Cabinet meetings at Stoke-on-Trent City Council are usually brief, humdrum rubber-stamping exercises with little in the way of drama, or even meaningful debate.
Not so this week, as the cabinet met to agree the final proposals for £9.2 million of budget cuts.
Dozens of trade union members packed the public gallery, having taken part in a noisy demonstration outside Stoke Town Hall just prior to the meeting.
Their main gripe is the proposal to slash workers’ terms and conditions, which they claim could leave some people up to £5,000-a-year worse off.
And they weren’t shy about letting their feeling be known during the meeting, repeatedly heckling the cabinet members as they defended the budget cuts, despite warnings from council leader Abi Brown.
‘Shame on you!’ the union members shouted as they exited the council chamber following the end of the meeting.
If that was the end of the matter, and the worst council leaders could expect, I imagine they would count themselves lucky, with occasional barracking such as this simply being part of the job.
But things may get worse. Quite a bit worse, in fact.
For one thing, the budget still needs to be approved by the full council next Thursday.
Normally, when a council’s ruling group has a clear majority and good party discipline, this is simply a formality. Opposition councillors might spend two or three hours arguing the toss, but the final vote on the budget will never be in doubt.
The city council is currently run by a Conservative-City Independent coalition, with the Tories the larger of the two groups and therefore the senior partners – a reversal of the situation that existed before last year’s local elections.
While all the Conservative councillors will certainly vote in favour of the budget, it may be that the opposition Labour group believe they can peel off enough City Independents to make things interesting. The Indies, as their name implies, are a less regimented group than either the Tories or Labour, meaning a rebellion is always possible, in theory at least.
One thing that suggests there may be some sort of spanner thrown in the works is the fact that the council has pencilled in a ‘provisional’ cabinet meeting on the same day as the budget council meeting. The idea is that if the full council votes for a proposal which does not accord with the cabinet’s recommendation, the meeting will be adjourned so the cabinet can decide what to do next.
Of course, this may well be unnecessary, and the budget could get voted through as normal. But the existence of a contingency plan means there is at least the possibility that this won’t happen.
And even if the budget is approved, that may not be the end of it. The Unison, GMB and Unite unions say that if the council presses ahead with the pay cut, they will be balloting their members on further action, possibly even strike action.
It’s been a good few years since unions have taken such a combative stance in relation to the city council, despite the authority proposing, debating and approving austerity-driven budget cuts for a decade now.
The unions say that this year’s budget is ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and that ‘enough is enough’. That may well explain their current belligerence, as does the fact that the cut to T&Cs will hit their members in the pocket.
But I suspect that the current political situation in Stoke-on-Trent also has something to do with it, with a Tory-led coalition running the council and Conservative MPs holding all three city seats, along with a Conservative majority in Westminster. As GMB organiser Dave Warwick put it, with such a political alignment, the council ‘has finally run out of excuses’ and the unions have no reason to pull their punches.
So whatever happens at next week’s budget meeting, it seems that we’re set for some interesting times at the council.