To understand the enormity of what has been going on in Brighton Green politics, try explaining it to an intelligent, Leftish, non-Brighton colleague who can stand back from the issues. An administration elected on a mandate of minimising the effect of Coalition cuts, proudly working towards a living wage in a city with some of the highest living costs in Britain – which then, apparently in the name of equality and fairness, delegates decisions on equalising allowances that could lead to substantial cuts in the living standards of some of the city’s lowest paid workers to officers, with apparently no political control over the final decisions. At the same time, local Green MP Caroline Lucas remains – along with Plaid Cymru and a few dissident Labour MPs – just about the only Parliamentarian making a sustained and cogent attack on austerity economics, and has said that she will join the picket if there is industrial action over the pay cuts. Not for the first time, the only Green MP in Britain finds herself shovelling up the ordure left by apparently inexplicable decisions by the only Green-led council in Britain and has shown that she can judge the public mood in Brighton rather better than the Green administration. And the local Green Party, at a well-attended Emergency General Meeting, has voted decisively for a motion committing itself to campaign against pay cuts - a motion in whose support Caroline Lucas spoke forcefully and passionately.
Moreover, it runs the risk of revitalisng the Labour Party. For two years, Labour, still smarting from its displacement as the natural home of progressive Brighton, has failed to land a single substantial punch on the Green Party. Indeed, its 2012 Budget vote to back a council tax freeze at the expense of services remains one of Brighton politics’ more spectacular own goals; and its national policy to retain coalition cuts and possibly make more of its own has damaged its credibility further. Faced with its inability to provide a credible policy alternative it has tried to portray the Green administration as a gang of amiable incompetents not cut out for big boys’ politics – a dubious proposition, not just in the face of memories of Labour in office (the botched attempt to create an executive mayor; or the farcical attempt to rebrand North Street as Ocean Boulevard, and Labour’s petulant response when people laughed) but in the face of some impressive Green achievements like the living wage and the ability of the council to lure new money to the city for big transport and public realm improvements (or perhaps in the face of the suspicion that “big boys’ politics” means the sort of municipal Stalinism for which Brighton Labour was once notorious). But in the last year the Green administration’s record has begun to render Labour’s threadbare narrative credible – with the current split in the Green Party, the public admission that quite a lot of the Green council group has been out of the loop on key decisions, and the epic farce of the Seven Dials Elm Tree (a Green-led council threatening to fell an ancient and rare elm, the Green MP standing underneath it denouncing the decision and two Green activists camped in the branches of the tree).
Now of course it isn’t quite as simple as that – there is of course a lot of history and nuance behind the pay modernisation story, not least the political negligence by previous administrations (especially the previous Tory one, which appears to have failed to take forward the work that Labour in office started before 2007). But there’s that extraordinary decision to surrender political control over the process; as my colleague pointed out, put it like that and you have what looks like the only political leadership left anywhere that has Nick Clegg as its role model. It’s an intriguing thought: lefty Greens like to portray themselves as watermelons, green on the outside and red on the inside. Could this be mango politics, green on the outside but orange in the middle?
It’s very simple. Talking about fairness on the one hand while abdicating responsibility for threatening some of Brighton’s lowest-paid workers with a pay cut of £97 per week makes you look like a Liberal Democrat. Greens shouldn’t be in that game.
You could argue that this is an unfair caricature – although it’s one that is fairly current in Brighton and Hove right now – but the point is that there have to be important lessons to be learned from the Brighton pay debacle.
The first is quite simple – never, ever, abandon political responsibility for important decisions. Arguments that issues like this should have the politics taken out of them are simply wrong. Issues of pay and rewards are political to their core – and it is astonishing that a Council group apparently of the left could make this error. Yes, the background is that the current allowance structures are discriminatory, in that they distinguish between “male” and “female” gradings. Of course that’s unacceptable. But the moment you try to argue that these are not political decisions, and should be left to technocrats, you are playing the neoliberal game – whether you intend to or not. It’s what’s happening in Greece or Italy – and Greens should have no part in it. Whether you like it or not, officers’ decisions are not ideologically-neutral – especially when you are dealing with HR specialists who are trained to deal with issues of pay and conditions in a way that reflects the values of the corporate sector. Moreover, there is a clear conflict in this case with the Party’s Brighton election manifesto – which undertook to defend the City as far as it could from Coalition cuts. Now obviously this dispute was – is – not about reducing the City’s overall pay bill – but it is about some of the lowest paid people in the city, people who have been hit hardest by austerity economics. If the point of handing over control to officers was to avoid political opprobrium, it’s a strategy that has conspicuously failed. A sophist could argue that the letter of the Green manifesto had not been breached; a political realist would argue that the implications of a cut in take-home pay is all of a piece with the austerity agenda, especially when a failure by Government to provide local authorities with the resources for equal pay is a de facto cut.
