Defy all cuts: set No Cuts budgets, axe the Council Tax, tax the rich

CM-no cuts women 7

TAX THE RICH! the SNP government should scrap the Council Tax and tax the rich instead, boosting annual income for local services and jobs. PHOTO: Craig Maclean

  by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser Councils across Scotland are poised to wield the knife to jobs and local services in a renewed round of municipal butchery. Councillors of all mainstream party colours—including not just Tory and Lib Dem, but Labour and SNP—are preparing budgets for 2015/6 and subsequent years with tens of millions of cuts in most areas, with hair-raising attacks on workforces and working class communities.

This assault includes £150million slashed next year in just a clutch of the bigger councils—on top of hundreds of millions in recent years; but the BBC describes this as “a drop in the ocean compared with the following years”. Glasgow Labour council plans £71million cuts in the next two years, hard on the heels of £175million ‘savings’ since 2010! Job losses accompany attacks on the most vulnerable communities e.g. 40 per cent cuts to Glasgow Association of Mental Health funding.

Numerous councils are slashing education, the single biggest council service. Highlands and Fife are amongst those proposing to cut the school week, with horrendous effects not only on kids’ schooling but also parents’ childcare and work arrangements. Inverclyde has included the ingenious idea of abolishing head teachers in their primary schools.

High-performing East Renfrewshire plans to increase class sizes for S1 and S2 Maths and English from its current 20 maximum to 30, and wants kids to run school libraries while the council shed full-time librarians. Libraries face municipal vandalism, for instance with seven Moray rural libraries targeted for closure. Stirling council workers are in dispute over the council’s attempts to impose literal pay cuts plus extend the working week by an hour; combined, that means at least a 4.5 per cent cut in hourly pay.

Across Scotland, council staff have suffered two years of zero pay increase followed by 1 per cent this year, alongside devastating staff reductions and subsequent crushing workloads for those who remain. But now compulsory redundancies loom, unless a ferocious fight is mounted for the necessary funding. These attacks are the result of spending cuts imposed by the Westminster dictatorship of and for the obscenely rich, which has chopped the block grant award to the Scottish Government.

But amidst all the fanfares for the phenomenal growth of the SNP in membership and opinion polls, their Holyrood government is passing down these Tory cuts to councils, rather than mount a mass people’s rebellion to save jobs, conditions and services.

Assuredly, there is an alternative. The SSP has every year demanded that the Scottish Government and local councillors should refuse to pass on Westminster’s cuts, instead set No Cuts Defiance budgets, and then link up with council workers’ unions and community user groups in a massive campaign to demand back the stolen £billions off Westminster to balance the books.

Simultaneously, we have fought for the Scottish Government to use its power over local taxation to abolish the unfair, regressive Council Tax and replace it with a progressive, income-based Scottish Service Tax.

SSP councillor Jim Bollan has pursued this alternative annually in West Dunbartonshire council, winning the support of tenants’ organisations and all the council workers’ trade unions—but not a majority of councillors, who hide behind talk of having to obey the law and avoid being jailed. In fact no such threat of imprisonment exists, provided they sought mass support, rather than conduct a folded-arms gesture.

Thirty years ago the socialist council in one city, Liverpool, dared to fight the Iron Lady herself—arch Tory hate-figure Maggie Thatcher—and won, in 1984! They gained about £65million in grants and concessions off the UK Tory government, allowing the council to not only avoid all cuts, but march forward with massive reforms, building 5,000 new council houses for rent, new schools and nurseries, expanded social services, alongside a freeze on rents and service charges, and the creation of 12,500 building workers’ jobs.

And despite threats and surcharges, not one councillor was ever bankrupted or jailed; we built a mass movement around them, cudgeled the intransigent Tory government into retreat, and raised the cash to pay the councillors’ surcharges, raising tens of thousands of working class people to their feet in the fightback. All that in one isolated city, smaller than Glasgow.

So imagine what a whole nation could achieve, if the SNP government, with the wind in its sails after the referendum, took this courageous course of defiance. But that requires the political will that flows from a vision of an entirely different kind of society. Instead of heeding and applying this precedent, the SNP has passed on about £3billion of Westminster cuts in the past three years, and the recent Scottish Government budget included a further £500million cuts.

It’s true that without the powers of full independence, any Scottish Government is hamstrung by the limitations of the block grant handed over by Westminster, and the Tories’ austerity drive has horrific consequences for all the Scottish services and jobs dependent on this shrinking pot of money.

But that’s where the severe shortcomings, the lack of socialist vision, of the SNP government comes to bear down on us. Instead of just blaming Westminster for the cuts but then meekly passing them down to councils, NHS boards, colleges, etc, the SNP government should be defying the Tory cuts, refusing to implement them, mounting a campaign of the Scottish people, demanding back those stolen £billions—with rallies, mass demonstrations, strikes and occupations of threatened facilities.

Look at the panic-stricken retreats and promises of the Westminster cabal (Tory, Lib Dem and Labour) in the face of a threatened Yes vote—and then imagine the power to win back funding that has been used to cut taxes to the obscenely rich, if a Scots rebellion was led and encouraged by the elected Scottish Government!

About 80 per cent of council funding comes from the Scottish Government, most of the rest from the Council Tax. Setting No Cuts Defiance budgets at Scottish and in turn council levels would also buy the time to rush through emergency legislation to abolish the hated, unequal Council Tax and introduce in its place a progressive, income-based Scottish Service Tax that could raise far greater funds for council jobs and services. That’s what the SSP had in our founding programme back in 1998, which we then costed thoroughly with the help of economists.

The latest detailed figures we compiled—four years ago—show that far from Scotland suffering devastating cuts at local level, our income-based Scottish Service Tax would mean about 80 per cent of people paying less than they do under the Council Tax, the super-rich paying a damned sight more, with the net result of increasing council funding from £1.8billion to £3.4billion a year (in 2010 figures).

Back in the 2011 Holyrood elections, the SNP scented the popularity of the policy the SSP had been conducting street campaigns and battles inside the trade unions for, adopted a bastardised version of it, and won a massive increase in their vote by promising to scrap the Council Tax and introduce what they called ‘a local income tax’.

But once elected, the SNP failed to pursue this plan, and instead introduced the Council Tax freeze. Welcome though it is to lower income families to not face massive hikes in their bills, in fact this disproportionately helps the higher income households, and adds another squeeze to council spending abilities.

The SSP would not endorse Labour’s demand to end the freeze and let bills rip through the roof for ordinary families. But instead of freezing Council Tax bills, the SNP government should put the entire Council Tax system in deep freeze! Scrap it, and tax the rich minority their fair share instead, boosting annual income for local services and jobs.

As council budgets are debated, we need trade unionists, community groups and councillors to back the call for No Cuts budgets to be set, Defiance Budgets, with plans laid for campaigning on the scale of the referendum in workplaces and communities around the central message of ‘give us back our stolen £billions—and scrap the Council Tax, to instead tax the rich’.

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