In the end it was a remarkably bloodless affair. Speeches by the group leaders followed by a series of votes, and, after the months of intense politics, Brighton and Hove Council had a budget: a council tax rise of 1.99% and the amendments passed at the previous week’s Budget Council to restore discretionary grants and some funding for Pride, along with transitionary funding for supported employer Able and Willing, and funding for carers’ breaks, added to the mix. The Mayor was able to close the meeting in less than an hour. Labour and the bulk of the Green Group voted for the Budget; Tories and four Greens (Alex Phillips, Phelim McCafferty, Ben Duncan and Liz Wakefield) voted against; three Greens abstained.
As the dust settles, it’s worth reflecting a little on the political fallout.
First, the Conservatives. It has been interesting to watch the Tory group coalescing around a series of very clear commitments as they have continued to argue for a zero council tax increase. The Tories have firmly committed themselves to radical privatisation and outsourcing – and comments from Tory councillors at last week’s meeting in particular showed how clearly they prioritise reducing costs over maintaining service quality (doubtless they would argue you could do both). Nobody could claim that the Tory vision for Brighton and Hove is not now very clear indeed; while speculation may continue about the leadership of the Tory group, it’s clear that any changes at the top would be about personalities, not politics.
Second, the Labour Party has emerged as the clear winner from this debate. The outcome agreed tonight effectively means that the smallest group on the City Council has set the agenda – a Council Tax rise of 1.99% plus the changes agreed at last week’s meeting is essentially the Labour line (of course this is not a Budget that Labour had built from scratch, and the priorities remain those of the administration). Labour leader Warren Morgan has taken a lot of flak and some abuse from Green opponents in particular; but he and his group emerge from this process with their credibility and authority enhanced.
Which is more than can be said for the Green group. Not a few people in the public gallery at the end of this meeting were asking – why could this package, fundamentally the same as was on offer a week ago, not have been agreed then – especially since the Green opponents amounted to a small number of what might loosely be termed the usual suspects? It’s fair to say that connoiseurs of Green splits might have expected something a little more dramatic. What has changed since last week? And indeed, the question arises – why have we spent months discussing the prospect of a referendum? The Green Party has issued a statement that talks about breaking the deadlock but simply does not explain what has changed in the past week in a budget process that the administration has managed over many months. In particular those Greens who voted for the Budget last night have much to do to convince the city that the late referendum proposal was anything more than gesture politics – a piece of posturing undertaken in the certain knowledge that Labour and Conservatives would oppose it, for different reasons. It would be interesting to hear what the Green Group believe they have gained. Moreover, a few weeks ago I wrote that one of the Brighton and Hove Greens’ fundamental problems was that after three years in office it is more, not less, difficult to be clear about what they stand for. Tonight’s vote, and the events leading up to it, are not exactly aids to clarity.
Ultimately, the essential fact is that a party that talks a lot about austerity was prepared to bring the City within hours of surrendering control to Eric Pickles’ consultants – and the slash-and-burn of local services and jobs that would follow – for the sake of making a political point. The Green referendum proposal was never a vote against austerity – it would have only offset a small proportion of the overall Whitehall cuts, at the price of an uncertain and expensive process designed by the Coalition to undermine, not bolster, local democracy. If it was seen as the way to unite Green councillors, MP and national Party leadership, tonight’s divided vote seems to have been an odd way of going about it. And perhaps it illustrated above all that, faced with the tragedy of austerity, the frivolity of gesutre politics is no response at all.