Greens, council tax plebiscites and the undermining of local democracy

Yesterday, following the Brighton and Hove Green administration’s announcement that it would seek a referendum to approve a 4.75% Council Tax rise, I wrote a quick blog post arguing that such a move was paradoxical; that, far from undermining austerity, such a policy entrenched it.

Given the response to that piece, I thought it was worth unpacking further the issues that arise from this decision.  The debate that has raged on Twitter and other social media since the announcement also begs all sorts of questions.  Greens (mostly, it must be said, from outside Brighton and Hove) have claimed that this is an exercise in local democracy; and the old claims about Labour being a party of cuts have been levelled once again.

First – and in contrast to what you might think from reading the exchanges on social media – Brighton and Hove Greens are still proposing a cuts budget.  And the issues around big council tax increases are being lost in the noise about democracy. There’s certainly a case for arguing that increases in Council Tax are a progressive form of taxation – that the spending that such increases allow benefits the poorest and most vulnerable most.  But at the same time any increase would take place against a background of soaring costs of living and steadily falling real pay.  It is all very well for the Greens – on the basis of their own  membership surveys overwhelmingly a party of the affluent upper middle class – to talk about a fiver a month.  But when people are having to choose between eating and heating their homes – and when even affluent-looking suburbia is stalked by a mounting sense of quiet desperation – it suggests a party deeply out of touch.  Yes, Labour authorities elsewehere have had to make appalling cuts.  They have also worked with rather more success than Brighton’s Greens at protecting the most vulnerable from the effects of those cuts, while taking forward progressive policy agendas.  Greens in Brighton might for example want to count the number of Labour authorities that have successfully introduced 20mph speed limits, or to look at the innovative waste management and recycling politics of Labour councils in London in particular.

And I think the democracy point is worth examining in some detail.  The Greens claim that the referendum is democracy in action.  But it’s not remotely as simple as that.  Democracy is a process, of which votes are one – essential – part.  And the point about plebiscites – of which this referendum is just one example – is that more often than not they are used to subvert democracy, not to further it.  They are often used to confirm spurious popular legitimacy when the aim is to circumvent the  normal democratic processes  and institutions . And they can also be used – as for example in the UK’s referendum on remaining in the European Community – to absolve politicians of the need to take responsibility for difficult and divisive decisions.  There has been a lot of rhetoric about letting people decide in Brighton and Hove, but the fact is the people of Brighton and Hove elect councillors to take those decisions,working within a legal framework. and then hold them periodically accountable at the ballot box.  And it’s worth remembering that the last time the ballot boxes were brought out in Brighton and Hove was in the Hanover and Elm Grove by-election, when voters in the Green Party’s heartland gave a pretty decisive verdict on the Green administration.  It’s worth asking the advocates of this referendum – would they support referendums on capital punishment? Ending immigration? Or, more locally, to unchain the Brighton motorist by ripping out the city’s cycle lanes, ending 20mph limits and halving parking charges?  And do they really believe that the record of this administration – currently failing to manage the second refuse collection crisis in under a year – is such that people will be prepared to vote through an increase in council tax?

Furthermore, the current debate is not just about spending in Brighton and Hove, but, because of decisions being taken in Whitehall, fundamentally about what local government is for.  The Coalition, in the form of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, is seeking to change local government fundamentally, in the name of localism. It has a deeply ideological  vision of local government that involves removing councils’ political role,  turning them into little more than commissioning bodies for minimal levels of services from private sector providers. And referendums on local spending aid that process; it’s about diminishing the role of local councillors by taking away their responsibility for setting local taxation and spending. Now of course under the current system those levels of spending are largely set by Whitehall because that is where much of the funding comes from (a reflection in itself of the fact that many of the things local authorities do are set out in statute), and there’s certainly a case for reviewing how that relationship works.  But the idea that taxation decisions are taken by referendum rather than by councillors diminishes the latter’s role. Greens are very good at deploying the word “neoliberal” in the direction of the Labour Party; but even those Greens who know what it means appear incapable of understanding how deeply neoliberal referendums on spending are.  This is the ideological world of the Tea Party; and of course it is Tory policy, designed to achieve what one assumes is the opposite of what Greens want to achieve – to undermine the institutions of local Government and drive more privatisation and outsourcing.  The reason why referendums are in the mix is because Tories see them as a way of driving down local government spending.  Greens may be about to learn that simple fact the hard way.

