On 5th May 2011 Brighton & Hove Green Party won 23 seats in the City Council elections, becoming the biggest party on the Council but without a majority of the seats. Only two other parties saw councillors elected: the Labour Party and thieving Tory bastards. Immediately after the elections, the local Labour Party publicly refused to co-operate with the Green Party by way of a coalition administration. The nasty party and the Labour Party declared that the Greens could form the Council administration, despite not commanding a majority of the votes for crucial decisions. The Greens accepted the challenge.
Council Tax Issue
On 23rd February 2012, the Greens presented their first budget to the Council, after an unprecedented and lengthy consultation period, by which they hoped to obtain maximum support for their financial policies. The UK’s national government had massively cut its support grant to all local authorities, which meant a gaping hole in the City’s finances. There would have to be cuts. Keen to prevent local authorities from raising council tax to overcome this economic problem the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, had offered them £3,000,000 if they did not raise local taxes. However this money was for one year only and didn’t come close to filling the void. Approximately 30 local authorities declared that they would raise council tax instead. Brighton & Hove City Council was the first to do so. The rest comprised both Labour and Conservative Party administrations. The tax rises range between a little over 2% to 3.5%. Any tax rises above 3.5% require public support in a referendum; naturally no local authority has embarked on that adventure.
Labour & Conservative Parties Defeat Green Budget
In the run up to Brighton & Hove City Council’s budget meeting on 23rd February, there was extensive debate about whether the Greens should be allowed to raise council tax by 3.5%. Unsurprisingly the Conservative Party (with 18 seats on the council) declared that they should not. More unusual was the Labour Party’s decision that they should not. Both parties proposed various amendments to the City budget. Labour refused to support the Conservative amendments which for procedural reasons had to be voted on first, safe in the knowledge that the Conservative Party would vote for the Labour Party amendments. This is exactly what happened. The Green’s budget proposals were therefore amended and all the councillors bar two voted the budget through. The exceptions were both Green councillors: Amy Kennedy has been seriously ill for some time and could not attend the meeting; Alex Phillips voted against the amended budget for reasons of conscience.
Internal Green Party Debate
A debate now rages inside the Green Party as to whether the Greens should continue in administration having had a budget imposed on them by an unholy alliance between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Yesterday the Green Party National Conference decided not to debate the issue, preferring instead to leave it to the local party in Brighton & Hove to reach its own conclusions. An extraordinary meeting of the Brighton & Hove Green Party has been convened for tomorrow evening to conclude party policy. There are strong arguments on either side, much passion and it will be a difficult meeting.
Those who propose remaining in office point to the problems with political credibility with taking office and then abandoning it. At least one Green cabinet member has declared that he would regard himself in serious difficulties in campaigning for re-election in his ward if he stepped down from office at the first sign of trouble (for the sake of party unity, I prefer not to name him here). The fact is, that even with the unacceptably large cuts now imposed, there is much that the Greens can do to demonstrate their integrity in office. The list is far too long to enunciate here but one classic example involves the Green Cabinet Member for Transport & Public Realm, Ian Davey, who has embarked on a substantial cycle lane creation programme. It is inconceivable that the other two parties would continue with this expenditure. The Tories’ love affair with car culture is so strong that they obsessed about a Green plan to sell a licence plate owned by the City in the budget debate (6th paragraph at that link).
Similarly the Labour Party has never grasped the key concepts of Green thinking, even those concerned with social justice. The autumnal debates about the merits of Occupy movement typified this: the Labour Party neither declared support nor opposition, whereas the Greens immediately declared full support. More worrying for long term Labour activists is the apparent disintegration of support for them from the trades unions, who fund their party and provide many of the boots on the ground at election time. This year GMB conference will be in Brighton. One third of the resolutions submitted to that conference ask for that union to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The national leaders of the trades unions have been taking a keen interest in Brighton & Hove’s politics. Locally, their support has turned from Labour to the Greens. This is a clear reflection of the Greens’ commitment to social justice and the absence of any such component in Labour Party policy. The Greens enjoy this support because they have introduced a Living Wage for the council staff and persuaded senior management to take pay cuts. Pay ratios in the City staff are now 11:1, compared the average ratio of 15:1 for local authorities in the UK.
