As Scotland’s councils meet to set their budgets, the reality is that we face yet another round of cuts, job losses and Council Tax hikes. Scottish Socialists say that it doesn’t have to be that way – Calum Martin and Richie Venton both make the case for resistance and set out our Scottish Service Tax alternative to the detested Council Tax…
by Richie Venton
The councillors of Scotland are currently in the midst of another bout of municipal butchery. Council budgets are being set across the country.
The common thread in all 32 council areas is cuts: to vital services and community facilities, to the jobs and conditions of the workforce, to public access to services through rocketing charges.
Cuts is one thing that the tribal rivalry between Labour and the SNP seems to transcend; they’re both at it, whichever one of these parties rules the council, or in a couple of cases, jointly!
Tens of millions of pounds are being slashed off local public spending – on top of hundreds of millions previously gouged out of council jobs and services.
Council Tax bills are being jacked up at over twice the official inflation rate; close to 5 per cent rises. The regressive nature of the Council Tax by definition means low- and middle-income families are harder hit by these Council Tax hikes.
But people paying more will get less; a lot less. Residential and Home Care services to elderly, disabled and vulnerable people are being reduced; charges are being levied or increased for the uplift of waste or pest control; municipal golf courses closed; teachers reduced by ’(UN)natural wastage’; musical education decimated; jobs lost; iconic outdoor education centres like Blairvadach – which has given a life-changing experience to working-class kids since 1974 – brutally obliterated.
TINA: “there is no alternative”
The list goes on; a dreary litany of slash-and-burn by councillors of all the mainstream political parties – Tory, Lib Dem, Labour, SNP, even the Scottish Greens.
And they all sing the same background tune to their axe-swinging crusade: “we have a duty to balance the books”, and their all-time favourite, “there is no alternative”. The latter was also a favourite tune of the late, unlamented Margaret Thatcher as she put the boot into the working class in the 1980s; she even had her own acronym: TINA, ‘there is no alternative’.
The only variation between those parties is who they point the finger of blame at, as they wield the axe. Even TV reporters have commented that the SNP blames Westminster, while the unionist parties blame Holyrood.
In a small but very welcome development, at least three left-wing Labour councillors – one each in Glasgow, Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire – broke their party whip and refused to vote for their own Labour cuts-based budgets.
This is especially significant considering at least two of the three had previously voted for Labour cuts in earlier years; a sign of the pressures they feel from a population that is breaking under the strains of annual butchery to their living standards. But, at least at this stage, none of them have put forward a clear fighting alternative to the cuts and how to win.
That’s what is urgently needed, both at council and Scottish Parliament levels.
It never seems to occur to these service-cutting, jobs-slashing, price-increasing councillors that they should say NO to all cuts, defying the butchery handed down by the Tory dictatorship of and for the rich at Westminster, and mount a campaign to win back some of the billions stolen off Scottish budgets, and therefore Scottish councils, over the years.
In the last few years alone, over £3bn has been robbed off Scotland’s budgets by the Westminster razor gang. As Unison reported, 39,300 council jobs vanished from 2010 to 2015, one of the human consequences of ‘balancing the books’.
Instead of offering false ‘choices’ between cutting local schools or community facilities, teachers’ jobs or cleansing services, larger school classes or cuts to Outdoor Education, elected councillors should be initiating genuine forums where People’s Budgets could be debated, based on local needs and priorities, but underpinned by an expansion of funding from central government, rather than annual cuts.
After decades of under-funding, in reality a massive expansion of budgets would be required to reverse the atrocities against jobs, lifeline services and community facilities.
But as a bare minimum, if Labour and SNP councillors discovered a collective spine, they should declare ‘No more’, and set No Cuts budgets, to at least stem the tide. Defiance Budgets which refuse to pass on the cuts issued by Westminster and meekly passed down by the Scottish government. Budgets with not a penny reduction in services, not a single job lost, not a penny on service charges or rents.
No Cuts Defiance Budgets
“But the money would run out if we did that” is the cry of many Labour and SNP councillors when we propose this fighting option. Only if the councillors sat on their hands and did nothing!
In a very welcome development in recent years, most council trade unions (particularly in Glasgow and Dundee) have called on councillors to set No Cuts Budgets – staging lobbies of the budget meetings with this demand.