Moreover, in making brutal and progressive cuts to funding, Eric Pickles has set a political trap, aimed at dividing non-Tory authorities and trying to gain political advantage – and to further Pickles’ and his party donors’ agenda –  when Councillors refuse to set legal budgets.  It’s a trap that Labour councillors, taking agonising decisions, have not fallen into – because they know that retaining meaningful local Government and protecting the people who need local services  in the long term, means resisting the temptations of gesture politics.  However, Brighton and Hove’s Greens have walked right into that trap; with one Green councillor claiming on Twitter last night that Labour councils had taken the decisions they did because they lacked backbone.  That’s a disgraceful smear (which would be no less disgraceful if such attacks on the moral and political seriousness of Labour councillors were not being handed out by a Councillor who not only sought to stage a coup against her own leader but whose recent public appearances included protesting outside a local restaurant dressed as a duck).

And this begs the wider question – even in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that the administration wins a referendum, what would it achieve? Perhaps a temporary respite at most.  This is no more than a short-term fix, which would be the prelude to more cuts, more outsourcing, more privatisation, fewer and worse services in the long run.  True, it’s less hare-brained than the Progressive Council Tax wheeze, on which the Green Party wasted months of valuable austerity-fighting time.  But it will change nothing in Whitehall, which is where the big guns are.  It could buy a little time but at the price of accelerating the decline the Easy Council nirvana that Tories want.  What is certain is that the root causes of the funding crisis in Brighton and Hove and elsewhere will be addressed in Westminster, where the Green Party will, as now, have no influence after 2015.

And what happens if a referendum vote is lost?  Confusion reigns but it seems quite likely that it will deliver the Tory agenda of no council tax rise and maximum cuts.  It’s a gamble – the last desperate throw if the dice for an administration that has no credibility left.  And it’s a gamble that they appear overwhelmingly likely to lose.  Last night on Twitter, Brighton and Hove Greens were claiming that this was a sign of its new-found unity.  The question of whether a political party that finds unity in gambling in this way with the services for the most vulnerable is fit to run anything bigger than the office tea-kitty remained unasked and unanswered.

No wonder the Tories are quietly content.  The Brighton and Hove Greens have joined the Liberal Democrats in doing the Tories’ heavy lifting while engineering their own self-destruction, while furthering an agenda that paves the way for more cuts.

At the end of all of this, the choice for non-Tory Brighton and Hove is now much clearer – the politics of indulgent gesture (with or without duck costume) against the politics of collective responsibility and of … well, politics.  The point is that this is not just about austerity – to suggest that Labour in Brighton and Hove does not care about austerity is a vicious smear – but about strategy, and about trying to preserve local democracy and services in the long-term;  or to move down the Tory road of depoliticisation and plebiscites. The Green Party in Brighton – undiciplined, wholly fissiparous, and desperately confused – has chosen (and not for the first time) to underpin its vague and ungrounded  faux-radicalism with the methods and practise of Thatcherism.

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7 thoughts on “Greens, council tax plebiscites and the undermining of local democracy

  1. You use democracy in two ways, and then elide them. There’s democracy – a system in which the people hold power, and then another democracy, which is the way in which representative system have been developed to be one way of operating that system in these islands and elsewhere.

    You simply can’t say that referenda aren’t democratic; they just don’t conform to a version of representative democracy we have traditionally had in this country. It’s disingenuous of you to suggest that the latter is the only way to do the former, and that anything which isn’t the latter is somehow anti-democractic. It’s not; it’s just not part of the constitutional orthodoxy.

