It’s becoming a truism in Brighton and Hove that the city’s political crises unfold against a background of uncollected rubbish. Last summer’s crisis was of course all about refuse collection, and the dispute over council workers’ allowances; this time, as the ruling Green administration sets out its plans for a referendum on a 4.75% Council Tax rise, uncollected rubbish – for completely unrelated reasons – sits in the street. The image of a seagull picking at an uncollected refuse sack may turn out to be the epitaph for Green politics in Brighton and Hove.
And there seems to be little doubt that now is the time when epitaphs need to be written, with the Labour group on the Council proposing a motion of no-confidence in the administration at the Full Council meeting on 30 January. The proposal for a council tax increase of this magnitude is doomed to fail; the Greens’ reputation as a serious political party capable of running a medium-sized city is in tatters. What began with so much hope in 2011 – a promise of a new style of politics and resistance to austerity – now appears to be ending in complete failure.
In nearly three years in office, the list of failures is daunting – the CityClean dispute, the Seven Dials Elm Tree, the constant internal warfare inside the Green Party between Watermelon and Mango factions, the attempted coup against Jason Kitcat’s leadership, the Hanover and Elm Grove By-election – and now the decision to propose a referendum on a large Council Tax increase. And it is not just failures of policy: the experience of governing our city has cruelly exposed the Green methodology of “doing politics differently”. I have blogged about those systemic failures before but it’s worth summarising them once more.
First and foremost, there has been a failure of vision. What does the Green Party in Brighton and Hove stand for? Ask that question and you will get a range of answers – 20mph zones, higher parking charges, meat-free Mondays. Those are policy positions; probe further and ask for the strategic vision, and you will for the most part be met by silence. Or, more likely, ridicule and anger. Like Liberal Democrat community politicians – whom in method and approach they often resemble – they have discovered the hard way that Government is hard and testing, and requires something more than pure oppositionism.
Second, there has been a failure of competence. Greens claim to do politics differently: yet the administration has been a shambles. The recurrent refuse crises are just the tip of the iceberg; the record on recycling and air quality, core Green issues, is poor and lags badly behind other authorities. The Seven Dials Elm Tree episode probably marks the point where the Green administration turned into a laughing stock; a Green Council seeking to cut down a historical elm tree to facilitate a traffic scheme, a Green MP standing underneath it giving press conferences to save the tree, two Green Party activists camped in the tree, the Council Leader – in whose ward the tree was situated – nowhere to be seen and a councillor for the adjoining ward admitting to voting for the policy because she hadn’t read the papers. The politics of skipping the tragedy and moving straight to the farce, you might reasonably reflect.
And, as a self-proclaimed party of change, there has been a notable failure of advocacy. Take for example the policy of 20mph limits throughout the city – a popular policy implemented by many Labour and even some Tories councils elsewehere, but toxic here, because the administration has failed to sell it. It’s tempting to blame pressure groups like Unchain the Motorist, but the fact is that such groups have not sprung up in other cities and have not exercised anything like the same grip on the debate. Telling your electors they’re the problem has never been a productive way of doing things.
The latest moves to raise Council Tax display a failure that runs through the history of this administration – a failure of responsibility. Put simply, it’s a council’s job to set a budget. That’s what councillors are elected for. But then this is the same administration that sought to avoid responsibility in last summer’s Cityclean dispute, leaving crucial negotiations in the hands of officers. There appears to be an endemic culture within the Green Group of unwillingness to take tough decisions. It was obvious from the moment the Greens took office that they would need to deal with swingeing cuts – and indeed their manifesto gave a commitment to oppose cuts as far as they could. It’s not as if any of this came as a surprise. But here, as well as in the CityClean dispute, Greens chose to walk away from politics when the crunch came. It’s a fundamental failing.
And in the latest proposal for a Council Tax referendum, the Green Party continues to show a serious failure to understand the meaning of democracy. I have blogged before about how plebiscites are anti-politics, and how they play into the hands of people who want to undermine the processes that are such an essential part of democracy. The point about grown-up politics is that it often involves doing the right but unpopular thing; plebiscitary politics makes that immeasurably more difficult and plays into the hands of well-funded and well-organised lobby groups. In representative democracies it’s the job of politicians to make judgements. Yes, sometimes those judgements turn out to be wrong – obviously. But that’s life, and the alternatives tend to be rather worse. And even, in the depths of their naivety, does anyone in the Green Party seriously believe that Pickles’ introduction of council tax referendums in the Localism Act was designed to make councils more democratic? The terms of this particular piece of localism are set down entirely from the centre; even the wording on the ballot paper. This particular piece of democratic choice involves the Green administration effectively going cap in hand to Whitehall – a bit like a tousle-haired Oliver Twist asking Beadle Pickles for more.
And at heart the Greens have shown a failure to move beyond gesture politics – most notably in their ludicrous plans for a Progressive Council Tax. To place your claim to be opponents of austerity on this ill-conceived, completely unworkable and probably unlawful charade suggests a party that prefers the indulgence of protest to the mechanics of government – with the compromises that Government in a democracy inevitably entails. I have also blogged before about the limitations of Green politics in the context of the protests at Balcombe; the contrast between the Green comfort zone of protest and the demands of effecting real political change through democratic institutions. It’s a conflict the Green Party seems barely aware of, let alone close to resolving.