However, the means of doing this, as proposed by the unions, is only a very temporary measure to buy time – which, to their credit, the unions mostly acknowledge. They call for use of council reserves, enhanced borrowing powers, restructuring of PFI contracts and other ‘creative accountancy’ to set one-year No Cuts budgets…in recognition that by definition such reserves would dry up as an option at some early stage in each council. They argue for this as a legal means to setting No Cuts budgets – in response to the cries of anguish from councillors that “We cannot break the law”.
If they were genuine about standing up for the people they got elected by, Labour, SNP and Green councillors should link up with the council workforces – which constitutes a massive 246,000 workers in Scotland – through their trade unions, alongside user groups, tenants’ groups and political parties dedicated to fighting the cuts, and mount a massive campaign to win back the £millions in Scottish government funding required to ‘balance the books’ without a single penny in cuts.
Demand Scottish Government ‘Stand Up for Scotland’!
If the SNP Holyrood government was serious about ‘standing up for Scotland’ (as the SNP election manifestos have repeatedly claimed they will do), they would go beyond ritual condemnation of Westminster’s cuts and mount a campaign of mass defiance, refusing to pass on a single penny of Boris Johnson’s austerity, appealing to a population broadly disgusted at being ruled by a Boris Johnson government we didn’t elect to take to the streets – demanding “Give us back our stolen billions – bail out jobs and services, not bankers and the rich”.
In demanding this course of action by MSPs and councillors elected on the promise of being ‘anti-austerity’, the SSP taps into – and stands on the shoulders of – a rich history of socialist defiance on such issues.
Amongst other historic examples, socialist councillors in Poplar in the 1920s, Dumbarton in the 1930s, Clay Cross, Derbyshire in the 1970s and Liverpool in the 1980s all demonstrated that standing up to central government and mobilising the population around concrete fighting reforms can win the resources that even the most Scrooge-like Westminster regimes at first refused to concede.
Mass mobilisation to win back stolen millions
In the case of Liverpool, socialists mobilised and led a mass movement on the pledges of massive (5,000) new council house-building for rent; thousands of new jobs; a rent freeze; improved and cheaper council services; and enhanced wages, hours and rights for the council workforce. We challenged the draconian cuts to funding off Westminster around the slogan “Give us back our £25million” in order to carry out life-changing reforms and fill the gap in funding in order to ‘balance the books’.
Here’s the key lesson: it took massive campaigning in the working class to build a movement, by popularising these fighting demands and slogans, based on a vision of what the recovery of some of the funding stolen by Westminster through cuts would mean to everyday life.
After organising mass meetings of council workers, factory gate meetings, street meetings, explanatory meetings in the housing schemes and colleges, mass leafleting of homes, we built regional one-day general strikes and demos of up to 50,000 in support of the socialist Liverpool city council.
The result? The hard-nosed Maggie Thatcher Tory government was compelled to retreat and concede £60m in various grants that enabled the massive reforms to be implemented, with improved services, 5,000 new council houses built, at least 12,000 jobs created, and not a penny on the rents.
So there is an alternative! If one city council in one city could inflict this climbdown on a Westminster Tory government which at the time was hailed (and reviled!) as the world pioneer of capitalist savagery and austerity, imagine what the elected government of an entire nation could do in defiance of cuts originating in a Westminster government increasingly rejected by the mass of the Scottish population? It’s a question of political willpower, of vision and of principled audacity. It’s not a question of token gestures, but of mass mobilisation.
Scrap the Council Tax: tax the rich
Meantime, as a matter of urgency, the trade unions, community organisations, councillors and political parties should also thrash out a progressive alternative means of funding councils.
Funds from the Scottish government account for about 80 per cent of all council budgets. The rest mostly comes from the Council Tax. But this is a brutally regressive tax system, where those on lower incomes pay disproportionately far more for local services than the richest do.
The SNP government insisted on a freeze on Council Tax bills for several years. Families struggling to cope with household bills welcomed this – although the richest gained most from the freeze.
Labour’s response was to demand an end to the Council Tax freeze – apparently so out of touch with working class lives that they’re oblivious to the pain of increased bills their option means.
And now the SNP has obliged Labour, allowing councils to raise the Council Tax by up to 4.8 per cent – devolving the dirty work, in the absence of a fighting strategy for extra funding. Increased household bills; decreased local services.