    And that’s a good thing; that constitutional orthodoxy has been an achilles heel of the left, especially Labour. It’s commitment to reforming capitalism stymied by reverence for the governance architecture of that state. In case you’ve not seen, that Westminister-driven constitutional orthodoxy has left us with trust and faith in the political process at a dangerously low level, so I’m genuinely flabbergasted that anyone, least of all a progressive person, would use it as a core foundational argument against this proposal.

    The real reason comes out in the incorrect assertion that the Greens are a party of the upper-middle class. This is really about the same old pointless hoary attempt by Labour to pretend that only it has the interests of the poorest at heart. Again, it’s incorrect, disingenuous about the class basis of the Labour Party’s own individual membership and – most importantly – completely irrelevant (unless you’re a workerist/labourist, which I kind of thought you more sophisticated than).

    Then there’s the strange idea that something else should have been done. I’m not sure what. Back in the 1980s, with a more active left dominant in Labour, they couldn’t even hold an anti-cuts line. If you think political circumstances are ripe for a reprise of that sorry affair, then you’re reading different runes to me.

    Behind the seemingly sound homily to build coaltitions against austerity, the fundamental problem is that people voted for a Tory government. There’s only so much that can be done in Brighton, and what’s being done here seems to be potentially transformatory. At the heart of Pickles’ case is the notion that people will be silly enough to fall for ostensibly lower taxes and not notice the stunning collapse in (generally very efficient) service provision. A coalition of the vested interests in local and central government – the people’s who have jobs within it – has singularly failed to do a damn thing for 30 years. The real coalition to be built here is in making the argument that this is foolhardy, and that the notion of collective public provision enjoys strong support, and the best way to do that isn’t to organise a rally with the usual suspects, but to take that case to people and invite them to support it. I’m pleased and delighted that we’re giving people an opportunity to do so, and I welcome it.

    My politics are based on the idea that people are good at heart, and that policies based on kindness rather than nastiness win out because people support them. If we’re wrong, then there’s a bigger issue issue at stake here, and to not want to engage in that argument seems to me to betray an idea that Labour, beneath it all, don’t believe that is the case. Their stealth taxes were predicated on Blair and Brown’s notion that people were anti-tax, anti-public provision and that the public sector and public provision had to be built by stealth. It’s a fundamentally dishonest strategy as it is ruinous, and we’re reaping the problems now. But the idea that if we have this vote, we’re bound to lose it is a bigger problem for progressive politics, but I don’t think it’s cut and dried. I’d like all the people who support public provision – greens, labour, trade unionists, liberals, the unaffiliated to be in a coalition against the toxicity of austerity on doorsteps and on the streets. Not flyering, stickering, rallying but engaging, arguing and winning. It’s sad that Labour’s orthodoxy would seem to deny us the chance.

  2. Very interesting post. I have a question. Surely as things are the right thing to do would be to increase council tax to fund services for the most vulnerable. But central government has capped the rises local authorities can impose at 2% without a referendum. So, regardless of the politics of it, isn’t a referendum the closest thing possible to the right thing to do?

  3. How can a referendum undermine local democracy?

    You appear to be arguing for lower taxes rather than services? Isn’t that a bit Tory?

    Yes lower taxes will help some who are struggling but the massive cut in services that will occur will hit jobs, pushing those made redundant into poverty and hit the most vulnerable who desperately need the services to exist.

    I fully support what the Greens are doing.

  4. Without the referendum we are STILL going to get savage cuts because Labour and the Tories want to toe the Westminster line and make a minimal increase in the council tax or freeze it. How is that a reasonable alternative?

  5. Pingback: No confidence: an epitaph for Green politics in Brighton and Hove | Notes from a Broken Society

  6. Pingback: Increasing council tax: more gesture politics from the Green Party | Notes from a Broken Society

  7. Pingback: Brighton’s Greens, Council Tax and a disgraceful act of moral blackmail | Notes from a Broken Society

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