After the farce, the tragedy. Following several days dominated by the furore caused by Green Cllr Ben Duncan’s tweet describing the armed forces as “hired killers”, and the discovery of an equally offensive Islamophobic tweet, the Brighton and Hove Green Party has today announced that it will seek a 5.9% Council Tax increase next year, claiming that this is needed to plug the shortfall left by Government cuts.
Apparently, some people never learn.
The City has already been down this route this year, when the Greens proposed a more modest tax increase of 4.75%. The arguments against that increase haven’t changed: it won’t plug the gap, it will increase uncertainty, it will involve an expensive referendum that the Greens won’t win, and above all it will mean a substantial increase in Council Tax – £100 per year – hitting some of the most vulnerable people in the city hardest at a time when real pay is continuing to fall and living costs are soaring. It remains a hypothcecated tax increase, putting essential services up for grabs rather than committing to protect them – it’s about walking away from the hard decisions that Councillors are elected to take. Last time, it was thrown out after maladroit political brinkmanship by the Green Group on the Council.
And this time round the Greens’ political position is much weaker. Jason Kitcat, their unloved leader, has announced he will quit city politics at the next election. The Greens are struggling to find candidates to fight the next election; it appears that they have only found enough candidates to fight barely half the vacancies. Nobody expects that there will be a Green administration in the city after 2015 – least of all the Greens themselves; but the 2015 Budget will set the context for a new administration. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that the Council voted to put a 5.9% increase to a referendum, it would take place on the same day as the General and City Council elections. Is Caroline Lucas really happy that she would be seeking re-election – apparently on an anti-austerity platform – on the same day that the city would be voting on her councils’s proposed council tax increase that would cause difficulties for some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens? Is “it’s only £2 per week” a slogan she’s happy to back in a city where thousands rely on food banks? I’d say that’s evidence the Greens know it won’t happen, and are just grandstanding. They’re conducting a dialogue with their own core supporter base – especially those outside the city who will provide the personnel and money for Lucas’ election campaign – rather than reaching out to the city as a whole.
And that provides the clue to the context. The Greens know they can’t deliver this; it is an electoral tactic, and is at heart about Caroline Lucas’ election campaign. It allows Greens to do what they have always done – which is to talk a fine talk about fighting austerity, while criticising their opponents, without the necessity to consider how in practical terms they’d change it or to mitigate its effects. As before, this is no more than gesture politics. Indeed, even the Greens’ favourite old chesnut of a progressive Council Tax – unworkable, probably illegal and requiring citizens to take a punt on a massive hike in Council Tax while applying for what would be a discretionary rebate – has re-emerged. And it suggests, once again, that the Greens have nothing left to offer. Why else would they resuscitate a scheme that was so decisively rejected by the city just three or four months ago? It seems increasingly that the Greens are conducting a conversation with themselves rather than engaging with the realities of life in city.
It is significant that this announcement comes on the same day that it has been revealed that the city’s recycling rates have fallen to a record low. The Green Party was elected on a pledge to increase recycling rates to 70% in the city – they’re now 25% and have fallen by a sixth since the party took office. The Greens promised a new secondary school for the city; instead they have opted for ideological squabbling. On the big issues, Labour continues to make the running – on rentals, on setting up a Fairness Commission, on stemming the systematic neglect of the City’s less favoured, peripheral areas and creating a genuinely inclusive city. Greens may want to use their Council Tax proposal to spend the next ten months spinning a line on austerity, but the reality of their record in the city cannot be wished away.
Having been a member of the Green Party, and having left in despair at its political methodology as well as its behaviour, it think the most angering thing about the Green political approach is its sheer self-indulgent frivolity. Faced with the huge problems facing the city – a chronic housing shortage, a looming shortage of school places, appalling traffic congestion and rubbish uncollected in the streets – all the Greens can do is grandstand and play blame games. They were elected to do a job, and simply haven’t done it – while Labour authorites, facing funding crises every bit as pressing, have, despite horrifically difficult decisions, got on with defending their citizens to the best of their ability, without the grandstanding, the infighting, the rank incompetence.
This year’s Budget debate showed that voters in Brighton, Hove and Portslade are being offered a clear choice between a Tory party that is committed to a radical programme of outsourcing and privatisation; a Green party that – at all levels – offers gesture politics rather than a serious approach to dealing with the city’s problems; and a Labour Party that will commit, in difficult times, to protecting the vulnerable and working for a fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable city. The Greens’ latest attack of gesture politics shows that nothing has changed.