Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Wallasey as Wirral Council Prepares the Axe

A section of the march walking from Seacombe Ferry
On Monday evening, a couple of hundred demonstrators marched from Seacombe Ferry to Wallasey Town Hall, before four hundred packed into the council chamber to witness the Wirral cabinet recommend massive cuts to local government services. As they did so, one carer mother pledged to “chuck myself in the docks” if – as seems a strong possibility – her day centre is closed. Throughout, the atmosphere was tensely balanced between the council’s need to give the appearance of listening, and the pure rage and despair that they therefore needed to grant an audience. This was liberal democracy being stretched to its absolute limit.

The march was called by the Unison union, with the blue Unison banners and flags taking their place at the head of the procession. It went at quite a slow pace, and took maybe fifteen minutes to walk the relatively small distance. However, along the way almost every single driver seemed to signal their support by beeping their car horn or raising their fist in solidarity gestures.

When we arrived at the council building, we were met by performers from one of the threatened youth community groups. They performed skilful break dances and other manoeuvres to the sound of several hit pop songs. The waiting protesters clapped along to the rhythm and one generous man offered people cups of hot vegetable soup for free. Spirits were high.

Once we got inside for the cabinet meeting though, the mood changed dramatically, and high tension was palpable. The large rectangular room was arranged with the executive’s table at the front, ahead of twenty rows of twenty chairs, where Unison supporters but overwhelmingly service users and relatives were seated. At the back in a raised gallery, a few dozen people who would soon reveal themselves to be Labour supporters (and likely councillors) were perched.

When the officials walked in, led by council leader Phil Davies, the air was suddenly filled with boos, jeering whistles, and cries of “bastards” and “murderers”. Hundreds of members of the public stamped their feet, creating an atmosphere which must have been intimidating for the suited and booted politicians, who – even with security guards and police present – were vastly outnumbered by those who despised them.

Once the tide of open hostility had receded, Davies declared the meeting open, and ordered that a freshly printed “Executive Summary” of the budget proposals be handed out to each member of what he termed “the audience”. It quickly became apparent that the wording – if not the actual detail – of the summary had been crafted precisely because the politicians had been made slightly timid by the reception they’d got at previous meetings.

I will leave a breakdown of the proposal’s specifics to another article, but for now suffice to say that the emphasis was deliberately placed on listing what will be ‘saved’ from the slashing of the budget by one third, rather than what will be taken away by the Wirral Labour administration. For example, “We will retain pensioner discounts for Council Tax” can be translated as ‘We will cut all Council Tax discounts except for those going to pensioners’ (not just coincidentally the age group with highest voter turnout come election time).

The light-hearted mood outside the town hall was soon replaced
The chairman emphasised how much the executive had “listened” to people, through the consultation exercise (loudly described as a “farce” by one “audience” member), and through the trade unions (indeed, the Executive Summary claims a dozen meetings have taken place with union officials in the last three months).

Local Unison branch secretary Joe Taylor was then invited to stand before the budget cabinet and give a speech. This he falteringly did over ten minutes. At first he acknowledged the huge strength of feeling from the many service users who made up the vast bulk of the assembled crowd, and the immense harmful impact the cuts would have on their lives. However, he pointedly refused to call for the scrapping of all cuts.

Instead, he spared Labour blushes by laying responsibility for the cuts package at the door of the “ConDem” coalition government, and not the local Labour Party for drawing them up and enforcing them in Wirral. “We won’t forget who’s responsible come the general election” he added, in an attempt to spread the illusion that a national Labour Party equally committed to austerity would serve working class people any better than the current inhabitants of Downing Street. He then made a plaintive plea for the council to "give me something" which he could sell as a victory to his membership, or else strike action could not be ruled out. Implicit in this statement was the idea that the union had brought hundreds of people to the council chamber, and the union could make sure they didn’t come back if the council made one almost empty gesture. 

In the hall, his speech was received with applause if not much enthusiasm. Uninvited speakers from the general public won much more support, as they walked nervously but furiously forward to air their grievances. One woman in particular earned the empathy of everyone on the floor with her tearful description of how hard her life as a carer for her child already is, and how unbearable it will become if and when her day centre is closed. She bluntly declared that she would feel compelled to kill herself, but the men on the platform remained literally unmoved at this.

When yet another woman moved forward to speak, Davies clearly began to panic that he was losing control of proceedings. He announced that he would not allow any further speakers, and that the cabinet were “not going to listen any more”. This was an ironic twisting of his earlier comments about how much the council were listening, and it provoked uproar. Clearly, ‘listening’ was ok in manageable bite size chunks – from just a tiny percentage of the Wirral’s population during a “consultation”, or from one trade unionist. However, once it threatened business as usual, it was to be stamped on. But he’d not banked on the depth of anger, so after around half a minute of shouting, the woman was eventually allowed to speak.

Throughout proceedings, a particularly bizarre but important role was played by the Labour supporters in the gallery above. As I stated earlier, they can only have been Labour politicians, because literally no-one else on the planet could be that passionately partisan about Labour! At times when the air was filled with particularly class conscious yells about how “You’re all the same!” and “Labour is just as much to blame”, those above loudly joined in with bellows along the lines of “Blame Eric Pickles”, “Ask Nick Clegg”, or most blatantly on a divide and conquer strategy: “North-South divide!”

In various ways, the public’s anger had been released and managed, and the budget recommendations had been passed by the cabinet, for full council to vote up or down on Tuesday 5th March.

It seems likely that the council will give Unison their crumb of comfort, in an attempt to buy off a section of the crowd and divide the rest. It would also be astonishing if the Labour majority cheering on their colleagues this week did not wield their axe a fortnight later. In Wirral – as everywhere else – cuts could then only be successfully fought by a strong rank-and-file alliance of affected workers and services users. This alliance must be formed, and quickly.

Further articles on the Wirral situation will be published in the coming days.
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