Is it worth protesting against council cuts?

In the wake of a series of anti-cuts rallies outside council buildings recently I thought I'd look at them through a slightly different lens - that of the original gentle rebel, Colin Ward.

Submitted by Rob Ray on March 3, 2011

Colin is out of fashion these days in anarchist theoretical circles, partly I think because his writings of anarchist ideas as "seeds beneath the snow" and "building a new society in the shell of the old" were so unremittingly ordinary - he wrote always for everyday people, in an everyday way and using everyday examples, something which professional revolutionaries too often sneer at rather than learn from.

Theoretically as well his most memorable brand of gentle non-confrontational rebellion - what's now sometimes derisively known as "allotment anarchism" - found some favour in its time, but can often seem hopelessly weak as a method of combating capitalism in its modern full-on war footing. As a consequence he tends to himself be part of the permafrost other than through his still-influential book Anarchy in Action.

But such flaws, as with other historic anarchist thinkers have I think sometimes obscured critiques of capitalism and how its state assets were/are evolving which verge on the brilliant. Taking for example a little-known joint piece written for the Couterblasts series in 1989, Undermining The Central Line.

Jointly written by Ward and his close friend of the time, Ruth Rendell (yes the Baroness Rendell of crime fiction fame, in a former life she used to sell anarchist literature outside Debenham library I'm told) it's a 64-page warning note against the destruction of autonomy in local councils.

Ward and Rendell

Local government as we know it was completed in a system in 1899... the state was happy to transfer many of its increasing responsibilities... education, welfare, the former administrative functions of the Justices of the Peace became theirs: rating, licensing, highways, weights and measures and police. The provision of housing became a function of councils


This "Golden Age" peaked between the two world wars and by the mid-1930s was in retreat, a decline which it not take much political acumen or wise hindsight to see as a consequence of an eroding policy of centralisation.


Not only did local councils lose their responsibility to central government but also within their own hierarchy. In 1944 district councils lost to county councils their function of providing elementary education, in 1946 they lost their health and police functions and a year later their responsibility for fire services and planning.

Problems of finance have far-reaching effects in every area of life and loss of financial independence contributed here. As well as by the rates local authorities received income by way of rents, sales, service charges and legacies. From the beginning, in the 19th century, there have been grants from central government and during the past 40 years this percentage has grown substantially. We will not be surprised to find that this has led to a much greater control and influence on the part of central government, not to mention powers of persuasion in local affairs.

By the '90s, only taxation and housing remained and Ward and Rendell, writing in 1989 - long before the New Labour sell-off of council housing and the laborious introduction of council tax - predicted two possible outcomes. Either the cycle of local/national would reset itself with the help of grassroots effort and a period of decentralisation of government functions would occur, or the councils would become ever more irrelevant as anything more than administrative rubber stamps for government policy.

Rendell and Ward

If we ask you, reader, whose fault this is, you will have to agree that it is the fault of all of us, and our parents, in taking for granted that central government knows best.

It is now safe to say, I think, that we see today a twisted incarnation of both. There has been a decentralisation, but power has not been returned to the councils. Instead it has gone to the private fiefdoms of greedy and unaccountable bullies, as capitalism must do if it is to survive another day, and more than this the councils have lost the last of those financial bulwarks which provided them with independence - housing has boiled off into the various associations and taxation is rigidly controlled. The only money comes from investments which are constantly under threat and from central funding pledges.

As a result, not one council in Britain now has the wherewithal to financially thumb their noses at Cameron's cuts and privatisation agenda, just as they couldn't at Blair's or Brown's.

What is equally important - and this is something which is skimmed over by the various "hard left" parties when they scream about Labour treachery - is that they can't abdicate their roles and cause chaos either. If they do that controllers are simply sent in from central office, who not only do the cuts on the table but are likely to impose substantially more drastic measures - as they unlike the councils will not take loans to cover temporary differences.

All this means that a lot of the posturing that has been going on from the party political left is, exactly as described by the likes of Hackney mayor Jules Pipe while he passed cuts last night, a bit pointless. If there were Trots in the town hall they would have no more options than Labour councillors do now. At best Pipe and his ilk could renounce their obviously pointless allegiance to social-democracy and join us on the barricades, and personally I'd welcome them, but there should be no pretense that they are a) likely to or b) can do more than that.

So does this mean that local anti-cuts rallies against cuts are pointless?

Far from it. The more of these rallies take place, the more that locals confront the troubles on their doorsteps and collectivise their problems, the better. What this blog aims to do is illustrate the true task which such small movements must take on - why we must step up our game, connect the many diverse fronts emerging against all cuts from the small to the huge.

The enemy is not a bunch of sidelined pencil-pushers shuffling around meekly in a creaking old remnant of council heydays long passed. The enemy is a bunch of pencil-pushers who control almost every aspect of political life from the comfort of their Whitehall offices and the capitalist system they serve whose greatest - indeed only - fear is that from such seeds of discontent may grow an unstoppable force unified across a city, a country, a continent and the world that can finally challenge them on the equal terms they so callously deny us all as individuals.

To repeat a time-worn slogan, we must become ungovernable.



13 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by martinh on March 4, 2011

good blog. Much as some local councillors are bad people, most are not. They end up making cuts because there is no alternative within the logic of the system they serve. Honesty would demand they resign, rather than pretend they have any real say. but here's an equal dishonesty that pretends that there is an alternative within the council chamber. There isn't, unless it is occupied by protestors.