Yesterday was a morning on which Brighton breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. After a week-long all out strike and a work-to-rule lasting weeks before that, the familiar sight of CityClean’s refuse trucks trundling around the city’s streets was hugely welcome; Brighton’s refuse workers getting on with the job of cleaning up, before voting on a new pay offer from the Council. The action isn’t over yet; the refuse workers still need to accept the revised offer in a ballot. But there’s a sense that this is the beginning of the end.
It’s potentially a defining moment for the politics of Brighton – a dispute in which the tectonic plates of Brighton politics have shifted perceptibly. First, the CityClean workers themselves; it appears that a strong, united stand by a group of key workers inside the public sector can win big concessions from their employer – and, moreover, can do so while receiving huge public support. I’ve not met many people who did not understand the injustice of cutting refuse workers’ take-home pay and did not back them wholeheartedly. It’s easy to forget that we get a great service from our Brighton binnies and the chaos on the streets of Brighton after a week without them is a salutary reminder of what the term “essential worker” really means. And the sight of people taking on the values of austerity lifted a lot of spirits around our city.
It’s been a traumatic time for Brighton’s Green Party. I’ve blogged before about the decision to renounce conduct of the pay modernisation negotiations to officers, and the events that followed it. During the last week there have been two open letters circulating – one originating from the Brighton Green Party and one from the Green Left – the former trying to place the issue in context and reminding us that a key cause of the dispute was the Tories’ failure to deal with the issue properly in 2009, the latter focussing on the individual role of Jason Kitcat. The Green Left letter looked to me like a disingenuous piece of point-missing; scapegoating Jason Kitcat for the administration’s decisions is a convenient way of ignoring the deeper and more fundamental problem – that there are two distinct political strands within the Green Party, the reformist and the radical, and that there are huge difficulties in reconciling the two. Time and time again this looked like a debate about what the Green Party is for. It’s a debate that a radical party must have, and focusing on individuals simply avoids that debate. The state of the Green Group of councillors’ reputation contrasts strongly with that of Caroline Lucas, who, as with the farce of the Seven Dials Elm Tree, has simply not put a foot wrong. (All right, sensitive souls might argue that handing out KitKats on the CityClean picket line tended towards the gratuitous). Not for the first time, though, the city’s Green MP has shown a political judgement and sureness of touch that has eluded a fair few of her comrades in the Green Group. It remains to be seen whether the administration’s current leadership can survive; there is a certain irony in the fact that, even though officers have led the negotiations on pay modernisation, it is the administration’s political leadership that has taken the flak – another reason why elected members should never delegate their powers to officers.
Against all this, there is the ongoing Hanover and Elm Grove by-election, being conducted in a Green stronghold but now – probably – not against a background of mounds of uncollected rubbish. It’s a fascinating contest, and shows another shift in the tectonic plates; real signs of Labour revival. A very strong Labour candidate with deep community roots, lots of people on the ground and – perhaps most significantly – reports that where two or three years ago Labour met hostility on the doorstep it is now at least getting a sympathetic hearing (one also hears of Greens claiming that the bins are not an issue on the doorstep. If they’re not, that’s just about the only place in Brighton where the bins weren’t being discussed – perhaps out of tact or an aversion to treading on private grief, or even a Basil Fawlty-esque determination Not To Mention The War). At the same time, there’s a sense that Labour are at a crossroads too: it is interesting that the first Labour leaflet was largely devoted to the thoughts of Lord Bassam, the eminence grise of Brighton Labour politics whose record in office – along with the vicious party infighting that surrounded it – is regarded by many as the principal factor in Labour’s decline in the city. Has Labour moved on sufficiently from those days? I’d be surprised if the Greens lost; but equally a strong Labour showing would be significant, suggesting that tides are turning – especially if Labour can leave its toxic past behind.
But there’s a much bigger question about to engulf Brighton’s municipal politics; the expected announcement that Government support for local authorities will be cut by a further 10% in 2015-16. It’s potentially a much bigger issue than CityClean pay and one that throws up huge challenges for all three of Brighton’s parties. For the Tories, it means that they will go into the 2015 elections with an unequivocal commitment to massive cuts and nowhere to hide; we are obviously in Easy Council territory, and other parties – if they have any sense – will challenge Tories all the way about what they will cut. Arguments about waste won’t work after years of cuts. But there’s a huge challenge for Labour too, because nationally it is committed to matching Tory spending targets – a point that Ed Miliband has reiterated today. Labour is beginning to develop its local policy narrative (curiously including park and ride, despite backing the City Plan that ruled it out, and in the face of the politically disastrous attempts to introduce it in the past in Brighton, and the huge body of evidence that except in special circumstances that just don’t exist in Brighton, it doesn’t work. But that’s another blog post.). How will an ambitious Labour Group, led from the Right of the party, craft a programme that effectively squares Labour’s national pledge to retain Tory cuts with an ambitious and progressive local programme? The same questions have the potential to blow open the differences between reformers and radicals in the Green Party. The Green manifesto in 2011 explicitly stated that Greens would protect the City as far as possible from Coalition cuts. You can argue about how far they have been able to do that, but after four years in administration and faced with further deep cuts going to the heart of the statutory functions of councils, there has to be a question of how far that stance is compatible with fundamental Green aims of sustainability and fairness. There are plenty who would argue that the point of compatibility has already been passed; moreover, how will that sit with the re-election on the same day of Caroline Lucas as almost a lone voice in Parliament against austerity economics? Jason Kitcat may or may not be Council Leader on polling day in 2015, but the issues that have defined his leadership and divided the Green Party will certainly not have gone away, least of all with Caroline Lucas articulating a defiantly anti-austerity message in the concurrent General Election campaign.
Again and again the big issues come back to national decisions about austerity economics, and the ability to articulate and deliver alternative narratives. The fundamental issue in the debate remains: who will challenge the austerity narrative, and who will accept it (or – perhaps – who will get away with detaching the wider austerity narrative from the daily issues of local politics). And that’s a debate that here in Brighton looks murkier than ever.