Moreover, for a party that claims to be the sole voice against austerity economics, its failure to oppose austerity and speak for the disadvantaged is particularly damning. It’s not just that the Green Party conference last autumn voted for an economic policy based on hardcore monetarist faddism; the current proposals to raise council tax by 4.75% reflect an inability of the Brighton party faithful – largely drawn from affluent professional backgrounds – to get their heads around the effects on so many of their fellow citizens. While it’s true that the overall effect of council tax is probably progressive, it is most deeply regressive for those just above the benefits level – the very people who have been hit hardest by austerity and have seen their standard of living fall the furthest. Yes, Caroline Lucas in Parliament and on BBC Question Time talks a good anti-austerity talk. But you do not become an anti-austerity party by supporting a tax rise that will raise £2.75m out of a total cut in grant of £24m, at a likely cost of £500k, with the burden falling hardest on some of the most vulnerable people in the city – people who have experienced forty months of soaring prices and steadily falling real pay, in a city whose living costs were already among the highest in Britain. At a time when many people in this city are choosing between eating and heating, and not just in its poorest areas either, to talk of a rise of “only” £6 per month is both breathtakingly out-of-touch and as potent a symbol as one could wish for of who the Green Party represents and comprises.
And finally, the Green Party’s internal structures – or lack of them – are symptomatic of a failure to move beyond the politics of personal indulgence. As I’ve blogged before, those who wield power and wealth are organised and united by networks that are often largely informal and massively pervasive. To take on that power – and effect real change – you need organisation and discipline. When you’re dealing with an entrenched establishment, one that is rapidly moving beyond even paying lip-service to democracy, they’re all you’ve got. Anything else is basically fancy dress outside foie-gras restaurants; picturesque, liable to produce a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, and utterly incapable of shifting the balance of power. Greens seem incapable of submitting to collective rules and discipline – they resent structure. And, internally, that lack of structure means that power relations inside the party mirror rather than challenge those outside. It is rumoured that this is the root cause for the mediation proposed last summer. Most extraordinary of all, a Green councillor who sought to enrol the help of the Labour leader in an attempt to oust her own Group Convenor is hailed in some Green corners as a hero. There is at the heart of all this, as I and others have written before, a basic culture of Thatcherite individualism: a reluctance to understand that politics is, at its heart, a collective enterprise.
Over the weekend, as a new Labour Party member rediscovering the joys of doorknocking, I spent some time on the doorstep in one of the Green Party’s wards, Preston Park. Time and time again, even here in what had been a Green stronghold, I found a hostility to the Green administration that was almost visceral. A little more than twelve hours earlier, Caroline Lucas had launched her re-election campaign; the city was due to be invaded by a small army of Young Greens to argue the case for the council tax increase. And the combination of those two events revealed a fundamental truth about the Green Party’s profile. Caroline Lucas remains one of Britain’s most respected voices on the left – outside Brighton and Hove. But in the only city in Britain where the Green Party has wielded power, voters appear desperate to get rid of it. A BBC opinion poll recently suggested the Greens would come third in the next local elections. So far, Caroline Lucas’ campaign has begun increasingly to look like one founded on distancing itself as far as possible from the Green Council – and gives every sign of being funded and staffed from outside the city. A recent leaflet posted to every household in the city barely mentions the council, or the Green Party. I did wonder whether this was the first time in which a Parliamentary candidate who had recently led her political party and remained a revered member of it sought so strenuously to avoid referring to that party on her election literature.
And yet the vote for Brighton Pavilion’s next MP cannot be divorced from the record of the Green Party in office in Kings House. Anyone can say fine things in opposition – especially as an opposition of one. But the failures I have listed above are endemic in the political method of the Green Party; most of all in its inability to understand the realities and responsibilities of speaking truth to power. The Green Party likes to accuse Labour of “neoliberalism” – but fails to recognise the irony that many Labour councils, unhindered by the Greens’ post-Thatcherite political methods, have, even at a time of austerity, and even while forced to make cuts every bit as agonising as those in Brighton and Hove, made real progress where they can in improving the lives of their citizens. And that includes what Greens regard as their flagship policies like the living wage. There is nothing that Brighton and Hove Greens can claim to have achieved that other authorities have not done elsewhere.
And Greens continue to talk of challenging austerity, in the city and beyond; they even appear to suggest that a Council Tax referendum could galvanise opposition to neoliberal thinking. But, quite simply, that pass has been sold. It’s too late. To lead a campaign against what remains the default thinking of the political establishment, you need to be credible and command respect; the Brighton and Hove Green Party isn’t and doesn’t. The time for building coalitions with those on the front line has passed, and, as the 20mph debacle has shown, the cruel fact is that the involvement of the Green Party can too easily turn potentially popular issues toxic. And it cannot be argued strongly enough – the reasons for that failure lie not just in political failures peculiar to Brighton, but in the way in which the Green Party seeks to conduct its politics.
I have said many times: to be green you have to be red, and to be red you have to be green. Issues of climate change, environmental justice, poverty, affluence and for whose benefit economic activity is carried on remain completely interwoven. And those are questions of political method as well as of political ends. It is the political method of the Green Party that has been found so desperately wanting in Brighton and Hove; and that is why, as a city, it sits so solidly behind the motion of No Confidence that will be presented to the Council on 30 January.