Durham Teaching Assistants will stage a two day strike this week, beginning on Tuesday the 8th of November. For many, it will be the first time they have taken strike action. Amongst the wider public, the reaction to the dispute between Durham’s Labour council and a group of Teaching Assistants numbering over 2000 has mostly been one of horror. Words like ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ have been used to describe the actions of Durham County Council (DCC), who in October 2015 thought it was ultimately acceptable to hand 2700 poorly paid Teaching Assistants redundancy notices and propose to re-hire them on inferior terms, which would mean a 23% pay cut in some cases. The intention was to rush this through, and have it all done and dusted by October 2016, but the initial reaction of the Teaching Assistants themselves put paid to this. So instead, the doomsday scenario was put back to New Year’s Eve, 2016, with new contracts coming into force on New Year’s Day 2017. To those of us who were local members of the Labour Party and had been long-term watchers of the Labour Group at Durham County Council, none of this was shocking at all. In fact, it was not even much of a surprise, being part of a longer, more established pattern. After all, this was a group of councillors who had presided over leisure centre closures, the ‘outsourcing’ of community centres to the voluntary sector, the closure of care homes and most recently, the sale of housing stock.
Now, the standard answer from those councillors who were making these decisions since 2010 (those who bothered to give an answer at all) was this: why blame us, when this is caused by Tory and Coalition Government austerity, citing the devastating cuts to council budgets which has meant that councils like Durham have had to find over £200m in savings. You should be turning your fire on the Tories, they’d say. There’s certainly a great deal of truth in this, but in fact the people who they were talking to were normally doing exactly that: campaigning against austerity measures, the privatisation of the NHS, the Bedroom Tax, public sector pay freezes and the destruction of our public services. Unions organised mass demonstrations, strikes were held and organisations like UK Uncut and the Coalition of Resistance shone the light on tax avoiders such as Vodafone and Starbucks. The only problem was, we rarely saw our Labour councillors taking up the struggle by our sides. Instead, they were busy making ‘tough decisions’, led by “modernising” council leaders like Nick Forbes, dubbed ‘King of Cuts’ at Newcastle, and Simon Henig, the slick, Blairite head of the Labour group at DCC.
In many ways, this was the pre-Corbyn Labour Party in microcosm, and the Labour group at Durham County Council were part of a much bigger issue: a party which had become both complacent and confused about what it stood for. At the top, at national and regional level, it had become almost ‘managerial’ after two decades of Blairite dominance of all the representative functions of the Labour Party. The biggest and clearest manifestation of this was of course in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party collapsed almost overnight under the weight of the Referendum campaign. But although the crisis occurred between the Referendum vote and the General Election vote of May 2015, the seeds of the Scottish Party’s decline had been sown by (a) the absolute stranglehold that the New Labour machine had over the party, to the extent that it was seen as a place for Blairites to develop their portfolios, not a democratic, grassroots party and (b) the complacency of the more traditional membership, the councillors and the local hierarchies who believed the Scottish working class had nowhere else to go.
So, what has that got to do with Durham County Council, their Labour Group and the Teaching Assistants dispute? Well, in the 2013 local elections, the Labour Party won a huge majority in the local elections, mainly at the expense of the collapse of the LibDem vote (to say that their coalition deal with the Tories didn’t go down well in the North East would be an understatement of a whopping kind). In local elections, where turnout is low, small changes in voting can make a big difference and the result in 2013 was that the Labour representation was swelled to 94, one of the largest Labour groups in the country. At the same time, after decades under New Labour, the system of local government had become more centralised, with power concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, mainly the leader, those with cabinet portfolios and their advisors. With councillors being chosen by local parties and normally without much challenge, those 94 were mostly loyal, longstanding members of the party. So, the huge majority that Labour had locally played straight into Simon Henig’s hand. Many of those councillors would never think to defy the whip, instead seeing their role at a very local level, to serve their community. When it came to those ‘tough decisions’, they were likely to go along with whatever Henig and the cabinet decided, advised strongly by unelected, council officers.
This might explain why, when faced with legal advice that they would in breach of equal pay legislation if they didn’t tackle Teaching Assistant’s contracts, many of the councillors waved it through, trusting the leader and those around him. By this time, the Labour Party outside County Hall was starting to change. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected leader, ‘austerity lite’ was being dumped and a newly energised party membership, massively enlarged by the leadership election, were talking of the Labour Party as a ‘social movement’ again, going back to its roots as a party of the working class. None, or very little of this, penetrated the walls of County Hall. When Corbyn was searching for councillor endorsements in the 2015 leadership campaign, only a tiny handful came from Durham County councillors.
