Levelling up against the cuts?

By Karen Sutton

Liverpool is a city that has been battered by successive political and economic storms.

First it was a decade of brutal austerity. Then it was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Liverpool City Council has already seen its funding reduced by around 65% since 2010, with spending now £465m a year less than it was in 2010. This is literally a matter of life and death for some.

A recent report has shown Liverpool to be particularly badly hit since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Across the city there are people struggling to meet the most basic human needs, to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Now they face a further £34 million in cuts in the next financial years, with little sign of any respite in future years, with escalating spending gaps.

Throughout the pandemic the Tories were generous with rhetoric, promising to do ‘whatever it takes’ to help councils cope with the pressures of Covid. Their actions have not matched their all too easy words. In communities ravaged by successive years of declining investment and government policies such as the Universal Credit cut, Tory promises ring hollow. The cuts just keep on coming.

Some of the measures initially suggested so far by the Cabinet or floated in consultation exercises have proved controversial. Any proposal to withdraw funding from community libraries set up in 2014 in a previous spending round will be unpopular, especially when the pandemic has exposed the deep digital divide in society. Closing leisure centres would be seen as harmful to physical and mental health. Cutting social care places ever more burdens on struggling families. Charging for green bin collections also risks being electorally damaging. There will be councillors who say they weren’t elected to make life for working class people harder.

The language used in these debates matters. For many, the measures being discussed by Liverpool City Council and other authorities are not ‘savings’, they are cuts. They damage lives. They spread misery. Levelling down will not be popular in already deprived communities.

The political problem for the new Labour administration is stark. The government cynically makes councils the conduit for their cuts, passing on responsibility and throwing up a smokescreen behind which they can hide their priority to prioritise the profits of the few over the needs of the many.

Labour councils are in a very difficult position, especially if policed by government-appointed commissioners in the wake of the highly critical Caller Report. They are forced to become bullet-proof vests for the government and its continuing austerity programme. If they are not seen to be fighting back, the communities they represent can lose faith, as by-elections in Anfield, Clubmoor and Kirkdale have demonstrated in the shape of low turnouts and declining vote share for the party. The North-West Regional conference of the Labour Party unanimously called for a campaign against the cuts, but a similar motion in 2019 was not translated into action.

Councillors who oppose proposals that will place ever increasing pressures on the residents they represent have been drawing up an alternative ‘levelling up’ or no-cuts budget to protect the community assets. There may be support among a section of the Labour benches for an alternative that can prioritise investment in working class communities. If this gains traction, local efforts could run alongside a national campaign to force the government to make good on its promises and restore the funding slashed remorselessly and cruelly from local authority budgets over the last ten years. 

After ten years of austerity, the issue of cuts is still a live issue.

Image: Liverpool Townhall. Source: Liverpool Townhall. Author: Miguel Mendez from Malahide, Ireland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.