On 4 May, local elections take place in parts of Britain, including in London. The Socialist Party is standing candidates in different areas, offering a socialist alternative to New Labour government and the Tories and the pro-market Liberal Democrats.
Blair’s New Labour is expected to do badly in the elections, reflecting the widespread anger of working people to its policies in Iraq and because of its domestic policies, including huge attacks on workers’ pensions.
The Socialist Party (CWI) has six local councillors at present in England and Wales. Three of these councillors tell us what they have been able to achieve and how they differ from councillors from the pro-capitalist parties.
Karen McKay has been Socialist Alternative councillor for St Michael’s ward in Coventry for seven years now. Chris Flood and Ian Page are two of the three Socialist Alternative candidates in May’s election in Telegraph Hill ward in Lewisham, South London. Chris has been a councillor since December 2003, Ian since 1995 when he was expelled from the Labour Party for opposing council cuts.
Could you give examples of some of the things you have achieved (along with other Socialist Party councillors and the rest of the party)?
Chris: We played a leading part in forcing Lewisham’s Labour administration to build a new school to replace one that was knocked down - Labour had always argued against a new school. However, their ’solution’ is not perfect as there are still differences on where the school should be and we also have to watch what ’kind’ of school it will be.
So this is an on-going campaign. Importantly, we are the only councillors in the borough arguing consistently against cuts and closures and privatisation. We are leading an anti-housing sell-off campaign at present.
This next election is hugely important for what might be achieved in a future Lewisham council. If we win three seats - and possibly end up influencing the balance of power - it is possible that we would have a greater effect on preventing cuts and closures. So we really need as much help as possible with the canvassing for the elections!
Karen: With my fellow Socialist Party councillors in Coventry, Dave Nellist and Rob Windsor, we have won many smaller battles for local residents. Recently we campaigned against a major development demolishing adapted homes for local disabled people. Now they’ll be replaced like for like in the same area, keeping them together. The council deemed that ’not possible’ before the campaigning.There is also a regeneration of the local high street, kick-started after campaign meetings and interviews on the media a few years ago. A school merger is no longer going ahead.
On bigger battles, we may not win the war but we win concessions - so a new PFI hospital is being built on the edge of the city, but the range of health facilities potentially being offered for the old city-centre site is wider, thanks to years of campaigning for city-centre facilities.The council has been attacking council workers’ pay, using the single status deal. Back in 1999 we made the difference to stop the original worst deal being imposed and since then we have worked to support council staff in the continuing campaign against this. In last year’s council budget, our amend-ment overturned cuts to social care and other cuts.
Ian: I campaigned with local residents to win back £13 million refurbishment investment in a local estate which had been withdrawn by the council. We stopped the sell-off of a local community building which is now used as a community cafe and led a successful campaign to stop the council’s previous attempt to sell off council housing. With Sam Dias, a previous Socialist Party councillor, we forced the council to give low-paid workers without bank accounts additional payment date options for the council tax. This stopped them being penalised if they couldn’t afford to pay at the start of the month!
And again with Sam Dias, we were the first political party to raise in the council chamber the need for a new secondary school in the north of the borough.
What sort of issues do you deal with from individuals?
Chris: Mostly they have been around housing, social care, schools placement issues, benefits, environmental issues etc. But we have also been approached by members of the public outside our ward to take up campaigns as they see the main parties as being useless! This has included a neighbourhood in Deptford who opposed the selling off of a section of their local park to a housing association and a drugs charity that was being closed. We raised questions about the charity being monitored inappropriately by the police!
Karen: There are many problems in housing - transfers, waiting lists, repairs and homelessness. There are benefits problems. There are complaints about rubbish, fly-tipping, dumping, street lights not working, traffic issues, parking problems and safety issues.You deal with immigration problems - visa delays etc. There are complaints about poor service from the council, health, anywhere! You get education issues - schools admissions or help with special needs or transport. Then there are work-related problems - unfair dismissals, pay problems - usually from people who are not in a union.
Ian: We get many housing, overcrowding and repair problems caused by budget cuts, similarly with lack of school places. We try to support victims of domestic violence, but once again, council support is often slowed down or reduced due to lack of resources after cuts. We also support individuals who have difficulties accessing services for mental health issues.
What are the advantages of having Socialist Party councillors and how do you differ from councillors from other parties?
Chris: I think our presence shows there is an alternative to the three parties of big business. It also shows that socialist ideas are still very popular. In that sense it’s about raising and maintaining the banner of socialism. It gives a profile to the Socialist Party and helps to popularise the ideas of socialism as well.And obviously we aren’t funded by loans or big business! But we don?t sell out or buckle under pressure like the other parties either.
The three major parties are all very pally with each other - this can be seen by the way they all file into the mayor’s parlour after full council meetings for ’drinks!’ We certainly don’t - I’m proud to say I don’t know what the inside of the Mayor’s parlour looks like!
Karen: Socialist councillors are free to represent people, without party whips telling us to foist privatised options on them - the only options for anything these days! We stand for the possibility of alternatives to privatised services and for change. Most councillors don’t know what that feels like, as they have to toe a party line which is not in people’s best interests. They accept the limitations that the government puts on local budgets and services, while we argue to fight for more.I live in the area I represent, I feel part of that community, while some councillors live out in very affluent areas and can’t really understand the problems for people they represent.
Many councillors of all parties do care and work hard, but it is variable - socialists have to work hard to win seats and so we do our best when we win them!