Those who would step down from administration make the very cogent point that without the power to set their own budget, the Green administration will be damned by imposing cuts it promised to resist. Stepping down need not trigger bye-elections and incur unnecessary expenditure. All that has to happen is that the Labour and Conservative Parties be invited to form an administration. This logic of this political stand has a beautiful simplicity to it: since the other parties have given the Greens office but not power, the Greens should refuse responsibility for the hardships they promised not to impose.
Although Green councillors (and particularly the Cabinet members) might have some explaining to do on the doorsteps about why they started plans only to abandon them, the Labour and Conservative Parties would bear full responsibility for the cuts they have forced on the City’s services. Worse than that, they would have to work together. The Tories probably don’t mind that prospect; a prominent Conservative website recently proposed such a pact.
For almost everyone in the Labour Party such a prospect can only occur after the Devil himself makes contact to complain about the cold weather. Not only is it axiomatic that there is a long standing left-of-centre majority in the UK, the Labour Party has never done well in coalition and is now entrenched in its refusal of them. Forming an administration with the Tories in any shape or form, outside of total war conditions, will be unconscionable for Labour’s rank and file. Even those who didn’t leave because of the illegal war in Iraq, would be unable to continue. The Labour Party may be socially stupid but they are not suicidal. There will be no pact between them and the Tories.
No-one will resign their seat and trigger bye-elections over this tangle. The voters would rightly recognise that to be a massive waste of money and the councillor resigning would be defeated. Therefore, the Greens will not resign their seats.
Resigning office now creates the absurd position that the second biggest party would be in the running to form an administration: the Tories. No-one needs the dangers of handing office to them explained. They would happily form a minority administration.
The fact is that the legal arrangements for local government will change in April. The cabinet system will be replaced by the old style committee system. This may well force the Greens out of office in any event. Were the Greens to continue in office until then and be forced out by Labour and the Tories, the Green councillors can still fight their constituents corners with much clout. They can also fight the next set of elections with a solid political stall, setting out the raw truth that the Labour Party joined forces with the Tories to defeat the Green’s ability to wield power properly. That policy would appear hypocritical in view of their refusal to join the Greens in coalition yet still let them take office.
In the most recent local elections, every non-Tory doorstep I canvassed on expressed the same wish: that the Greens form a coalition with the Labour Party. Time and again I repeated our local party’s position to the voters: that we did not expect to win a full majority and would be happy to work with Labour. Before the election results were declared, overtures were made to the Labour Party. These were dismissed out of hand by the local Labour Party councillors. Throughout the formal council debate on the budget, the Greens urged the Labour Party to consider who their political friends are.
Democratic politics often forces compromise. That is one of its great strengths. The UK’s electoral system is deeply unfair in that it routinely produces majority administrations where there is no majority of opinion. Consequently we are unused to minority administrations, coalitions and the like. However, much of the rest of the democratic world expects their politicians to deal with their opponents. With a coalition government at Westminster, the public has once more tasted the soup of mixed political government. That particular joinder has proved poisonous for the Liberals, with more people now believing Elvis is still alive (8%) than are willing to vote for the Liberal Democrats (7%, although many will be the same people). The public have understandably turned against the Liberals because they attracted votes from the parts of the left-of-centre majority in country and then joined a very right-wing government. That is a very different recipe to the soupy menu facing Green and Labour voters in Brighton.
The time has come for the Labour Party to rethink its strategy to the Greens in Brighton & Hove. It either works with them or it faces political armageddon in the City because the alternative is giving power to the Tories. The Greens must repeat their previous offer to work with the Labour Party, to prevent the City being ruined by the thieving Tory bastards. The Green Party members who propose resigning office must ask themselves whether our people were elected to help the public with whatever resources they were given or to be as purist as possible? The answer is obviously the former. It is easy to criticise from the sidelines, without the responsibility of office. None of us wanted to be in this situation but politics has a knack of making life difficult for politicians. This is the time to bite the bullet, get through the operation of office and ask the voters for a different result next time around.