Last Thursday evening, Labour and Tories in Brighton collaborated to pass amendments to the Green administration’s proposed Budget that froze Council Tax – in contrast to the Green proposal for a 3.5% increase – and to make corresponding cuts. Following the vote in favour of the amendments, the Green group on the council – with one exception – voted to accept the amended budget.
It has been a matter of real controversy within the Green Party, both in Brighton and nationally – fortuitously the vote took place the day before the Green Party conference opened in Liverpool, and a motion critical of the Brighton and Hove Group was not debated in a move that has apparently deepened the controversy and led to resignations from the Party.
My immediate gut instinct was to side with those who argued that the Green group in Brighton could not continue in office having lost the Budget vote. It’s worth considering the background – the administration had embarked on one of the most comprehensive consultation exercises ever seen on a local authority budget, against the background of swingeing, ideologically-motivated cuts in central Government funding for local authorities. Moreover, the Green decision to support a modest Council Tax increase was taken against the background of what was effectively a bribe from central Government – get extra cash this year if you freeze council tax, but commit to funding cuts in the longer term.
Labour and Tories proposed near-identical amendments to the Budget (while denying collaboration, although if they didn’t the draft speaks eloquent volumes about the closeness of thinking between Labour and Tories in Brighton) and the Labour amendments were passed. Most of the Green group then voted for the amended Budget.
As I said, my gut feeling was that the Green administration could not carry on. But I now realise, on reflection, that their actions were right for the Party and right for the people of Brighton and Hove.
Had the Green group tried to vote against the amended Budget, their moral authority as an administration would have been finished. Every measure they proposed, every aspiration, would have been torn apart by Labour and the Tories and their friends in Brighton’s local media on the grounds that the administration had voted against giving itself the means to do so. It would have become a lame duck administration, its authority shot to pieces.
So why continue in administraion? If the Green administration resigned, the Tories would come to office. Brighton and Hove Tories:
- want every school in Brighton to become an academy;
- would overturn the city’s commitment to a living wage;
- support the privatisation of all Brighton’s care homes;
- would eviscerate the innovative Green proposals to improve Brighton’s public realm and make the city a liveable place;
and during the course of the debate
- supported nursery closures while attacking the decision of the Green administration to sell the Mayor’s personalised number plate;
- repeated the racist lie that the city is “awash with travellers” – an inflammatory fiction that Tory MPs and Councillors continue to push, in contrast to the adminstration’s aim to produce a long-term solution to the traveller issue;
- complained that the Green group contained too many incomers to the city (see previous bullet point);
- backed an illegal proposal to remove facility time from the Council’s unions (a measure which of course provides a consultative route that makes the council more efficient and saves money)
I am wondering quite why some critics in the wider Green Party – including those proposing motions at the Green Party conference – see the installation of an administration believing these things as the best way in which Green councillors could discharge their obligations to their electors. Of course, one can understand that none of them have had the experience of administration and the wider responsibilities that that brings; but they need to get beyond the belief that this is a theoretical debate. Like it or not, Brighton Greens took on the administration of the city in the full knowledge that they would be a minority administration facing years of cuts. The idea that you could walk away now on a point of principle and that the electorate would continue to have faith in you seems to me to be utterly misguided.
Could a minority Tory administration do all those things? Possibly not, but the chaos of trying to do so is not something that should be lightly dismissed. Moreover, how could we be sure that Labour would not back them? As I’ve written elsewhere (scroll down to comments) the really interesting thing about Labour in Brighton is the way that its rhetoric and politics has developed in a way that aligns them so closely with the Tory position on how local government is financed – indeed on what local government is for.
Those on low incomes are hit hard by cuts in services – while a coucil tax freeze favours the better-off. It’s a simple economic fact. In other words, Labour still claims to speak for the poor and vulnerable but in general is advocating policies that have precisely the opposite effect. And it appears to have bought into precisely the sort of low-tax rhetoric that Pickles uses to justify his assault on local authority power. One would like to think that Labour would know better – but recent history suggests otherwise (students of urban development will realise that Labour’s urban legacy in Government will be the erosion of local democracy, the privatisation of public space, the gated estate, the private mall and the CCTV camera – in the essentials of urban policy, as in so much else, Labour and Tory are increasingly indistinguishable).
So why the inconsistencies? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Labour in Brighton is still fighting the 2010 General Election, and still smarting at the fact that, having taken for granted that it would get the progressive vote in this city, it lost to a candidate who outflanked it on the left and continues to provide real opposition to the coalition in a way that the national Labour leadership just doesn’t appear to have the stomach for. It’s now indulding in toddler politics – still smarting over its defeat and throwing a toddler hissy fit that must be giving Brighton’s Tories quite a lot of quiet satisfaction. It looks very much like a group that has lost the will to argue for change and is content with throwing its toys around instead; and one that will do almost anything in its power to discredit the Greens. Labour may once have been a party that knew the difference between statesmanship and an emotional spasm but pronouncements from its leaders suggest that it’s really quite comfortable with a neoliberal tax and spending agenda and that attacking the Greens counts for far more than defending the vulnerable.
It seems to me that not the least of Labour’s offences – especially through its denial of collusion with the Tories – is to treat the electors of Brighton as if they were stupid. It contrasts very powerfully with the Green administration’s commitment to real consultation.
In this situation, it seems to me that however painful the decision to vote for the amended Budget – and it would not have been easy – and to carry on in administration, it was the right one and the one that does most to protect the interests and aspirations of the people who put their faith in the Party at last year’s Elections. To have walked away would have condemned the Party as a home of people who have nice fluffy ideas but run a mile when the going gets tough – and would seriously have undermined Caroline Lucas’ position as the only MP and Party Leader who is standing out against the three-party neoliberal consensus. I have every respect for the people within the Green Party who argue that the Group should have resigned, but I am very proud indeed of our Green Councillors in Brighton and Hove for continuing the fight for the values that I and thousands of others across our city voted for last May.