Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol. Photo: Wikipedia Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol. Photo: Wikipedia

The move by Marvin Rees provides a significant opportunity for the anti-austerity movement

Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees announcement that he is prepared to lead a protest against cuts to local authority funding is very welcome news.

The plans still need to be discussed and agreed, however Marvin Rees has made public his clear commitment to both a mass lobby of Westminster and a Bristol protest rally.

His stance is one that very few Labour mayors or councils have been prepared to take in recent years. Since 2010, Labour councils have seen their funding slashed by central government. However, almost without exception, they have implemented austerity in the form of severe cuts to local services. Few Labour councils or mayors have made significant statements of opposition, let alone held public protests.

Crucially, no Labour council has sought to defy central government by setting an illegal budget in a manner similar to what Liverpool and Lambeth councils attempted in the mid-1980s.

In Bristol, Marvin Rees was elected as Mayor in May 2016 with a big majority and the symbolism of the UK’s first black Mayor been elected in a city whose wealth was built on slavery, should not be underestimated.

However, his election was primarily a vote against austerity and out of a desire for something to be done for the city’s poorest residents and all those who rely on public services. It was also indicative of a rising left-wing mood in Bristol that was further demonstrated by the large swing to Labour throughout Bristol in the recent general election.

It is this contradiction between people’s expectations of what a Labour Mayor and council should do and the miserable reality of yet another cuts budget for 2017/18 that is creating the pressure for Marvin Rees and the Labour councillors to act.

People can see the weakness of Theresa May’s government and how money was thrown towards the bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party in order to keep the Tories in power. Then there is Grenfell, an event that has exposed the stark and simple reality that cuts and privatisation kill.

This has led people to protest at the public ‘consultation’ meetings. People do not want to have to choose whether to cuts their libraries, parks or adult social care. Parents and children in Totterdown have protested over the planned removal of their school crossing patrol, a service that is being cut across the city.

At a recent march in solidarity with Grenfell organised by Bristol People’s Assembly and the tenants union ACORN, there were calls for Labour councillors to take a much more active stance in opposition to the cuts. Clearly, there is considerable disquiet over this issue amongst the thousands of Labour party members in Bristol, who can see that these cuts risk undermining Labour’s recent increased support.

In these circumstances, Bristol People’s Assembly decided that we would lobby the council to urge them to call both a mass lobby of Westminster and a Bristol based protest rally against the cuts. An open letter which we sent to the Mayor and Labour councillors outlining our position was published in the Bristol Post.

Following discussion, we chose not to foreground the demand for the council to not implement any cuts, (although we assured them of widespread support were they to take this course of action). Instead, we focused on the call for a mass lobby and a public demonstration.

This was largely out of a recognition that people want to mainly protest at the Tories who they rightly consider the main enemy, rather than at a Labour mayor and council who they, again rightly believe, should be on their side.

Prior to the general election, Marvin Rees spoke at a rally against education cuts organised by Fair funding for Schools and the NUT that had five thousand people present. People are rightly asking why can we not at least attempt to replicate this unity in opposition to cuts to local authority funding.

Much work remains to be done to turn Marvin Rees call for protest into a reality. There is also the issue of what to do about the cuts that are being implemented and irrespective of any protest this will not simply go away.

However, there is no doubt that there is a significant opportunity here for the whole of the anti-austerity movement. A protest in Bristol, held with the backing of the Mayor and the council, would be a significant step forward for us all and would pile on the pressure on Theresa May.

People’s Assembly groups and anti-cuts activists in other cities should now echo Marvin Rees demand and pressure their own elected leaders to join with Bristol in the lobby and protests on September 12th.

We have the opportunity to make this a very significant day of protest and a launchpad for events at the Tory party conference in Manchester later that month.