Yesterday, the East Sussex Fire Authority voted through cuts that will mean job losses and the loss of fire appliances in Hastings and at the Preston Circus fire station in Brighton. Tories (though not those from Brighton and Hove), Liberal Democrats and UKIP – who chair the authority – combined to support the cuts. Greens and Labour opposed.
The evening before the crucial vote, the Vice-Chair of the Authority, Cllr Sven Rufus, a Green representing Hollingdean and Stanmer ward, resigned expressing opposition to the cuts. His place was taken at the vote by another Green City Councillor; the resignation made no difference to the vote. But – much as I respect Sven Rufus as an individual – his decision, and the way it has been presented as a principled stand by his party – once again indicates almost everything that is wrong with the Green political method.
The essential question is, has this resignation made a difference? Quite obviously not. By resigning before the crucial vote, Cllr Rufus absented himself from the decision. He has not been especially visible in the campaign to resist the cuts – which has largely been led by Kemptown Labour Candidate Nancy Platts and, having voted for the consultation on cuts, the unwhipped Greens have struggled to give any coherent view on whether they would oppose them in the actual vote. And there is a theme that runs through the history of Green administration – of avoiding difficult decisions. Far from being a demonstration of principle, Sven Rufus’ resignation is just the latest in a long line of cases of Green bottling – for example over the City Clean dispute or the aborted referendum over the council tax. Faced with the tough decisions that are the substance of politics, Greens walk away. They talk about austerity and even neoliberalism, but faced with the necessity for collective action they seem utterly impotent and take refuge in individual grandstanding instead. There’s no method, no discipline, no conception that politics is about fighting your corner, collectively, in difficult circumstances using the resources that office gives you.
Greens are much given to sneering about Labour being a party of cuts. But they ignore the fact that, in the face of coalition cuts, Labour councils up and down the country have fought a disciplined rearguard action to protect jobs and services. They cannot for now change the cuts, by passing motions or by grandiose council tax wheezes that just don’t add up; they roll up their sleeves and do the best job they can of protecting their vulnerable electors in the circumstances, while ensuring that in opposition nationally they do not promise more than they can deliver. It’s a more constructive, more honourable, more grounded and quite frankly more adult reaction than simply whining and taking to your soapbox while ducking the decisions you were elected to take. The Greens’ approach to office, as I have said here before, is really a sort of anti-politics. By privileging individualistic grandstanding over collective action, and walking away from the hard political heavy lifting, their political method is infused with the neoliberalism they affect to despise; it’s a politics that’s despairing and impotent in the face of real power. For all the fine words it leaves social and economic structures unchallenged – it changes nothing. It was R H Tawney, lifelong Labour supporter and one of my intellectual heroes, who wrote about how talk is nauseous without practice and how to kick over an idol you must first get off your knees. My own view is that it serious opposition to austerity comes through working for change within the mainstream, and understanding that you need to persuade rather than hector from the sidelines; less glamorous but ultimately more likely to succeed.
I have no doubt that Sven Rufus is sincerely opposed to the cuts. I think his position would have been stronger if he had stayed until after the vote, or had opposed the consultation in the first place. But by walking away from his job before the vote – and being hailed as a principled politician for doing so – he has exposed yet again the fundamental failings at the heart of the Green political method.