Paul Crofts is an independent socialist councillor in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Dave Isaacson asked him about the local opposition to the cuts
You have been a councillor for some time now – first for Labour and latterly as an independent socialist. You recently gained quite a lot of publicity (and animosity from other councillors) locally by exposing the massive wave of cuts being secretly discussed by Wellingborough Borough Council. Could you explain to us what was going on here?
Essentially the Tory council leadership was trying to keep the extent of the cuts they were proposing to implement secret and, at the same time, denying that any cuts would affect “front-line services”.
Just before the January council meeting I was given by officers of the council a confidential list of cuts being proposed/considered, but these had not appeared in the public domain. At the council meeting the following day I revealed that such a secret list existed and called for full consultation on them. There were attempts, by the mayor and other councillors, to shout me down and stop me speaking. This so incensed the local reporter from the Northants Evening Telegraph (and others who witnessed it) that they ran with the story the following day. I subsequent released the list of proposed cuts and that also received widespread publicity.
Purely by chance, of course, the council claim to have released the same details on their website the day after the council meeting (in such an obscure way that no-one could find them!). They also agreed to extend the ‘consultation’ period on the cuts to February 9 (not long, but certainly longer than they had intended (January 31). This has enabled a longer period to exposed the nature of the cuts proposed and to mobilise opposition to them. Without my intervention and that of and the press, I believe the cuts would have slipped through, with no-one really knowing about them.
What will they mean for the people in Wellingborough?
They will be devastating. Up to one third of council staff will be made redundant (either compulsorily of ‘voluntarily’) and there will be drastic cutbacks in services. And this is just the start.
Have there been any moves amongst Labour councillors to oppose these cuts?
The four Labour councillors have done nothing really except make generalised speeches against the cuts and defend themselves from accusations that the last Labour government is responsible for the situation we are in.
I was, however, surprised when last week the leader of the Labour group seconded my resolution at the resources committee opposing cuts and proposing an alternative budget. They have not tried to mobilise any opposition and have been, frankly, rather lame and ineffective. I don’t think they really know what to do. They are selecting candidates for the May election and they may be thinking that if they keep quiet they will win seats on the back of growing opposition to the Tories almost by default.
Across the country many councillors, especially from Labour, say they are against this or that cut, but that there is little or nothing that they can do to stop them all and it would be crazy to try. As a councillor who is fighting the cuts, how do you respond to these arguments?
The extent of the cuts are so huge and extensive that I have taken the view that they have to be opposed in their totality as a matter of principle.
It would be totally wrong to say that this person’s job should go and not someone else’s, or to cut services to elderly people at the expense of the young. This is a recipe for division and confusion. It also plays into the hands of those who want to ‘consult’ in a way that asks about ‘priorities’. It also avoids a real debate about the causes of these cuts and shifts it in another direction – that they are necessary and there is no alternative.
You have been working with the Wellingborough Anti-Cuts Coalition (WACC). Nationally there are a number of anti-cuts groups all saying similar, if not the same, things. We in the CPGB have argued that they must come together as a united anti-cuts coalition would be far more effective. What is your take on these national divisions?
WACC is very new and only just finding its feet, but it is growing in influence day by day and involving more people. However, it is struggling with the extent of the cuts across the public sector and the speed with which they are being implemented. A relatively small number of trade unionist and political activists are being stretched to their limits.
Whilst there has to be a national response to the cuts, and the development of a united opposition, I feel that the ability of some local groups like ours to effectively participate in a national movement against the cuts is limited at present. We are really only just starting to link up with anti-cuts campaigns in other parts of Northamptonshire – including Northampton itself.
Trade unionists from Unison, Unite and PCS were all involved in founding WACC. Is there a mood amongst the Wellingborough Borough Council workforce for a fight?
Whilst many of the staff at Wellingborough Council are Unison members, the trade union organisation and involvement of members has historically been very low and the council Unison branch is not involved currently in WACC – although we are in contact with their branch secretary.
The staff at the council are incredibly demoralised, rather than in a fighting mood. This may change over time -we know they are encouraged by the work WACC is doing and many have been in contact with me to say thanks for the opposition that I am putting up to the cuts at council meetings. Some, I think, also feel threatened and intimidated by the political leadership on the council – this intimidation and culture of fear predates the cuts situation.
Some of the largest cuts are coming at county council level – are there plans to coordinate activity across the county, through a county-wide anti-cuts organisation, for example?
There are contacts between those in involved in anti-cuts campaigns across the county, but there is currently no coordination of activity at a formal level. Hopefully this will change over the next few weeks. Mobilisation for the TUC demonstration on March 26 is acting as a catalyst.
We first interviewed you when you were a candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the last general election. Will Tusc be standing any candidates in Wellingborough in the upcoming council elections?
At present there are no proposals to stand socialist candidates in the elections in Wellingborough. I am disappointed by this. Our group, the Independent Socialists in Wellingborough, discussed standing towards the end of last year, but no-one came forward as a candidate. I think we will discuss this again shortly, but time is not with us. There has been no discussion about WACC standing or about supporting candidates in the May elections either.
I am standing down in April after being on the council for 16 years. I made a deal with my family that if I stood in the general election I would not stand for re-election as a councillor. They feel that over the years I have done my bit – and I think they are right. I am currently feeling knackered. This does not mean, however, that I will be giving up being involved politically. I am telling people I am leaving the council and rejoining politics!
Lastly could you tell us how WAAC intends to take the struggle forward?
Good question! WACC will continue to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ against the cuts as best it can – to argue for alternatives, challenge the prevailing ideology that cuts are necessary and try to encourage and support those most affected to stand up and campaign.
On the council I will be mirroring the external campaigning and taking the argument right into the council chamber – I will challenge the budget and put forward an alternative. I am currently trying to link the cuts to the attacks on (limited) local democracy that they represent, putting forward alternatives that also raise democratic questions about who is implementing the cuts, the fact that they have no democratic mandate or legitimacy, that they are denying access to full information about their effects and so on.
Controversially perhaps, I have proposed that local referendums should be held that pose the question ‘Do you want these cuts or do you want alternatives that would raise money instead?’ (such as car parking charges or increasing the council tax) and asking the people of Wellingborough to vote on the issue. This has confused the local Tories, because I have raised a democratic demand for the people of Wellingborough to have a direct say on alternatives to the cuts agenda they are proposing without any political legitimacy or mandate.
I would welcome feedback on this approach, as I recognise that the new referendum powers are Tory proposals in the Localism Bill going through parliament. It could be a double-edged sword and I am aware of this – but, where I am sitting, the cuts will be implemented now and in the future unless we mobilise armed with alternatives. Local referendums may be a way of democratising the debate – and at heart I am a democratic socialist, so I’m not afraid of democratic political debate. Why should we be afraid of such ‘direct democracy’?