When I first met the Teaching Assistants, not much of this internal party politics meant much to them, quite understandably. But they were angry with the Labour Party. Many of the key activists had historical family ties to the party, but they felt let down, betrayed by the disregard they had been shown by the Labour councillors. I listened as they told me that many of the councillors had a view of the TA role which entailed washing paint pots. To them, it showed how out of touch they were with the changing nature of schools, but also that they must be divorced from their communities. After all, if there are 2,700 Teaching Assistants in County Durham, it wouldn’t take much for a councillor to bump into one or two if they were doing their job. Instead, the vast majority of Labour councillors went along with the plan set out by the Labour group leader, the officers and the legal advice they were given. Of course, no one is arguing that councillors should ignore their elected group leader or legal advice, but first and foremost they should represent their communities – as that is what they are there to do.
It’s clear to me that Labour councillors failed at their fundamental task, which is to represent their constituents. How could they have done it better? Well, if that job of representation had been upper most in their mind, they would have paused proceedings and consulted with the Teaching Assistants directly, individually and in groups. They would have engaged with their trade unions, not in an underhand, backroom way, trying to get a deal as soon as possible (relying on the overly cosy relationship that had developed between union officers and councillors), but in a transparent way that would have involved the TAs directly too. They would have opened up a discussion about alternatives, looking at Barnet Council, for instance, where a strong, organised Unison branch under secretary John Burgess, had managed to mitigate many of the effects of similar cuts through regrading. All this was available to them, yet they effectively buried their heads in the sand and appeared to sulk at the first criticism, especially from Labour Party members. That’s not good enough as our representatives.
When the Trades Council, of which I’m secretary, first got involved in helping the TAs, the hostility which we faced was palpable. That’s pretty ironic, looking back at it. Through the Trades Council’s involvement, I believe that we were able to pull the situation back from one which would have benefited Labour’s opponents most – and quite possibly turned the campaign into a political vehicle for an anti-union, anti-Labour ideology. You can hardly blame the LibDems, UKIP and various independents (and even a few of the far right) from making hay when a Labour council is treating its key workers in this way. Not only are Teaching Assistants vitally important in terms of education in the County, but also exactly the people that Labour need to win back if they were to stop the kind of catastrophe we’ve seen in Scotland. By showing that Labour members and grassroots trade unionists were behind them, at least we could demonstrate that the situation was more complicated than that painted by UKIP and the like. Over the last year there has been a sea change, mainly because of the efforts of the Teaching Assistants themselves, but also because the internal dynamics of the Labour Party have been laid bare – shown most clearly when Jeremy Corbyn told DCC to ‘get this sorted’ at the Durham Miners’ Gala. When given the facts by a fantastic, vibrant, informed and social media savvy campaign, Labour members in Durham have chosen the side of the TAs, including many of the MPs (some under pressure, admittedly). Whereas a year ago, many of those same members were buying into Henig’s narrative that this was inevitable, that the council had no choice, that has all changed and hardly any party member outside of the council chamber supports their stance.
Now, coming to the crunch: what does this mean in terms of the strike action and the lead up to New Year’s Day 2017? Well, firstly, something all Labour councillors need to understand: they can’t possibly win this. That’s beyond doubt. Because of the publicity around the campaign, which has meant national media exposure on a weekly basis and a social media campaign which has been skilfully organised internally by TA’s from day one, and is now starting to project a clear message to thousands on a daily basis, Labour councillors are facing an extremely difficult situation. There are elections coming up in May, and presently, their name is mud. Maybe not in the circles that they move in, where no doubt they are still seen as the only realists, the saviours of the party. But outside that bubble, they are in deep, deep trouble. The clock is ticking, because it will soon be beyond salvage. They can’t win, because even if they did force the majority of TAs to sign the new contracts (with an inevitable large minority leaving the profession), they would always be remembered as the councillors who forced a huge, devastating, life changing pay cut on some of the worst paid, and most valued members of our community. Winning elections, where a couple of hundred votes can easily swing it, doesn’t quite fit with such a reputation.
So, what is to be done? It’s urgent, but actually quite simple. The Labour councillors who have some sort of survival instinct (and haven’t got their eye on their next career move) need to call a meeting with leader Simon Henig, his deputy Alan Napier, member for Corporate Services, Jane Brown and all those Cabinet members who’ve led this disastrous failure of a policy and demand that a solution is found as soon as possible. It may involve regrading – we don’t know exactly because that is part of the serious negotiations that we would all expect to have happened over the last year. If they had listened to those who advised this from the start, they wouldn’t be in the last chance saloon. But now they are, and what is required is not a stubborn refusal to see that reality, but an exit strategy. It’s there for the taking, if they want it and if they want to have any chance of saving the Labour group come May. But it demands of them that they challenge their leadership – something very few of them have done thus far. But you know, as the song goes, ‘It’s now or never…’