holyrood and councils brandish the cuts knife

Allan Armstrong reports on the cuts in Scotland and the incipient resistance

The ConDem government is cutting back the Westminster block grant to Scotland by over £1 billion. A Holyrood general election will take place on May 5th and the signs are that the SNP will lose out to Labour. Just as in the run-up to last May’s Westminster vote, the governing party here is being very coy about announcing exactly how the full cuts would pan out.

Of course there have already been many cuts, but so far only very piecemeal and partial fightbacks. In the SNP/Lib-Dem controlled Edinburgh Council, the 216-year old Blindcraft workshop for disabled people was closed down in January. The council cultivated division amongst their employees by suggesting moving to a three day week, with no longer term guarantees. Individuals were asked to sign up to this ‘deal’. The able-bodied staff saw this as a method to cut redundancy pay. Many of the disabled staff, with virtually no prospect of future work, felt they had little option but to agree. The 53 employees were divided between three unions, and the council was able to get away with a closure that hit the most disadvantaged workers particularly hard.

However, in SNP-run Renfrewshire, the council has been forced to back down over its proposal to cut back primary school teaching hours by 2.5 hours a week. Parental opposition was so clear that even the EIS (Scottish teachers’ union) backed the large demonstration outside the council chambers in Paisley on February 17th. Furthermore, the decision of EIS members to vote for strike action (97% for) in a ballot proved decisive in winning this particular victory, although the cuts will, no doubt, be made elsewhere, at the cost of a more vulnerable group.

Local councils in Scotland have taken advantage of long-standing social partnership agreements with trade union leaders. With their cooperation, more and more workers have been appointed, over the years, on a temporary contract basis. This now gives councils the flexibility to terminate these contracts, i.e. sack their workers. Trade union leaders turn a blind eye, saying they only oppose compulsory redundancies (i.e. amongst permanent staff).

Yet the cuts being demanded over the next few years are so great that, instead of redundancies of permanent staff, Labour councils such as Glasgow, are also proposing massive attacks on existing employees’ conditions and suggesting pay freezes (i.e. big cuts in the light of escalating inflation). This is also bringing the council into conflict with such groups as the teachers. Yet EIS leaders are so deeply tied up in social partnerships that, without massive pressure from below, they will no doubt start to sell-off hard-won conditions.

In Glasgow the council has also removed many services from its direct control to ‘independent’ organisations, often run by well-renumerated councillors. When these organisations go on to cut-back services, jobs, pay and conditions, trade union members can not legally ask for support from other council workers, since they are no longer directly employed by the council. Meanwhile, the councillors involved in running these ‘independent’ organisations continue to do very well financially, with a personal vested interest in making cuts.

The Scottish TUC organised a very lacklustre anti-cuts rally in the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow on February 26th entitled ‘Organising for the Better Way’. There were speakers from all the major public sector unions. But although calls went out to support the lively lobby of the LibDems’ Scottish Conference in Perth on March 5th, primarily in support of the disabled people betrayed by the LibDem government ministers; and for a massive representation from Scotland to the TUC-organised demonstration in London on Saturday March 26th, there were no proposals for industrial action beyond that date.

However, interestingly, in marked contrast to previous STUC events, nobody on the platform suggested that voting Labour on May 5th was any solution. Indeed there was no official Labour spokesperson. Tories in Scotland, even by their own admission, are seen as ‘toxic’; but neither is there any great enthusiasm for Labour. SNP government-promised social democratic reforms have been largely abandoned since the collapse of the Royal Bank and the Bank of Scotland; whilst socialists, who had 6 MSPs as recently as 2007, remain hopelessly divided after the Tommy Sheridan debacle.

There only remains one openly socialist councillor in Scotland, the SSP’s Jim Bollan in the SNP-controlled West Dunbartonshire. He put forward an alternative no cuts budget, baked by local council workers’ unions, tenants and community groups. It received no support from either the SNP or Labour councillors. Jim had already been suspended as councillor for nine months for his consistent support of workers taking action against the council.

Therefore, at present there is little to be gained from trying to build a campaign around councillors standing up for all the workers and service-users in their areas.

Some of the more imaginative actions being taken against the cuts have been very much encouraged by the student actions in London last December. Groups such as Citizens United have occupied banks in Glasgow, whilst Uncut has targeted tax-avoiding employers in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Perth. Students at Glasgow University have been in occupation of the Hetherington building for several weeks, and are using it as an organising centre for wider anti-cuts activity.

Cameron hopes to inflict the kind of defeats upon organised public service workers that Thatcher achieved over industrial workers. However, public sector workers enjoy a closer relationship with their service users, than industrial workers do with consumers. Developing these links will mean breaking out of the political limitations and organisational barriers in existing trade unions.

Furthermore, providing people with the confidence to take on the state/employer austerity drive means that socialists need to be involved in showing there is a real alternative. This means preparing the ground now for moving beyond reactive defence actions to building a movement based on meeting our real social needs, and showing that this is only possible when our class takes control of the production of goods and the provision of services. Political boldness now will develop an anti-cuts movement with much greater potential in the future.