Ian: We represent the interests of our constituents and not the interests of a council that privatises services and implements cuts to help the government save money for big business and war campaigns! We will challenge private companies who don’t deliver services. We are the only councillors who regularly attend tenants’, residents’ and community meetings.
What support do you and the Socialist Party get from your constituents?
Chris: I think a large number of our constituents are glad to have councillors that are different and approachable and not career politicians. This is reflected in the support we get from within the working-class community as well as in some middle-class households. We always get a positive, supportive response from constituents when we are at meetings in the ward.
Karen: Small numbers of people who care work in residents’ associations and other groups to make festivals and other events happen and to improve the area. We work closely with them and without them little would be achieved - we support each other and have good relations with them.
Ian: Local people know who we are, they invite us to local meetings when council officers ’accidentally’ forget to! Many local people will give out leaflets on housing campaigns and at elections.
What cuts and privatisation is your council planning and how are we planning to fight them?
Chris: The council is continually ’revising’ the budget as a way to cut services. In nearly every full council meeting, we witness approval being sought for a loss of housing provision of some sort, or for attacks on jobs, or to hit funding of every kind of project.
Nothing is free from the threat of funding being reduced or cut - apart occasionally from the Mayor’s pet projects or the increase in the number of top council officers earning over £100,000! So a lot of our work is about bringing these things to the public’s attention even if at present we aren’t numerically strong enough to prevent them.
Ian: The biggest cuts are due to the sell-off of council housing. We will continue to challenge the Labour council to give tenants the right to choose to stay with the council.
What will you be saying to voters on the doors and when campaigning in the streets to convince them to vote for a Socialist candidate in the local elections?
Chris: Just look at how discredited Labour are currently! Lewisham Labour are straight out of this New Labour mould. In fact they are ultra-Blairite. We are the only principled opposition party in the council chamber. In our ward, Telegraph Hill, the contest is literally a vote between us and Labour. A vote for anyone else is a waste. Would-be Greens and Liberals need to vote for us! But we will obviously be calling on our core support as well.
We are different. We didn’t rush to get ourselves signed up for a councillors’ pensions scheme (which is a nice earner), like the other councillors. Within the same full council meeting, those councillors who voted for cuts to a nursery scheme then voted to get the taxpayer to fund themselves a pension! This was highly insensitive as it came at a time when we were still waiting for feedback about how the pension scheme for council employees was performing. Understandably, the electorate will see this as other councillors lining their pockets. Neither do we take political group funds worth thousands of pounds like the other parties do.
Ian: All the other parties are the same. They all vote for cuts in the council chamber. The Lib Dems, Conservatives and the Greens in Lewisham have all supported Labour’s policies on education and housing and even voted against our motion to call on the government to fund the budget deficit at Lewisham Hospital.
We are the only party to support investment in public services and we believe we need a new mass party to fight for the interests of the vast majority of people, not just to make fat cats fatter. A vote for us will be a vote for accountable public services, against privatisation and for a real alternative to Labour.
What difference do Socialist Party councillors make?
Chris: I think we show that ordinary people can be elected to office and serve the interests of everyone, rather than big business. Recently I led a revolt with the trade unions in a Health and Safety Committee to throw out a plan to bring in compulsory testing of council employees for drugs and alcohol. I argued that an adequate policy already existed for dealing with these problems. Besides such measures could be used to victimise individuals such as trade unionists.
I also tore into the proposal that the private sector would run such a scheme! I said if it’s going to be fair we would have to select all council employees - including the chief executive and Mayor for example after their nights out at publicly funded ’functions!’
Ian: We hold the Labour councillors and all the other councillors to account and challenge their cosy system. We use our positions to open the town hall’s doors to local people so they can take their community campaigns right into the council chamber if necessary. People have been able to stop proposed cuts in our ward because we will tell them about any threats as soon as we know and we will work with alongside them. Labour councillors keep cuts quiet, misinform or deny things until it’s too late.
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers of the socialist about being a Socialist Party councillor?
Karen: There’s loads of other things we do as councillors. I’m a governor at two local schools, which involves lots of meetings and interviews. We have a local forum, community safety meetings etc. We go to local events and endless consultation meetings about new developments. There are residents’ meetings and other focused resident issues meetings. Then there’s the licensing committee and its hearings and the Scrutiny meetings that oversee council business.
In every area Socialist Party members have to weigh up how much work being a councillor, and doing it properly, involves and how many people we want to tie up in this detailed work. Sometimes we might be able to achieve almost as much in campaigning terms to build the party profile without this commitment on the council. But obviously having councillors shows that the Socialist Party are serious and can be trusted. And people deserve councillors who will work and be involved and fight for a socialist alternative.
Chris: The first thing is we need more of us! It can be tough and sometimes it’s frustrating that you know you are holding a political line that the public would definitely support - if they knew about it! The media are very selective in what they report and tend to ignore us which is scandalous - but it also shows why we need to produce our own paper. But it can be very rewarding as well. It’s a real eye-opener becoming a councillor. When you see the other parties behaving in the way they do - constantly against the interests of ordinary working-class people - you really see why we need a new worker’s party and Socialist councillors. I look forward to the day that we have councillors in every council.
Ian: What we need most of all are councillors and councils that will ignore the cuts budgets imposed by central government and who will work with the unions and the community in setting budgets based on real needs. Those councillors and councils should aim to force the government to give back the millions of pounds they have stolen from our public services.
This article appears in this week’s new issue of the Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (England and Wales).