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MARY BARBOUR, as no doubt many readers of the Morning Star will know, was leader of the rent strikes in Glasgow in 1915.
At its peak 20,000 Glaswegians, women and men, workers and community activists, took to the streets.
Such was the show of working-class unity that prime minister Lloyd George was forced to introduce the Rent Restriction Act.
It is on the basis of such community campaigns in conjunction with industrial unrest that the reputation of Glasgow as a city of resistance — the Red Clydeside — was built. That, and the emergence of municipal socialism.
And Barbour was in the van of that struggle too, as a community activist and then, significantly, as a Labour councillor, she fought for free milk for schoolchildren, pensions for mothers, municipal banks, wash houses, laundries, public baths and the city’s first family-planning clinic.
The need for such a fighting spirit is sorely needed in Glasgow today.
Like too many councillors right across Britain, Glasgow’s Labour councillors have succumbed to managing the cuts instead of fighting them.
The language and the actions of councillors led one ex-Labour councillor to say at a recent meeting in Glasgow that the response of the average Glasgow City councillor when faced with any given issue caused by budget cuts was likely to be: “There is only one answer to this problem and the officials will tell me what it is.”
And inevitably that answer is likely to be in managerial speak that glosses over lower staffing levels that push up the number of unemployed, making precarious employment more prevalent, increases the workload and stress on those that are left in local authority employment while reducing or eliminating services for Glasgow’s most vulnerable.
But it is far too easy to blame officials. The central problem has been the political leadership — or rather the lack of it.
Gordon Matheson, Glasgow’s previous Labour leader, was keen, rightly so, to point out the vindictiveness of the SNP Scottish government’s attitude to local government in Scotland — that while the Scottish government had faced a 10 per cent cut to its budget over the last five years, Scottish councils had faced a 24 per cent cut in funding from the Scottish government.
What he did not tell us was what the Labour Party, its councillors, its affiliated unions and its supporters in the city should do about it other than congratulate their councillors for continuing to provide mitigation against the worst excesses of Westminster and Holyrood.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government, riding on a wave of popularity and happy to blame, by implication, the intensifying crisis in local government on incompetent or spendthrift councils, has continued to rob local authorities of funding, with the poor being the main casualties, in order to ensure that Scotland remains a comfortable place to live if you are well off.
For without any shadow of a doubt the main beneficiaries of the council tax freeze have been the well-heeled.
So what is life like in the city that voted Yes in the referendum?
- The lowest life expectancy for both men and women in Scotland, at 73 years for men and 78.5 years for women. (For men born in Glasgow’s east end it is 54)
- Around one in three children living in poverty
- Just over a quarter of children in poverty living in workless households
- About one in five families with children with money difficulties or in deep financial trouble
- About one in six adults without access to a bank or building society account
- Around one in five working Glaswegians earning below the living wage.
By contrast, one street in Glasgow, Baroness Drive in Thorntonhall, has an average house price of over £1 million.
This caricature of the Red Clydeside may however be on the verge of a real challenge.
On Thursday evening last week in Glasgow Kelvin Labour Party, members on the left, right and centre of the party united to support a motion that called for the Glasgow Labour group to convene an emergency city-wide fightback conference involving local Labour parties, community groups and unions.
The immediate context for this call for action is the consultation document that has been circulated by Glasgow City Council.
While couched in the language of officialdom, it nevertheless points out that Glasgow has already delivered “savings” of around £230m in recent years.
But that pain is not enough for the blood-sucking Tories of Westminster and the nationalist apologists for what Nicola Sturgeon now terms (without a hint of irony) “inclusive capitalism.”
The consultation document tells us: “The local government settlement for 2016/17 includes a cash reduction of £53m which, coupled with budget pressures of £33m, means the council has a budget shortfall of £86m in the next financial year.
“When added to an estimated shortfall of £47m forecast for 2017/18, the requirement for savings over the next two years is £133m.”
There is increasing evidence that Glasgow’s Labour councillors are beginning to realise that this assault on the council’s budget and the people they represent cannot be managed or its effects disguised.
Hence even the councillors present at the meeting last Thursday supported the motion.
Meanwhile in Edinburgh Pentlands Constituency Labour Party on the same evening an almost identical motion was passed.
And in Edinburgh the cuts are not only encouraging a fightback by Labour — they are beginning to expose fissures in the SNP monolith.
“A revenue cut of this scale would be very damaging for jobs and services within Scottish local government generally, and here in Edinburgh specifically — the harsh reality is that this will translate to real job cuts that hit real families, in real communities throughout our capital city. Everyone will be hurt by this.
“The City of Edinburgh Council is already facing significant workforce reductions, and very challenging budget decisions — Wednesday’s announcement (by John Swinney) makes all of that even more difficult...”
That quote was by none other than SNP group leader Sandy Howat of the Labour/SNP coalition that runs Edinburgh City Council.
Meanwhile back in Glasgow, historical memories stir. Former MP for Glasgow Maryhill Maria Fyfe is heading a vibrant campaign to have a statue of Mary Barbour erected.
So here is my request to Glasgow City’s Labour Group. While we are waiting for the statue, how about a giant banner on the council buildings in George Square that reads: “This is the City of Mary Barbour. No Cuts Here!”
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