It’s been a day of extraordinary developments in the ongoing saga of Brighton’s minority Green administration and the fallout from the city’s pay modernisation debate. Today saw the Council’s Annual Meeting at which the Leader and Mayor are elected – an occasion more notable for its formality than controversy. Not today.
The big event has been Labour breaking the news that a substantial number of Green councillors had apparently been involved (or at least complicit) in soliciting Labour votes to topple the current Council Leader and convenor of the Green Group, Jason Kitcat. Labour’s press notice includes a screenshot of an exchange Twitter direct messages between Green Cllr Alex Phillips and the newly-elected Labour Group leader, Cllr Warren Morgan, in which Cllr Phillips appears to be asking whether Labour would support the candidacy of Cllr Phelim McCafferty – and indeed be prepared to nominate him for the leadership. Predictably Labour refused to muddy their hands with such things and are now arguing that this shows that the Green Group are hopelessly divided and incapable of leading the city.
At one level, you have to see their point. I do not know any of the background to what has happened, but if you take it at face value (and that Twitter exchange suggests that one must), then, leaving aside questions of loyalty and honesty, it was above all an extraordinarily stupid thing to do. It is no secret that the Green Party is deeply divided over the administration’s decision (not Cllr Kitcat’s alone, incidentally) to hand over responsibility for the pay modernisation to officers. I’ve argued before that it was a dreadful error of judgement and I know that many others far more active in the Green Party than I am share that view.
But seriously to expect that leaders of other parties would be willing to help the Green Group out of the hole it has dug for itself just beggars belief. Labour’s interest obviously lies in keeping the Brighton Green Party in office, in a minority, and divided – especially with the higher task of reclaiming Brighton Pavilion for the Westminster consensus in mind. Moreover, what sort of legitimacy would a Green council leader dependent on other parties’ votes for office have, especially when Jason Kitcat has just been re-elected unopposed as Green Group convenor? Did they really think that this would lead to a situation in which the party – let alone the Green Group – would be more united and able to campaign more effectively? That the divisions would just go away with a new leader in place?
Moreover, did they really think that they could trust Labour? Those of us with long Brighton memories know that Brighton Labour has traditionally had the political decorum and moral fastidiousness of a gang of rats fighting over a discarded piece of burger in a Preston Street sewer. Making the approach on Twitter compounds the error – even by DM in confidence. When I was a Civil Servant, a very wise senior colleague promoted the rule of thumb that you should never write anything in an internal email you would not prepare to have read out in court – a principle that could equally apply to politicians and Twitter. The Brighton Green Party is full of ex-Labour members; there’s no excuse for not knowing your opponent, and it is difficult to see the Twitter exchange as anything other than astonishingly naive.
However, Labour does not emerge well from this, and may in the long run be the bigger loser. That Twitter screenshot is something that may come to haunt Warren Morgan. After all, Alex Phillips made it clear that the exchange was meant to be confidential. Now I think that the Green Group has made some errors of judgement, but nobody has ever suggested that Jason Kitcat is anything other than a man of complete personal integrity. Personal conduct matters and Cllr Morgan’s publication of that confidential Twitter exchange will inevitably raise questions about trust and betrayal of confidence. It’s one thing to campaign vigorously – as leader of Brighton and Hove’s third party that’s his job – but there is a sense here of lines being crossed. I think the public interest defence some Labour people have deployed looks very much like a post-hoc rationalisation of some distinctly shabby behaviour. My guess is that people won’t forget that and that he’s done himself personally no favours.
More interesting is the way in which this plays against the background of the pay modernisation. There have been some fairly caustic tweets from the @gmbcityclean account this evening, representing the view of Cityclean workers threatened by the loss of allowances, arguing that Cllr Morgan has botched an attempt to get rid of Cllr Kitcat, who is apparently seen as the enemy (these are the same workers who gave Caroline Lucas such a rousing reception when she visited their depot). I don’t think that’s necessarily true, as I don’t think the politics would ever have happened, but there is clearly tension there.
And there is history. The Cityclean workers are members of the GMB – the union that at one stage was seeking the banning of the Blairite Progress Group from the Labour Party. Cllr Morgan is a prominent supporter of Progress and at one stage ran for executive office. It is a commonplace in some circles to describe the local GMB as the industrial wing of Brighton Labour, but given Cllr Morgan’s alignment with what one might call Labour’s Dodgy Dossier tendency one wonders whether this exchange was the result of deeper tensions between Party and Union. Who do council staff threatened with loss of income really trust to defend their interests – their unequivocally anti-austerity MP or Labour’s Blairite group leader? While Caroline Lucas has provided almost a lone voice in Parliament against austerity, Cllr Morgan remains aligned with a group that is undermining even Ed Miliband’s lukewarm will to challenge austerity economics.
Despite everything I’ve written above, I haven’t written off the Green administration. If the Green Group, led by Jason Kitcat as the duly elected Convenor, can regain the political initiative over the pay modernisation and take political responsibility for finding a detriment-free solution, the situation in Brighton will change. But today’s events leave Labour exposed. Most of all – while Caroline Lucas continues to blaze a trail against austerity in Parliament, it is Labour and its explicitly Blairite local leadership that will be answering the awkward questions come 2015.