Scotland, as well as police commissioner elections and a spate of mayoral elections including in London and Liverpool.
The estimated national equivalent share of the vote for Labour was 39% in 2012, compared with 33% for the Conservatives and 15% for the Liberal Democrats. Turnout was projected to be 32%. The current Labour share of the vote has been shifting according to the polls, but in some it is is at least 10 points down on the 2012 figures, which suggests that the party will lose very badly.
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