Still committed to Labour
Dean Kirk is of a rare political breed - along with Gill Kennett he was a Labour councillor in Hull who refused to vote for a cuts budget and was therefore suspended from the Labour group. He spoke to Mark Fischer
Some background about your suspensions would be useful and - in the course of giving us that - perhaps you can tell readers how the budget is formulated in the first place.
When Labour took over the council in 2011, the campaign preceding it over 2010-11 was clear on fighting the cuts being imposed on local authorities by the Con Dem government. So the Labour Party locally endorsed a policy of opposing these cuts - and that was the political basis on which I won a seat, in a ward that the Labour Party had not held in over 14 years.
When we took over the council, things were to change enormously in regard to the budgets. The first one we put together was fantastic, as it had no cuts. However, the second was different. By then, some significant amounts of money that would have been allocated to us by central government had been lost.
Of course, we knew we were going to lose this cash before we were actually elected. But the simple fact was that we had fought and been elected on a manifesto against cuts - something we had campaigned for the year before and the year before that. We just refused point-blank to vote for something that went totally against the promises we had made in our manifesto. It would have been hypercritical on a personal level, let alone what people should expect of a party that makes political pledges to them.
So we voted against the budget in 2012 - and three of us were suspended for that at the time. Gill got a three-month suspension and myself and Gary Wareing got an indefinite suspension in 2013.
That was overturned after protests were organised, wasn’t it …?
That’s right. In fact, it was overturned by the party at a regional and national level. They made our suspensions the same as Gill’s and we returned to Labour that year.
To be fair - and I know Gill feels the same way on this - it wasn’t easy to vote against the budget. You’re also voting against friends and colleagues in the party. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to walk through the ward that I represent and be stopped by people telling us, ‘You told us you were about fighting the cuts and now you’ve voted them through!’
To try to explain to people on the doorstep that it isn’t Labour’s fault, it’s the government’s fault - that argument doesn’t work now: people don’t want to hear it. They want people representing them that do what they say they’re going to do - that’s my experience, anyway. I wasn’t prepared to ask them for their vote, and then do the exact opposite of what I said I would.
What about this year’s budget?
This was up for voting on in February and we decided to approach it differently. We wrote to Ed Miliband, the leader of the party, and explained our position. We wrote to the Labour group, the whip, and asked for a special dispensation on having to vote on the budget on grounds of our conscience - which was in line with what was in our manifesto, of course.
That was just shot down - we were told that a conscience doesn’t apply to a budget. But a budget is something that makes decisions about people’s lives, so how can you say a conscience doesn’t come into it? It’s nonsense. We were told that we had no choice - we had to vote for it. We have never, ever attacked the Labour Party locally - verbally or in the press. We’ve always tried to stand with them as far as we have been able - it’s only over specific issues regarding these cuts where we have had to part company.
The way Gill puts it is that the government’s action over the last four years shows that it’s not ‘business as usual’. Labour politicians locally should be able to exempt themselves when voting on issues of principle, issues that you have taken a stance on in your manifesto.
Now, on how the budget is put together. We had very little involvement in the first budget that we voted against - there were four half-day meetings. Given the scale of the cuts involved, I felt we didn’t get enough information and clarification. After this year’s budget, we only got half a day. We needed a real debate on the issues. In total, we spent just eight hours discussing the entire budget. We were voting against it in the private group meetings, but what we were being told was that we had to respect the discipline of the majority. I abstained in the end.
The budget itself was an impossibility: the amount of money just wouldn’t allow anyone to protect jobs and services. But it just ends up as an irrational situation. Councils across the country are pushing through lots of voluntary redundancies - but that itself is a cost to the taxpayer, as money has to come from somewhere to pay for those redundancy packages. At the same time, the people who go don’t just take money away with them: they also take their experience on the job. You’re then back to square one as far as the quality of the services provided is concerned.
This is a politically dangerous cycle for us to get ourselves into. We now actually have a Ukip councillor locally - in a previously safe Labour seat, too. Given Hull’s good record on standing up to chauvinism and racism, this is very distasteful as far as I’m concerned. This underlines that the Labour Party nationally should reinforce its stance on the benefits of immigration, etc. There’s too much bowing to the rightwing media on that question. And, of course, it’s all tied up with cuts and redundancies too.
If there were plenty of jobs about and decent services for all, race and immigration would be no issue.
On the subject of the May 22 elections, we recommended our readers vote for Labour anti-cuts candidates … if they could find them and if they had managed to survive in the party. Clearly, there’s a tiny minority of elected Labour representatives that are prepared to take a stand on this, but how widespread is the anti-austerity sentiment?
Gill and myself have been all over the country in the last two and a half years, speaking at meetings organised by unions and various left organisations. So we know that there are a lot of Labour Party people in local councils who have the same views as us, but they are stopped from taking a stance by the hierarchy in the local authority. For instance, Hull has always been renowned for a having a very top-down cabinet and leadership - it might not be the people who are nominally in charge, but the people behind them that pull the strings. It’s the same across the country.
You get a leader who hands out cabinet positions and paid roles. You have to accept that there are some people in there who are only there for the money and nothing else - people who treat it as a full-time job, not a political position.
On the other hand, as a councillor, I’ve being going to these group meetings for six years and everyone at them is against the cuts, everyone is against austerity and how it’s going to affect their particular ward and so on. But that’s in the group meeting - what about what they say and do in public?
For instance, 1,000 council workers were made redundant by the previous administration, in 2010-11. Labour fought that hard; we said it was a disgrace that it was allowed to happen. One of the reasons why we won the subsequent election was our unequivocal stance on that issue. But we seem to be doing the same thing now we’re in - it’s like we are no better. The excuse used is that a rebellion would be pointless anyway and Eric Pickles would be parachuted in to run everything locally.
That’s bullshit. If we stand united, like they did in Liverpool back in the day, and just say no, then the council staff and the people of the city would understand Labour is not just prepared to sit back and allow this city to be robbed blind.
What about your own political future outside Labour (for the time being)?
In the last two years - even though we have been suspended - we have campaigned on behalf of the Labour Party. This year we went out, knocked on doors and campaigned for Labour - not unimportantly, because of the rise of Ukip. We are totally committed to seeing a Labour government in 2015, because what’s the alternative? There isn’t anything at the moment.
We have to give Labour the opportunity to get in nationally, and then watch them. If they decide to turn their back on us, then politics will change. When we wrote to Miliband about our concerns over Labour making Con Dem cuts, the generic letter he sent us both back stated that we needed to show a united front - but with who, for what?
Specifically, we will be standing as Hull Independent Labour councillors next year and the year after - both Gill and I have been encouraged by the huge number of people who’ve offered their support for us taking this decision. That said, I have a meeting coming up in London with the Labour Representation Committee, who are trying to get us back into the ranks of Labour! My reply to the comrades is yes, we are going to return - but not under the current political circumstance and political agenda of the party.
What are the lessons of the May election for Labour more generally?
They can’t just say they are the alternative: they have to show they are an alternative. They have to show they are for the working people. Miliband has to show some leadership and take a stand against rightwing diversions like the scare-mongering over the EU and immigration, over cuts and austerity. If they don’t, we’re going to see Ukip MPs in the country and that will be a serious blow to Labour and everyone on the left.
Miliband should be saying to local authorities that are under the lash, ‘If you can’t manage to keep jobs and services intact on the money you’re being given, we will fight alongside you and throw our full weight behind the leadership of that council to take on this government.