There’s an old political saw that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. As they come to the end of four years in office, and as they start the process of setting out their last budget, the peculiar genius of Brighton and Hove’s Green Party may well have been to turn that formulation on its head: last year was farce, but this year has tragedy written all over it.
For a second year running, the Greens are proposing a substantial increase in Council Tax – next year of 5.9% – that would require the approval of a referendum. And the arguments are largely the same; that an increase of this magnitude is needed to offset the effects of austerity.
And the same arguments against such a rise apply this year too: that it is an entrenchment of austerity, using legislation designed to reduce the power of local authorities and to reduce them to hollowed-out commissioning bodies of a skeleton level of local services, provided by the lowest bidder; that it avoids the responsibilities that Councillors are elected to take; that it will make no real difference to the cuts faced by the city; it will hit hardest those who on low incomes who have seen their real incomes fall dramatically, in a city with some of the highest living costs in Europe; and that it is more about gesture politics than about effecting real change. I blogged at some length about these changes last year
This year, however, there is a particularly distasteful twist.
As noted last year, a Council Tax referendum is hypothecated – the additional revenue from the Council Tax increase must be spent in a specified manner. Last year, the Greens put adult social care up for grabs – services that Labour had committed not to cut. This year, the Greens are gambling £4million of support for Council Tax relief – for reducing the council tax burden on the poorest households. They are challenging their political opponents effectively to back their tax rise or abandon some of the people on the lowest incomes in the city to a significant increase in their living costs, by increasing the proportion of Council Tax they pay from 8.5% to 25%
And it’s an act of moral blackmail. Quite simply, Council Tax support is at issue in this way because the Green administration has chosen to make it the issue. Other options were on the table, and the Greens have taken a quite conscious political decision to gamble Council Tax support on a referendum they know they are overwhelmingly likely to lose, while at the same time effectively endorsing Eric Pickles’ localism agenda. Green pet projects remain unscathed; and if the proposed Council Tax increase is defeated in a referendum those on Council Tax relief will take the full increase.
To repeat: Support for Council Tax in the City relief is at risk because of a conscious decision by a Green administration in its death-throes to make it the stake in an electoral gamble aimed at securing the only political ambition the city’s Greens have left – to re-elect Caroline Lucas (and to discredit the Labour Party in the process). They know they cannot win the Council Elections next year; half the Green Group is standing down, many simply no longer function as councillors, and they are struggling to find candidates for next year’s election. This is a piece of grandstanding, an act of political self-abuse by a party on the brink of electoral defeat, and which knows that the consequences of their decision will be borne by an incoming administration that they will not form.
Greens are quite good at talking about neoliberalism and austerity; the mask slipped when Jason Kitcat told the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee in July that 40% child poverty in East Brighton was “on target”, and when Greens opposed the monitoring of food bank use in the city. It has become increasingly obvious that the poorest and most vulnerable people in the city simply aren’t on the Greens’ radar.
As Neil Kinnock might have put it: do not be poor, do not be sick, do not be old, in a Green-administered city. The Brighton Greens simply see you as collateral damage, caught in the friendly fire of Caroline Lucas’ re-election campaign – a campaign that needs to portray itself to the people outside Brighton who will fund and staff it as standing against neoliberalism and austerity, in the sure knowledge that after next May the Green Party won’t be running the city.
At least the Green Party have flagged up – months in advance – what they see as the acceptable price of Caroline Lucas’ re-election. It remains to be seen how many of the many decent, progressive people who looked to the Greens for change in 2010 and 2011 will consider that a price worth paying.