The fate of the Green administration’s proposed 4.75% Council Tax rise will be settled in the next few days, with the crucial Policy and Resources Committee meeting on 13 February and the full Budget Council on 27th. The debate has continued: I was at the debate organised by the Brighton and Hove Independent last night in which the three party leaders debated the issue. It was a meeting that focussed on the issues of what cuts mean and how voluntary organisations would be affected; a large group of (subdued) Greens and smaller groups of Labour and Tories cheered on their respective leaders. And it was a debate that allowed the current position to be clarified.
The key developments are as follows:
The likely cost of the referendum has soared. Starting at £130k when the Green Group were briefing the media before the announcement, it has risen to £230k and now to £900k if the referendum is lost. So let’s understand the maths of this proposition. On a Council Budget of £750m the administration intends to spend nearly £1m on raising £2.75m to offset a £24m cut in central Government grant – a situation described by a local businessman at last night’s debate as “beyond parody”. In the face of quite a lot of public pieities from Greens about opposing austerity, it’s important to understand this context. And the way in which the numbers have changed illustrates one of this administration’s most persistent habits – that of spraying around unfounded figures to spin their arguments. It happened over parking at Christmas, over the ludicrous Progressive Council Tax proposal, and they’re doing it again now. One might be forgiven for thinking that if you’re serious about fighting austerity in hard times, deploying credible and grounded numbers would matter.
Second, Labour Leader Warren Morgan has taken the unusual step of explaining some of the proposed budget amendments in advance. They include restoring the funding to the supported employer for people with learning disabilities Able and Willing, restore the funding to community grants, and allocating funding to support the Pride parade – with funding provisionally identified funding to do that. But there’s a more fundamental point that emerged strongly in last night’s debate, when Cllr Morgan made clear that for Labour, adult social care would not have been out in line for the cuts. This matters because Jason Kitcat has already confirmed on Twitter that the Council Tax increase, in the unlikely event that a referendum succeeds, would be hypothecated. In other words, it is the Green Administration themselves, by the way they have constructed their budget, who have put funding for adult social care up for grabs. It’s a matter of political choice, not of fighting austerity.
Third, the Conservatives. Geoffrey Theobald appeared last night to be in a different room – possibly on a different planet – from the rest of the debate. Apart from repeating tired mantras about the deficit and the mess that Labour left (they booed the first time, booed louder the second time, and by the third time the deficit was mentioned – perhaps because he was answering some characteristically elliptical comments from Green Councillor Chris Hawtree – nobody appeared to care any more), Cllr Theobald repeatedly asserted that all council services should go for market testing. To the extent that he represents the collective views of the Tory group (Mary Mears was in the audience) the Tory agenda was laid very bare indeed – as if any reminder were needed.
So, as we go into the final few crucial council meetings, where does this leave us?
The most powerful impression was that when you unpack the arguments and the sequence of events, this remains fundamentally an issue about the Green Party – not about austerity, or cuts, or even about our city. The Brighton Green Group has for some while been the Mrs Rochester of the Green Party of England and Wales; the secret in the attic that nobody wanted to talk about. It is rumoured that any discussion of the administration’s record was banned at the Party’s National Executive; many Green activists were aghast at its performance – and mostly for the wrong reasons. They had more in common with the small coterie of Trots in last night’s audience, who talked about resisting cuts in that impassioned but vague way that informs the rhetoric of those who will never need to take responsibility for the implications of what they were saying. The referendum proposal – cobbled together in the knowledge that it would never be put into effect – was about face-saving; about patching over the huge fault-lines in the Green Party at a time when their only MP looked increasingly at risk.
I find it increasingly difficult to see the proposed Council Tax referendum as anything other than the most cynical politics; a party that cannot decide whether it is a party of protest or a party of Government trying to unify itself by the gamble of putting adult social care up for grabs in a referendum they know won’t happen, in the hope that they can pass the blame on to the other parties. And, far from striking a blow against austerity, this is precisely the kind of politics that entrenches it. I am one of those who argues strongly and I hope cogently for an economic approach based on increasing government expenditure and stimulating the economy through capital spending in particular – but, as with the 20mph speed limit in the city, the Green Party’s indiscipline, its lack of vision and – in the context of the Council Tax increase – its sheer apparent cynicism over social care, is actually toxifying the debate. It makes it more difficult, not less, to argue the case against austerity, because it becomes tainted with the Greens’ incoherent political methodology.
Behind all of this lies the fundamental problem – a Coalition government hell-bent on dismantling local government as we understand it, and to outsource and privatise and cut. We cannot allow that case to go by default by playing student politics with the City’s Budget.