The funding cuts faced by Brighton and Hove City Council are brutal. Cuts in central Government support mean that the council has to find £24m in “savings”; on the basis of leaked documents the local paper, the Argus, reports that budgets for the care of the elderly and disabled will be badly hit. There is no doubt that these cuts will have a serious impact on the well-being of many of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
The city’s minority Green administration was elected on a manifesto commitment to oppose cuts to the best of its ability. Faced with the need to set a budget that implements the latest cuts, one Green councillor – Ben Duncan – has said he will vote against such a budget and others are believed to be likely to do so. The old debate about whether a party that claims to oppose austerity should implement a cuts budget, one that has dogged Brighton and Hove Greens from the outset, is resurfacing. Groupings like the City’s People’s Assembly are calling for a vote against a cuts budget as part of a campaign of protest.
I find the arguments for voting down the budget unconvincing – a dangerous, simplistic, irresponsible and ultimately wholly self-induldgent response. And that does not mean that I have any sympathy for the cuts agenda: quite the reverse. But I think such a vote fundamentally misunderstands the political situation.
It’s important to understand where these cuts come from – a Conservative-led government, supported by Liberal Democrats (not that the latter have any relevance in Brighton politics), pursuing a political agenda that combines a failed economic ideology with a determination to ensure that local government becomes little more than a mechanism for procuring statutory-minimum services at lowest cost from the private sector.
And voting down a budget fails to recognise the consequences if the city does not set a legal budget. Central Government – which controls the purse-strings – would simply send in officials to supervise local officers in making the cuts anyway. And since those officials would be wholly accountable to the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, those cuts would be made without regard to the wishes and needs of local people.
And there are bigger issues at stake – issues that go well beyond Brighton and Hove. There is a convenient smear on some parts of the left that the acceptance of the need to make cuts by Labour authorities is a sign that Tories and Labour have the same agenda – but in fact it shows that exactly the opposite is the case. Labour in office introduced the 2003 Local Government Act which hugely increased the scope of local government – allowing local authorities to greatly widen the range of activities they could undertake for the benefit of their communities. Pickles wants to reverse that – the Tory localism agenda is at heart about turning local authorities into no more than commissioning bodies who would procure statutory minimum levels of service from private sector providers. Labour authorities who have had to set cuts budgets, often making desperately difficult decisions, know that failing to set legal budgets plays into the hands of the Easy Council cheerleaders. Pickles – and the Tory donors who provide outsourced services and who see localism as a massive potential driver of profit – are itching to take over a council. Think of how the combination of profligacy-bashing and political decisiveness will play in an election year to a party that is both rattled by Ed Miliband’s cost of living agenda on the one hand and running scared of UKIP on the other. Think of how this would play with a certain type of Tory MP – like our own Simon Kirby in Kemptown – who is looking to save his marginal seat by pretending that big economic and social issues are non-party political.
And consider the political background in Brighton and Hove. The rebel Greens seem to want to place themselves at the heart of a movement of popular resistance – but that particular pass was sold long ago. It’s too little, too late – perhaps there was a moment when that was possible when the current administration was elected in 2011, and their record in office is not the stuff of which popular resistance is made (Progressive Council Tax, anyone?). What electors see is a fissiparous and utterly divided party that has simply melted down under the pressures of office, with individual councillors having given up politics in favour of personal grandstanding. Surely the people who elected these councillors deserve better than this? They certainly deserve better than Eric Pickles’ commissioners. At heart this is an issue about responsibility and whether Councillors – some of who are apt to make free with words like “solidarity” – understand what that means.
And perhaps that is the least appealing aspect of the budget rejecters’ position – the knowledge that the only way in which they can make their personal stand without being responsible for something far worse than the current budget is if others do the political heavy lifting and vote for the budget. I have written before about how there is something rather Thatcherite about the way in which an unwhipped, undisciplined party conducts its politics – and this combination of individual gesture politics while running away from collective responsibility absolutely encapsulates that. There remains in my mind the question of whether it is politics at all. Watching the antics of some Green councillors since 2011, Aneurin Bevan’s contemptuous put-down – “And you call that statesmanship. I call it an emotional spasm” – has come to mind time and time again.
Perhaps the most important aspect of all this is that it is not a Brighton and Hove problem. We like to think we’re unique and special; we just aren’t. Politicians – mostly Labour of course but not entirely – have had to grapple with these problems elsewhere; and ultimately the issue won’t be settled here, but in Westminster and Whitehall, where the big decisions about spending and local government structures are made. What this means is that the big issues will be tackled nationally, through collective politics and as part of a much wider debate. It is perhaps fortuitous that the next local elections in the city and the General Election will be on the same day; that’s when the fundamental decisions about spending and tax will be made. And that begs the question of how the Green Party’s national response will stack up. Caroline Lucas certainly talks the talk about austerity (although it’s worth remembering that the Green Party is committed to full-reserve banking and hence, by definition, a deeply recessionary and regressive monetary policy) but will she support the budget rebels, or will she back the Councillors across parties who accept the need to set a budget that minimises the damage as far as it can? The issue of whether Pavilion has an MP after 2015 who advocates collective politics or the gesture politics of the Student Union is going to be pretty fundamental.
We need to be absolutely clear about the political dynamics of the Budget. Nobody – apart from the Tory party, and their two Brighton and Hove MPs who have loyally backed every austerity measure, and their donors in the outsourcing industry who see cuts as a driver of future profits – wants to set a budget with £24m in cuts. Yes, we in this city need to campaign long and hard, not just against these cuts, but against the austerity mindset behind the cost-of-living crisis. But the most vulnerable people in this city deserve so much better than gesture politics, and the proto-Thatcherite politics of individual grandstanding.