Second, get your relationship with your officers sorted out. For me, as an ex-Civil Servant who has worked for both Labour and Tory Ministers of a wide range of abilities, the signs have been unmistakeable – key members of the Green Group have been going far too native. Their public pronouncements all too often sound like officers, not politicians speaking (like Jason Kitcat’s ill-judged tweet about the loss of allowances not really being a pay cut). I don’t imagine local government officers are so very different from Civil Servants and, like the Civil Service, I have every reason to think they are most effective when they have strong, decisive political leadership from elected politicians. I am not close to Green councillors’ interactions with officers but I have seen all too many of the symptoms – in particular the language in which some prominent Greens conduct their politics. I do not underestimate the difficulties of what they are doing – there were times in my Civil Service career when I wondered whether being a new Minister must be the worst bloody job on the planet – but quite a few of them manage to get the hang of it. Lawyers represent a particular problem; one of the most difficult things certainly that Ministers have to learn is that lawyers are there to facilitate the delivery of your policies within the law, not to tell you what you can’t do. In my Whitehall experience, it’s amazing how many ministers (and officials) don’t get that. Again, I have little reason to believe that local government is any different.
Third, this is not just a local Brighton and Hove issue. For the Green Party, anything that could jeopardise Caroline Lucas’ prospects of re-election is a national issue. It is with no disrespect to Natalie Bennett, doing a terrific job as Green Party leader, that I’d argue that Caroline Lucas remains the most prominent and most eloquent Green advocate we have – and the fact that she is doing that in Parliament, when our media are fixated on Westminster, only increases that importance. Greens outside Brighton are puzzled and angry about what has been happening in Brighton – not least because the Green Party is steadily building up its presence in local government, winning its first seats on a number of local authorities, with that unequivocal opposition to austerity at its heart. Recent policy decisions – and indeed the most recent election broadcast – are unequivocally confirming the Green Party as a party of the Left. Mango politics in the only Green local administration are damaging for the Party as a whole.
Fourth, never forget your party roots. I am not a very active member of the Green Party ( for various reasons it’s difficult for me to get to meetings) – but I keep abreast of debates and it’s clear that there is a chasm between the Party and the administration’s leadership. (There is also serious doubt – following some comments by Councillors on Twitter – that all of the Green Group were consulted or even aware of the ramifications of the decision to devolve to officers, or that the decision would not be remitted to Councillors for approval). Greens are supposed to be different; Greens are supposed to value consultation and democracy (and have taken quite a bit of flak from some Labour people for consulting too much). Green values are about how you conduct politics as well as outcomes, and one of the reasons for the rise of Brighton’s Greens is Brighton Labour’s history of vicious infighting. I have occasionally – on this blog and on Twitter – had occasion to ask Liberal Democrats whether the Coalition is what they really went into politics for; some Brighton Greens must have been asking themselves the same question. I have heard on so many occasions the argument that Greens in Brighton offered something new and different and now appear to be just another bunch of politicians. We cannot afford this perception to take root. If Brighton progressive people wanted just another bunch of politicians they’d have voted Labour. Green leaders need to reconnect with the activists who are struggling to defend the administration outside the Town Hall bubble.
All of this means that the Green Party in Brighton is at a crossroads. It can stand back now, take stock and try and get back to the idealism that led to its election – above all to take back the political initiative. There are good signs – a unanimous vote at the Housing Committee in favour of a Green amendment to the officers’ report that enshrines the Green policy of no bedroom-tax evictions; a vote remarkable for the fact that even Brighton and Hove’s Tories supported it. That’s a big Green win, and shows that the Green Party in Brighton has not lost its ability to be a game-changer on the Left.
What is needed now is hard strategic thinking. It is almost two years to the day before the Green councillors, and more importantly Caroline Lucas, will face elections. There have been some brilliant successes; by 2015 the city will look and feel different, with the 20mph limit and big transport schemes that have firmly shifted the balance towards cyclists and pedestrians. In a time of austerity, to deliver these and to bring new money into the city is a huge achiemement. But the Party’s electoral success will be largely down to whether it can learn some serious lessons from the pay modernisation debacle, an if it can recapture the idealism that made 2011 seem like a fresh start for the City.