Fighting austerity – speech to Budget Full Council

In the last seven years like so many others I’ve raised my voice to speak out against government cuts to councils. I’ve slogged my way through weather like today in marches and demonstrations, I have joined pickets, and delivered thousands of leaflets. I’ve met residents who are affected in appalling ways by cuts to disability benefits, or the national failure to build council housing, and I’ve previously spoken up for vulnerable victims of these cuts as a charity worker. The government has stopped talking about austerity but there seems to be no end in sight.

How we fight locally is important. As part of my cabinet role I am in regular conversation with police officers and victims of crime. There is widespread frustration with Police understaffing and a nationwide rise in knife crime. People feel like when they speak to police they aren’t getting good customer care. Boroughs are being forced to merge to save money. And none of this is the fault of Police. This is one of many examples of government failure to foot the bill, resulting in a loss of some 80 frontline police posts in Brent alone, thousands of hours of police time. There’s no reason our residents should put up with it.

As a Labour council we believe that these cuts must be fought politically. But we also believe in mitigating the bad hand we are dealt by raising our income and thinking differently. This is why when the government makes cuts to the police budget, we invest in officers to target the local priorities of our residents in particular. We have targeted our work with trading standards and enforcement to close down hubs of lawlessness like some of our worst shisha cafes, and to make sure that effort goes into stopping the door to door scammers and rogue traders who target our elderly and vulnerable people.

Imagine how it would feel to be one of the victims of this type of crime, losing hundreds of pounds of pension money, when the only reason nobody will help you was the false and artificial need for local government to carry the can for austerity.

Cllr John Warren’s whacky council budgets over the years total up to a £20 Million hole in our finances. But today he shows up an offers us an alternative proposal based on last year alone, effectively accepting forced savings from seven years of Labour budgets which he has told us each time were in fact unnecessary. Likewise, he disowns the advice of his own government that we raise council tax to pay for the social care crisis they pretend this money can cover.

We comply with Westminster’s laws and budgets, our only choice. We generate more of our own income. We make the biggest positive difference for working class people that we can, in the most financially prudent way. But we will not carry the can.

The Tory case for austerity has always been built on lies and misrepresentations – the idea that the economy was on the brink of total collapse because of spending, that we can’t grow the economy back to health, that public investment is the problem rather than part of the solution. The myths created have been very resilient and take advantage of some of our deepest emotions – fear and helplessness. Public acceptance of these ideas has allowed the government to force enormous cuts onto local people and our services – 177 million pounds to Brent.

But the truth is that there are real problems with the economy. After seven years of cuts, markets are becoming tighter and players folding as the margin for growth disappears, from Carillion to Tory Northamptonshire.

In wider society economic power is concentrated in the hands of a small controlling elite, leaving workers unable to bargain their wages, and productivity lagging as technical investment is held off and quality of life declines. Wealth has transferred from poor to the rich at a record rate, which of course is the main point of the plan. Green incentives were deliberately sabotaged and then dropped off the government’s agenda in the path of Brexit.

Cutting councils is a way of starting fights locally to distract citizens from the task we share: we need to re-route our economy towards greater strength and greater accountability. But we don’t need fear and helplessness. Through democracy we can and will build strength.

The first part of any solution to these is very simple – Labour in power. I look forward to greeting some Labour colleagues from Brondesbury Park this May.

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