The decision of Brighton and Hove’s ruling Green administration to hold a referendum on a 4.75% Council Tax increase is being hailed by many – most of all outside Brighton – as a bold blow against austerity. It is nothing of the sort. By failing in its duty to seat a budget and instead to hold a referendum it probably won’t win it has undermined local democracy and ensured that the essential services that the Green administration was elected on a promise to protect will now be the collateral damage in the Tories’ war on councils.
Consider the implications. Leaving aside the issues around a rise of this level at a time when pay continues to fall and the cost of living continues to rise, what if the referendum does not deliver a council tax rise? Is there a Plan B to deal with the deeper cuts that would result from losing the referendum? Is it really fair to increase the uncertainty for those dependent on services in this way? Remember, this is an administration whose credibility is, after three years in office, shot to pieces – even if this referendum were a piece of serious politics, what hope have they of winning what will inevitably turn into a referendum on their administration?
But at the heart of this decision lies a paradox. Greens think they are attacking austerity; but by holding this referendum they are entrenching it. They are delivering exactly what Pickles wants – the principle that local accountability is exercised not through decisions in the town hall, but through plebiscites; all of a piece with the Tory view that local government is no more than a commissioning body for services at the lowest cost. It’s running away from political responsibility.
Moreover, the history of the Green administration gives vital clues to the motivation behind this decision. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that this is about papering over the cracks in a bitterly divided administration, with whose leaders the local MP is desperate to avoid public association. It’s what happens when a party of protest finds itself out of its depth, illustrating that, for all the rhetoric, it’s a party with no real taste for the political heavy lifting of opposing austerity; it’s the politics of diversion and adolescent gesture.
And it’s the moment when the Green Party finally demonstrated that it has lost the will to do serious politics, in Brighton and beyond.