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  • Published in Opinion
March in Newcastle

16 February 2013: over 1000 march in Newcastle

Alex Snowdon looks at what's wrong with the Guardian article about Nick Forbes and Newcastle's council cuts

The Guardian's article by John Harris about cuts in Newcastle contained much valuable material about the devastating impact of cuts on the city's public services. It grasped the scale and severity of what is happening. Harris went some way to conveying the human toll by interviewing a number of people on the ground affected by austerity policies, unemployment and lack of investment.

The article also correctly located this in a national context, with cuts driven by the policies of Tory-led central government. It highlights the injustice of cuts to local government falling especially heavily on Labour-run northern cities like Newcastle. This is extremely welcome.

However, the article was much weaker on the local political situation. We need to think seriously about how councils can constructively oppose the cuts imposed by central government.

One option is for councils to become centres of active opposition and resistance. The other option is for council leaders to moan while implementing the cuts. Those of us active in Newcastle's anti-cuts campaigns have repeatedly advocated the former approach. Newcastle Council's Labour Leader Nick Forbes, by contrast, has done the latter.

Nick Forbes and Newcastle's anti-cuts movement

It is wrongly claimed that local anti-cuts campaigners have personally targeted Nick Forbes. In the major campaigns and protests in Newcastle - such as the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign, which I co-founded - it was agreed that focusing on Forbes personally would distract from the fact that central government was the source of the cuts. A few isolated cases of people having placards that criticised Forbes doesn't make a pattern - and they are, in any case, hardly surprising when he became the public figurehead for the council's cuts programme.

Our approach was a political decision that reflected our recognition that to stop cuts to local services we naturally needed to focus pressure and lobbying on the local council, but that we also had to connect local cuts to the bigger picture of national austerity. The article's focus on allegedly personal attacks on Forbes also feeds what one local campaigner has described to me as the myth of Forbes as a 'lone embattled figure'. This is the image of him as someone simultaneously attacked by the government and local campaigners, the only person who is genuinely sticking up for Newcastle (the title - 'Is saving Newcastle a mission impossible?' - feeds this delusion). This is a gross disservice to all those in Newcastle who have actively opposed austerity.

Forbes is presented as a 'progressive', left-leaning figure who earns high praise from political 'heavyweights' like Jon Cruddas. There are glowing claims that he is such a talented individual he could be a big name in national politics, but has such deep civic commitment that he remains a humble council leader.

Yet Forbes' reputation locally is different. He is universally regarded as being firmly on the right wing of the Labour Party and anti-cuts campaigners have always found him unsympathetic. He is even believed to be a member of the controversial Blairite ginger group Progress. Newcastle's Labour Party has different political tendencies including many councillors and activists who are principled opponents of austerity. Forbes emphatically isn't one of them.

The article fails to acknowledge the simple fact that Forbes has had nothing to do with our city's opposition to cuts. The city has had a vibrant and diverse anti-cuts movement for the last few years, but its council leader has not been part of it.

Forbes could have co-operated with local campaign groups in developing opposition to the impact of austerity on Newcastle - as many local Labour Party members have done - but instead he dismisses anti-cuts protests in Newcastle as 'the far left' and implies they are an equivalent problem to the far right whipping up racist hatred. That says a lot about what is wrong with Forbes' political stance.

Missing the real arguments

The failure to interview local anti-cuts campaigners leads to serious imbalances in the article. Newcastle-born writer Lee Hall, who was a prominent supporter of Save Newcastle Libraries, is quoted only in order to caricature and dismiss what he said. It's also interesting that opponents of cuts are characterised as indulging in personal attacks on Forbes, without mentioning that Forbes resorted to personalised criticism of Lee Hall instead of engaging with local people's concerns about the threatened closures.

Similarly, it is very unfortunate that the cuts to Sure Start are discussed with no input from the very impressive local campaign to save it. The lack of space given to genuine anti-cuts campaigners misrepresents the real situation and gives undue weight to Forbes' own perspectives.

A further weakness is that Harris fails to offer any criticism of Forbes' divisive strategy of claiming that campaigners were only interested in saving 'middle class' funding - libraries, culture - and not interested in those services that most affected people living in poverty. This was always a grossly offensive stance and was designed to both justify many of the cuts while attempting (unsuccessfully) to divide campaigners against each other.

We instead took the position that central government's cuts programme should be opposed in its totality, and that we shouldn't be played off against each other. This was a major political difference between the grassroots campaigns (aiming for united and serious opposition to cuts) and, on the other hand, Forbes and his allies (who trotted out conservative arguments to justify the cuts).

We also challenged the caricature that certain things - arts, reading - are middle class pursuits. We pointed out that public funding enables better access to such vital aspects of what it means to live in a decent, humane and civilised society.

The myth of the heroic civic leader

The political arguments are evaded in the article, replaced by a highly personal focus on the allegedly embattled council leader. For example, Forbes refers to an incident in which he encountered an individual who had taken part in an anti-cuts demonstration and says that he didn't even know a protest was taking place. This is extraordinary because the incident he refers to was on the day of the biggest demonstration opposing Newcastle Council's cuts that we ever had (it attracted over 1000 people).

If Forbes really didn't know the protest was even happening it doesn't suggest a civic leader paying attention to the concerns of local people about the cuts to their services. It is also of concern that Harris, in his article, gives more attention to an isolated incident involving one person who had attended the protest than the demonstration itself.

To summarise. Many of the article's problems originate from John Harris relying heavily on the perspective of Nick Forbes and not seeking corroboration from others. Harris uncritically accepts a whole set of political assumptions about cuts in local government - and how to oppose them - so that Forbes emerges as a heroic figure, while anti-cuts campaigners appear to be either irrelevant, wrong or dangerous.

Consequently the whole picture of Newcastle's politics is grossly distorted. It is essential that readers have access to alternative perspectives on Newcastle, the politics of local government and the opposition to cuts.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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