Earlier this year, Brighton and Hove City Council passed a motion of no confidence in its Green administration. The debate was a curious affair, illustrating much about Brighton and Hove politics; in particular the way in which, nominally about the record of the administration, it turned into a series of personal attacks on Labour’s leader Warren Morgan. It wasn’t pretty, although it left one with a clear picture of which party – and which leader – was really setting the political agenda in the city.
Among the more remarkable contributions was that of Green Deputy Leader Cllr Phelim McCafferty, whose speech was devoted, not to the problems facing the city and the Green administration’s record, but to an attack on Labour, ten years on, over the Iraq War. And this is not an isolated incident. In social media in particular, the Green Party’s Twitter warriors and other activists will resort to mention of Iraq on every conceivable occasion, in order to attack Labour (and you do not have to listen to very much of the rhetoric to realise that Greens, by and large, spend far more time and energy attacking Labour than they do the Tories). Criticise the Green administration in Brighton for its record on, say, rubbish collection, plummeting recycling rates or its penchant for pointless vanity projects and, sooner or later, a Green – more often than not from outside the city – will come along and mention the Iraq war. It’s a near-Pavlovian response.
Why do we hear so much about the war? There’s no doubt that the decision to go to war in Iraq was deeply traumatic for the Left, and many people in the Labour Party and beyond bitterly opposed it. They included the younger Ed Miliband, not yet an MP, all three of Brighton and Hove’s then Labour MPs, and huge numbers of Labour activists in the city and elsewhere. Many people left the Labour Party, some joining the Greens; some have since returned to Labour (I was incidentally completely opposed to the war, but was still a politically restricted civil servant at the time).
And time has moved on. The politicians responsible for the Iraq War, and the deceit that surrounded it, are all out of office. Eleven years on, Labour’s leadership can legitimately claim responsibility for ensuring that Britain did not become embroiled in the shooting war in Syria that Cameron clearly wanted; Ed Miliband taking a principled decision that had international implications, in the best traditions of Labour as an internationalist party. It’s a point worth remembering confronted with a Green party whose ambition seems to be limited to getting its sole MP on BBC Question Time almost as often as Nigel Farage.
But the iconic significance of the Iraq War remains. It’s the Greens’ answer to Godwin’s Law: sooner or later, when Greens cannot think of anything to say – in particular in defence of their dismal record in administration in Brighton and Hove – Iraq will be wheeled out in irrelevant justification, in an attempt to close the debate. Wicked Labour – more than a decade ago you went to war in Iraq, so nothing you say is valid. A puerile and utterly disreputable response from a party that in office in Brighton and Hove has treated administration as an exercise in hectoring, not in listening. It’s such an obvious deflection technique – and yet those who deploy it seem to think they’re being terribly clever. Just as the Tories continue to repeat their mantra about the mess that Labour left, Greens will continue to talk about Iraq without apparently realising its complete irrelevance to the issues facing people in this city: falling real pay, soaring living costs, recycling down by a sixth, an impending school places crisis, a desperate shortage of affordable housing, nearly half the children in some parts of the city living below the poverty line. Instead of squaring up to the problems they were elected to deal with, Brighton’s Greens will continue to preach sermons on events of a decade ago.
The Green Party in Brighton and Hove appears to be in terminal disarray. A mass exodus of its sitting Councillors and its complete inability to find replacement candidates, to the point where, according to the Brighton and Hove Independent, only 18 potential candidates have come forward for the 54 seats on the City Council; mass discontent over its record on delivering the basics in the city; a sitting MP who seems to regard her chances of re-election as being entirely dependent on convincing her electors that she’s not part of the party she once led; a party that tries to talk the talk on austerity while its Councillors dismiss the rising use of food banks in the city as something not worth spending officers’ time on. Little wonder they want to close down debate and scrutiny, or find a comforting narrative from the past to remind themselves that they once might have had ideals and ambitions.
So, between now and next May, I guess we’re going to be hearing a lot about Iraq. And increasingly I suspect it will fool nobody.