At yesterday’s full council meeting, the political game in Brighton and Hove changed. Following its defeat in the Hanover and Elm Grove by-election, the Green Party lost the casting vote on key committees – including the key Policy and Resources committee. In other words, to secure any policy decisions it is totally dependent on agreement with either Tories or Labour. More than ever before, the Green administration is in office but not in power. With only 22 months to go until the next local elections, that means that the Green Group, already weakened and divided, has effectively lost the ability to set its own agenda in the city. It’s a crucial development.
It’s compounded by the fact that there are few who would be willing to dispute that its handling of the recent City Clean dispute with refuse workers was a key reason why the Green Party lost Hanover and Elm Grove. The spectacle of a Green administration – with Tory support – handing over to officers the conduct of a key negotiation over pay and conditions of council workers has been hugely damaging. It goes to the heart of both the Green Party’s manifesto pledge to protect the city from the effects of austerity, and to its claim to do politics differently. The administration has only itself to blame.
I think to understand the problems that Brighton and Hove’s political parties face, it is essential to understand that the biggest issue facing this city – as well as everyone else – is that of austerity. How do we protect our city in the face of continued austerity, when the way in which local government is funded remains in the hands of Westminster, and when all the main Westminster parties are committed to an austerity agenda. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have committed Labour to acting within the constraints of the 2013 Comprehensive Spending Review, with contains an additional £2.1bn of cuts for local government; we have to assume that whatever the outcome of the 2015 General Election, Brighton and Hove, like every other local authority in the country, will be faced with further swingeing cuts.
What does this mean for Brighton’s political parties?
For the Green Party, the obvious risk is that its administration – already in deep trouble – will face a lingering slow death, unable to set the political agenda and at the mercy of other parties, and turning on itself in the face of the contradictions and conflicts inherent in that position. The City Clean dispute – and Labour’s determination to portray Greens as allied with Tories in making cuts – raise the spectre of a Green council limping on with Tory support before achieving merciful oblivion in 2015. Moreover, such a scenario risks the Genreal Election defeat of Caroline Lucas, almost the only voice in Parliament doing what Labour lacks the intellectual and moral courage to do – making a coherent and committed attack on the politics and economics of austerity. It seems increasingly that the only way in which Brighton and Hove Greens can get out of that scenario is by refusing to play the game further – by admitting that with last night’s realignment of power in the Council committee system, it can no longer carry out its manifesto pledge to protect the city from coalition cuts. Such an admission would sit uncomfortably with the managerialism that appears to pervade the Green Group’s leadership – and would also appear to hand the leadership of the city to the Tories, although they, too, would be dependent on other parties to rule, and such a situation would show how far Labour is prepared to abandon its tribalism for the greater good of the city – but it seems increasingly to be the only credible way out of this situation.
For Labour, the issues are different. At many levels, Labour would appear to be the main beneficiaries of last night’s changes – able to harry, and to protest noisily about cuts, without having to take any of the responsibility of running the city. But it still has to provide a coherent narrative about how, given the level of cuts proposed by the Coaltion and which its own leadership is fully committed to matching – it plans to defend the city from austerity. And that is a problem within Labour as well as for it; I simply do not know how many Labour members, many of whom would no doubt see themselves at the front-line of the battle against austerity, understand that Balls and Miliband have effectively committed them to defending George Osborne’s spending review. In other words, if Brighton and Hove Labour is serious about defending the city from cuts, it must – as a matter of simple logic – dissociate itself from, and commit itself to opposing and campaigning against, the economic policy of Labour’s Westminster leadership. Until it does so, it does not have the political or moral authority to attack the cuts that a Green administration must reluctantly make. Of course, it is very much easier for it to fudge that issue while the Green Party – whose own ideological opposition to austerity runs somewhat deeper than Labour’s (and more particularly that of the Labour right from which Brighton Labour is led) – is running an administration forced to make cuts.
Which leaves the Tories – who are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of all this: sitting pretty while progressives slug it out, their dream of an Easy Council being delivered by the current failure on the left to oppose austerity coherently. As ever, the neoliberal method depends on the left and centre doing the political heavy lifting. They may have little chance of being in office after 2015 – a Green collapse would overwhelmingly benefit Labour – but their rationality remains in power (as it memorably did when politicians delegated that political decision about staff pay to officers).
As I mentioned earlier, the game in Brighton and Hove has changed, but the political fundamentals haven’t. The real fight is about austerity and the absolute imperative for progressives in all parties to oppose it. In Brighton and Hove, both progressive parties appear conflicted; and, frankly, this is no time for tribalism. It is time to place austerity back at the heart of the political debate in this city.