Last night I attended a meeting of the Green Party councillors in Brighton & Hove. This was the first time I attended this kind of meeting. Being a member of the Green Party entitles you to attend these meetings. I’ve always intended to get along to one. Last night I had a particular reason for attending. I can’t discuss the particular reason because the meeting was confidential. I don’t think the fact that the meeting took place was confidential because it was in Hove Town Hall. I took extensive notes during the meeting, so that I could check what I witnessed and make sure that I did not write about any of that. Therefore, this post is about what did not happen.
I did not attend all of the meeting. Unfortunately, I arrived a little late because my day’s grafting had been long and hard. As regular readers will know I’ve had my sleeves rolled up for the last ten weeks and have got dirty doing some hard, physical, work.
At some point in the meeting, I was obliged to leave because, well, I cannot say why. Suffice it to say that it was a very good reason though. Later on I was invited back in and I witnessed the very end of the meeting. The meeting concluded with a vote, as political meetings tend to. I don’t think I can be accused of breaking confidentiality by revealing that. No count or other record was made of the people voting against or the abstentions. Definitely that did not happen. I was sitting beside the chair, so there can be no mistake about this.
Clearly the Green Party is new to being in office. Our people have to learn fast and, inevitably, some mistakes are being made and consequent lessons being learnt. Inside our local party there is an ongoing constitutional review working group, to which I have been repeatedly invited, due to my legal skills & experience. I’d like to become involved but at the moment my hands are full of the dirty work mentioned already. No-one likes having their freedom to act curtailed by some rule which they weren’t previously aware of, although everyone agrees about the need for clear rules by which the party operates. Such rules create a fair framework for debate and decision making. If every member of the Green Party I ever met had a perfect understanding of the rules, I’d quit. Who’d want to a member of a party populated solely by lawyers? However, I did expect the Green Party councillors to record their decision properly.
I had other expectations too. I expected, for reasons that I cannot discuss, there to be a certain amount of heated discussion. The part of the meeting I witnessed, which was almost all of it, was completely free from fiery debate. I was surprised by the degree of civility deployed. After I was asked to leave the room and was standing outside, I could hear enough of the tone of what was said inside to be able to report that I did not hear any breakdown of social etiquette.
I’ve been in politics a long time, as a humble activist. In common with many members of the Green Party, I’ve been in another political party before. I was in the Labour Party in the early 1980s. I was elected to represent Preston Ward Labour Party on the General Management Committee of Brighton Labour Party. At the time, the local Labour Party had 2,500 members and its General Management Committee had 120 members. I was present at one meeting which decided that the Labour administration of Brighton Council (we hadn’t been surgically joined to Hove then) should adopt a particularly left-wing policy in respect of the local rates (a property tax). That meeting was packed – every single member turned up. There were strong arguments, insults, pleading and even some shouting. I’ll never forget the man who now calls himself Lord Steve Bassam, going red in the face with rage and making all sorts of diabolical remarks about the left-wingers. Hilariously, at one point he called them “philistines”. The contentious meeting was decided in favour of breaking the law by one vote – my vote, effectively. As I was entitled to do, after having heard the debate, I broke ranks with the other delegates from Preston Park ward and voted in favour of what the left-wingers were proposing. The Labour councillors simply ignored this decision. Despite it being very late at night, me being just past my 15th birthday and a mile & a half away from home, the Preston Park people who had given me a lift to the meeting obliged me to walk back! Literally, they abandoned a child who had disagreed with them! I’ve been in the Green Party ten years or so now. During that time I have seen contentious debates and, as you might expect, sometimes some heated opinion expressed. Wasn’t politics ever thus? However, last night I saw none of that.
I also didn’t see all the Green Party councillors. I expect the missing people were really busy elsewhere, doing valuable work for the party or their local residents. I expect that they gave their apologies at the beginning of the meeting, which I missed. However, I had expected them all to turn up. Perhaps I was naive? However, it is a plain fact that I did not see a majority of all the Green Councillors vote for the decision that was passed. Whilst elections and democratic votes are often carried out, for good reason, in these circumstances, for some reason I was troubled by the scenario. I think I expected better from the people I have personally worked to get elected. To be fair, they are in a minority administration and therefore each have more on their plate than governing parties would normally have. On top of that the other local parties are unfairly blaming them for the consequences of the international
capitalist ransom note, sorry austerity measures. The pressure is intense.
