The meaning of the words, “to the greatest extent possible” is the question of the day. It is an important question because this phrase was emblazoned across the Brighton & Hove Green Party’s election manifesto in 2011 and it was put on many of their election leaflets too. Undoubtedly, it was used to distinguish the Greens from the local Labour Party, as if by way of a slight against the older party. The clear implication was that Labour had no bite left, like a toothless and deluded old derelict who could not be trusted to do much other than see his days out in a rest home for terminally confused politicians. The phrase was no technicality buried in the detail, it was emblazoned in capital letters in the most prominent position possible: the manifesto page entitled “PRIORITIES”, immediately after an introduction which said, “We can’t stop the cuts made at source by the Coalition, but we will fight them all the way and we will oppose any attempt to further privatise local services.“
All politicians love to spin the meaning of words, indeed it is very often true of many people who enter into any kind of contract (and all of the corporations these days). Although an election manifesto cannot be properly described as the sort of contract which, when breached, gives rise to actionable disputes in a court of law, nevertheless it does create a kind of covenant between party and people. The testing grounds for that covenant are the political actions taken between elections. The ballot box is the judge and jury.
How will the Green politicians be judged on their number one priority? If the Green council administration imposes cuts on its workforce and reduces public services, on the basis that they are nicer people to do it than anyone else, will the public say, ‘yes, we’d far rather these particular individuals imposed the public service cuts than some other individuals, we can’t blame them for making a promise that they couldn’t keep, that’s politics’? Will they turn out and vote for the Greens again, when they are indistinguishable from any of the other parties? Will they vote for anyone in the home for the politically sick or will they vote for some new party, as yet untarnished by the tawdy business of breach of trust?
When our political leaders promise brave police officers will defend us from knife wielding maniacs, we do not expect them to grab the knife from our assailants and join in the attack. We expect them to seize the knife and then the nutter who wanted to use it for something other than cutting up cheese. When police officers are overwhelmed by greater numbers or firepower, we don’t say, ‘oh well, what can you expect them to do? They might as well join in the rioting.’ We expect them to resist, even if that means that there is nothing in practical terms they can do. When whole neighbourhoods go up in flames, we look to see whether the police might have done something better to calm the situation but we don’t prosecute them for throwing petrol bombs.
When our political leaders promise us highly trained doctors and nurses will heal our injuries and care for us when we are sick with modern, properly equipped facilities, we don’t expect the doctors to devote their energies to killing us. If a disease or a disaster is too large for our medical services to cope with, we don’t say, ‘oh well, what can you expect the people in white coats to do? Their hospitals are being overwhelmed with all these dying people, they had better throw their towel in and just convert them into dead bodies as soon as possible.’ We expect them to work their hardest, even if that means that most people cannot be saved. We might investigate whether there was some improvement which can be made but we don’t blame our doctors and nurses for sinking ships, crashing vehicles or the outbreak of some new pathogen.
When our political leaders promise to resist cuts to public services and privatisation, “to the greatest extent possible“, we don’t expect them to restrict themselves to handing in a petition at Downing Street, making some fairly obvious efficiency savings and then managing the cuts themselves. Faced with massive cuts to public services, cynically imposed through local government to shift the blame onto other politicians, the public isn’t going to say, ‘oh well, what can you expect from our local representatives, we can’t be too hard on them, so what if they promised one thing and delivered another, we’ll carry on voting the way we voted before.’ It just doesn’t work like that.
Look at all the voting patterns you like and one striking fact emerges, faced by a political consensus between the parties, voters stay at home. Panicked by their apparent apathy, some politicians are now talking about making voting mandatory by law. It isn’t the public that is apathetic, it is the politicians. Never mind what it says on the outside of the tin, if the contents are always empty, we’ll stop going shopping altogether.
The history of politics shows that whenever a vacuum of ideas appears, someone or some idea will present itself into that space. In 2010 Caroline Lucas managed to win a narrow majority and get elected to the House of Commons to represent Brighton Pavilion. Her voice in Parliament was strikingly different from the chorus of boredom ringing around the rafters of Westminster. She immediately appealed to the entire country. She worked exceptionally hard and capitalised on her opportunity. The following year, Brighton & Hove turned to the Green Party in much bigger than expected numbers. They did that because they had heard Saint Caroline’s call for a different way to do politics and wanted more people like that.
If the Green Council decides to impose any form of austerity, it will lose the distinguishing features which set it apart from the other parties because, sadly, immediate economic policy matters more to most people than bicycle lanes. It will recreate the political vacuum and leave that space free for other political forces. There’s plenty around for the public to choose between: Left Unity perhaps, if it gets off to a good start, UKIP certainly, most worryingly the far right BNP. Many people won’t make an assessment of whether the new party they vote for will actually stop the cuts or not, they will just vote for something new, on the political rebound.
If the Green Council announces that it is comprised of nicer people than the Labour Party and thus better suited to impose the cuts which it said it would, “resist, to the greatest extent possible…” then it will be laughed out of public office. Personality types are not restricted to any one political parties, nor can they be. The consequences of a Green Council attempting to oversee any form of austerity will be disastrous for the party at large. Certainly, a number of Green Councillors will simply quit their support for the Green administration and collapse it. In every other election battle around the country, other parties will mock the Green’s hopeless attempt at radicalism, with considerable justification. The Greens will fail to elect new MPs and may well lose their shining example in Brighton, Caroline Lucas. Party membership will collapse.
Just as we blamed rioters for burning down buildings and knife wielding thugs for stabbings, we need everyone to blame the thieving Tory bastards for cuts to public services and privatisation. That’s the name of their game. However, if the Green Council now does their dirty work for them, the Greens will get the blame and rightly so. You have to take responsibility for what you do in life. You can’t blame others for your own choices. There are various policies which the Greens could choose to adopt to avoid austerity, all of which involve raising much more revenue. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly clear that the current Green administration doesn’t want to take those strategies. It doesn’t even want to consider them.
If the Greens cannot continue in public office without imposing cuts and/or privatisation, they need to step down and continue their promised resistance from elsewhere. The local Tories and the local Labour Party will have to take responsibility for their desired austerity, consistent with their political philosophies. They can attempt to defend it, whilst the Greens mount the resistance to the greatest extent possible.