In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell invented the concept of duckspeak. It was a description for the act of speaking without thinking, like the quacking of a duck; when used in support of the party line it was seen as a good thing, a repetition of orthodoxy untainted by reference to the real world.
Listening to the speeches of Green Councillors in tonight’s full council budget debate in Brighton and Hove – ironically enough, most of all to Cllr Alex Phillips, better known for protesting against foie-gras in a duck costume than for attendance at Council meetings – Orwell’s Duckspeak came powerfully to mind. Time and time again one reflected that here were strong words being uttered about austerity that were both irrelevant to the issues under discussion in the Council chamber, but were actually intended for a different audience altogether – an audience of Green Party supporters and activists outside the city. The words conflicted powerfully with the reality of the votes taken on amendments to the Budget forwarded to the full Council – during which the Green group voted against restoring discretionary grants to voluntary organisations, funding for Pride and funding for homework clubs. Most of all, Green councillors voted against transition funding for Able and Willing, the supported business that Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett had visited only a few days beforehand – and that Lucas had praised so powerfully on her blog.
And, after the Green budget amendment for a 4.75% Council Tax increase had been voted down, Greens combined with Tories to vote down the entire budget. Only the Labour Group voted for the budget and the 2.2% increase associated with it.
Discussion on the Budget has now been adjourned for a week. But it is important to understand the political dynamic at work here.
First, Cllr Leo Littman, in presenting the Budget and the Green Group amendments, more or less predicted the outcome by indicating that the budget agreed by the Policy and Resources Committee – without the 4.75% council tax increase – was not one he supported politically. The Greens would doubtless argue that the almost unprecedented action of an administration to vote down its own budget was part of the wider battle against austerity.
And they would be wrong. Theirs was never an anti-austerity budget, even with the 4.75% Council Tax increase; nor could it ever have been. The simple fact is that the way local government finance works, Councils simply do not have the power to take on national Government policy – they are too dependent on Central Government finance. And even if it were possible, it would take an administration with a lot more moral authority than Brighton and Hove Greens to do so.
The reality is that this is about posturing. It is about convincing the Green Party – whose national conference takes place this weekend in Liverpool – to support the Council at a time when its mounting unpopularity is raising real questions about whether Caroline Lucas will retain her seat. It is about giving the appearance of fighting austerity when the reality is that the Green administration is divided and hopelessly out of its depth. It is about as cynical as politics gets. And it seems to me that it is designed almost exclusively for consumption outside the city – papering over the huge fault-lines in a Green Party that cannot decide whether it is a party of protest or a party of adult politics, and whose record in Brighton and Hove strongly suggests the former.
Tonight’s votes may garner approval and applause at the Green Party conference. But it is at the price of uncertainty in our city – uncertainty for people who depend on Council services, uncertainty for voluntary and community organisations over their grants, uncertainty for the people waiting for their Council Tax bills to arrive on their doormats. Is the price that the Brighton and Hove Green Party regards as appropriate to encouraging the out-of-town activists to come to Brighton Pavilion on whom Caroline Lucas is pinning her re-election hopes?
The city – and the electors of Brighton Pavilion – deserve so, so much better than this.