Replace Council Tax with income-based Scottish Service Tax
by Calum Martin
The Council Tax disproportionately squeezes those on middle and lower incomes, in order to maintain proportionately lower rates on the very wealthiest. In 2016 it was has calculated that while the Council Tax claims 5.2 per cent of total income for the lowest earning 20 per cent, the richest 20 per cent pay just 1.7 per cent of their income.
Since then the income share of the top 20 per cent versus the rest of us has only risen. Their share of Council Tax remains frozen. When John Major’s government designed the Council Tax, they engineered it so that working and lower middle Scotland would essentially subsidise the tax share of the richest. All the rest of us pay more so they can pay less.
Meanwhile, cuts to service push a higher financial burden on to the same lower and middle income households. The highest earners who are already paying less are typically less impacted.
Generally with those sorts of top incomes, they can afford to do privately all the things that many need public provision to be able to do.
It took a mass public campaign last year to halt plans at Midlothian Council to scrap musical tuition in schools. In Midlothian, life without music was very nearly simply a method for making us subsidize lower taxes for the rich.
Councillors are not meant to be elected simply to manage cuts. They’re meant to be standing up for our communities – not pushing them down but shrug that there’s nothing they can do. After all, they and their party bosses just run the country. It’s not like that comes with a responsibility to the people who constitute
That’s why it’s so important to show that there is a real, workable alternative to the discredited status quo.
By linking tax bills with our ability to pay, we can raise the necessary funds to invest in our schools and services without starving our economy or punishing the majority. It’s time for a fair deal for working and lower middle Scotland. Fair local taxes can be at the heart of a Scottish civic renaissance. There’s already ways it can be done.
Whilst we need more powers to truly unlock they country’s full potential, Holyrood already has the power to fix this problem. Indeed the SNP promised just that when they were first elected in 2007. We are still waiting…
Despite the ongoing Punch-and-Judy routine, attacking each other for cuts they themselves are complicit in, successive governments have yet to actually meaningfully fix the situation. Even despite repeated election promises to look at the problem.
That is part of what makes it so important for us to clearly hold up the alternative. To simply decry the issue confuses and compounds the whole thing. Instead we can make a clear, constructive and positive contribution to the national dialogue. That is exactly what we find in the Scottish Service Tax.
The Scottish Service Tax is the answer to the claims that nothing can be done to avoid these cuts. The proposition is simple, the case undeniable.
It’s a progressive tax to pay for (ideally universal) local services. Holyrood has full legislative power over Scottish local government.
That includes the Council Tax. Commonsense argues that Holyrood should scrap the Council Tax and replace it with a local income tax, based on six bandings:
The first £0-£10,000 would go tax free
Income between £10,000 and £30,000 would be taxed at 4.5 per cent
Income between £30,000 and £40,000 would be taxed at 15 per cent
Income between £40,000 and £50,000 would be taxed at 18 per cent
Income between £50,000 and £90,000 would be taxed at 21 per cent
Income above £90,000 would be taxed at 23 per cent
For an example, on an income of £14,000 a year, the first £10,000 is under Band 1, so you would pay no tax on that. The following £4000 would be taxed at 4.5 per cent, under band 2, giving you a total bill of £180 each year under this example.
Tax bills are thus matched to ability to pay. Under these proposals we would find that the vast majority are either substantially better off, or at least no worse off in terms of tax burden – significantly improving the intended effect of the old Council Tax freeze of last decade.
Moreover the total revenue raised nationally would be sufficient to halt job and service losses and start actively re-investing in municipal culture and local services again. A fairer deal for working and lower middle Scotland!
Things change. All the time, things change. So whilst it’s endlessly remarked that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, with the Scottish Service Tax we can make those taxes both fair and progressive, and life a little better and brighter for all while we can still enjoy it.
Welcome to Voice Extra!
Voice Extra is regular addition to the print edition of Scottish Socialist Voice, the only pro-independence socialist paper written and published in Scotland since 1995. We aim to supplement the news and comment sections which give a unique take on Scottish and international affairs in our print edition with a regular feed of breaking stories. We hope you find it a useful and enjoyable read.
Ken Ferguson, Editor, Scottish Socialist Voice