Then again, the pressure on us unelected people is intense too & we rightly expect our representatives to work for us and take that work seriously. I am reliably informed that there have been many meetings of the Green councillors in Brighton & Hove which have been inquorate. Assuming that is true, that is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. Attending these monthly meetings is part of, as I understand it, these people’s job descriptions. If it isn’t, it should be. It has become clear that some of the councillors are routinely absent from these meetings. Our party activists have worked very hard to get them elected but this attitude is contemptuous of us. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if all the councillors attended our local party general meetings but that doesn’t happen either. Of course, there special cases. I’m not making a blanket rule here. However, it is more than clear that having won an election, some of our councillors have lost their perspective on their political priorities. I hope that is a temporary aberration. We’re only one year into administration and it has been a hectic time. It will continue to be hectic but the dust is settling. The councillors who neglect their political allies can now be expected to attend these meetings. All of them (unless they’re ill). All the meetings.
Doubtless I will be criticised inside the Green Party for publishing this account of what I did not see. Generally people in the UK are disillusioned with politics, especially local politics. Low turnouts prove that. The common refrains are “they’re all the same” and “they can’t be trusted”. This has partly been caused by politicians repeatedly breaking their promises. No-one can accuse the Brighton & Hove Green Party councillors of doing that. They have stuck to their manifesto commitments, even when such policies have been hugely controversial (for example, the policy with respect to Travellers). However, there are other reasons why politicians are so distrusted.
One of the main reasons stems from the perception that the political class is in cahoots with the media class. Most people believe that these two groups collude to sew up our lives in a manner which suits their personal careers. “They’re all in it together.” The Leveson enquiry has revealed that this is not a false perception. There are too many secret meetings between these groups. There is far too much secrecy full stop.
Our local Green Party was recently threatened with “nastier” reportage by the little read local rag, the Brighton Argus, on the back of my private campaign against its crappy journalism. (Friday’s edition of The Evening Anus will contain a statistical survey proving unbalanced political reportage by the Brighton Argus.) Our external communications team discovered that I had published the threat and went berserk. I have seen numerous internal emails from one of that team, including a demand that I apologise (several emails were leaked to me, by more than one person), although when I met the author of those emails he smiled at me and made no such demand. He and I have exchanged private messages on twitter without reference to any of that. To date, neither he nor the Brighton Argus reporter who apparently made the threat have denied the veracity of the report. Whilst we might be able to understand the fear and loathing induced in our humble national politicians by the Murdoch empire, it is difficult to see why local politicians should be so afraid of the local rag. Especially when the Brighton Argus’s circulation figures are so low and falling. This kowtowing to a failed newspaper stems from a culturally embedded lack of confidence in the face of the established media. It ignores the facts of social networking and other digital information dissemination techniques. It also ignores the fact that our local media strategy should concentrate on the national papers, which are widely read amongst our highly educated population.
This cosy relationship between spin doctors and politicians has created more contempt for politics than most of the compromised promises. Our local Green Party must assert its control over its media crew (by which expression I intend to cover more than those formally in our external communications team), not lose its head to them. Our political success has arisen because we have been markedly different to the other parties. As with the Labour Party in Brighton in the mid-1980s, which won control of the local council after 154 years of rule by the thieving Tory bastards and three years of a hung council, we have been unafraid of standing radical candidates and encouraging them to speak their minds freely. This sort of political freedom encourages interest in politics. It gives voters a choice between the massed ranks of policy wonks in other parties and real people in ours. Voters like real people because they feel trust in them. Policy wonks are much less popular. Think of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. Then think of David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
If we make the same mistakes, we will become the same as them. Personally, I’d like to see our local Green Party councillors refuse interviews to the Brighton Argus and prevent its purchase in any public building. It has a poisonous effect on our community life. In common with much of the privately owned print media, it contributes to the interests of its advertisers (mainly car dealers) more than it contributes to community life. Let me be clear: there was no such discussion at yesterday’s meeting.
The local thieving Tory bastards erroneously call the Green Party marxist. Obviously they don’t have even the slightest grasp of what that actually means. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from the crucial political differences (notably our refusal to accept that the pursuit of endless material growth is possible), our organisational methods are different too. We have confidential meetings. Karl Marx ensured that every meeting he attended was public to all. A strategic decision was taken early on in his organisational work – which directly set up the first international labour movement – that there would be no secret meetings. Famously, he would often invite known police spies to sit at the front of meetings so that they could obtain an accurate record of who said what. I think this is a clever strategy. I think all Green Party meetings should be open to anyone to attend, though of course only Party members should be able to vote. At a stroke, this radical approach would wipe out all the effort wasted on pointlessly trying manipulate a hostile media. The public would learn that we were different from other parties in our approach to politics. We would build trust, rather than lose it.