Ask anyone in Britain today what they most dislike about our politicians and you will hear a consistent theme in all the answers: the political parties have strangled the process of politics, politicians put their party loyalty above all else and they cannot be trusted to keep their promises. In Brighton & Hove this weekend, this complaint echoes especially loudly. A prominent and much respected local councillor, Alex Phillips, attempted to build a consensus across the party divide between the Green Party, which she is a member of, and the Labour Party, to prevent a rogue Green administration from imposing pay cuts on council workers.
The current battle for the heart and soul of the Green Party is no secret. It is focused on Brighton & Hove, where the Greens muster most support. The struggle is dominated by what party members think about the style and leadership of one person: Jason Kitcat. It is worth noting that whilst other bloggers and the press routinely calls him the local party leader, in fact he is not. There is no local party leader. Mr Kitcat is the Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council. Those who support Mr Kitcat’s leadership say that all party members must rally around him for the sake of party unity and that he has been handed a poison chalice by being obliged to lead a minority party in times of austerity. Those opposed to his über managerialism have been growing in numbers over the last few months and now form the majority of the local party and roughly half of the local councillors.
Recently Mr Kitcat managed to win, narrowly, re-election as Convenor of the Green Group on the Council. However, immediately afterwards it was revealed that he had broken his very important and much repeated promise to his party and the Green Group. That promise concerned ongoing pay modernisation negotiations. Mr Kitcat’s administration chose to hand Council Officers total power over those negotiations and wash their hands of it. The broken promise was that the Green Group would be consulted before the new pay offer was announced. They were not.
In Italy, there was much disquiet about handing power to technocrats after a major financial crisis. Jason Kitcat’s administration has handed power over to technocrats before any crisis. His justification was that both Labour and the Tories failed to resolve the equality issues in the council pay structures and that there was nothing to suggest that he could do any better as an elected politician! Aside from the recent claim by Norman Tebbit that only marriage as traditionally defined by the Church of England could prevent him from wanting to marry his own son, it is the most bonkers statement of political belief anyone has ever heard of.
Mr Kitcat’s breach of trust unleashed a tidal wave of anger inside the local party and around the country because the Green administration appeared to be in breach of party policy by seeking to impose pay cuts. The local party convened an extraordinary general meeting which decided, by a substantial majority, to declare its support for the council workers against the administration and asked the administration to change its policy. Since that resolution was passed, distrust has continued to grow. Most party members, including almost half of the local Green councillors, now see the administration as traitors to their stated principles. There has been much discussion about what can be done to prevent Jason Kitcat from continuing to wield power in the council, so as to realign the administration with party policy.
It was in this context that Councillor Alex Phillips contacted Councillor Warren Morgan, the Leader of the local Labour Group of Councillors to see if he would support an alternative ‘candidate’ from the Green Group for Council Leader. She suggested that Labour support Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty (oddly, the local media cannot spell his name properly), who is the Deputy Council Leader. She used Twitter’s private direct messaging system to make the plea. She asked for the communication to remain private.
Her decision to make this effort has been called into question by one local blogger and some Green Party members. Essentially, they say that she’s misjudged the situation, because it is well known that Labour prefers to promote itself rather than its own policies.
That’s harsh. Had the attempt to build a consensus on the Left been successful, those councillors who would have been prepared to break party ranks would have been eulogised up and down the country. Rather than respond constructively to Alex Phillips’ private messages, Warren Morgan chose to publish them via the local Labour Party website. Here they are ~ read them from the bottom up:
Many Green Party members regard Alex Phillips’ actions as the stuff of the politically brave. Without doubt, she has confirmed herself as true leadership material. Despite all the risks to her standing within her tribe, she has stuck true to her principles. She has chosen to support the poor over and above her party.
It’s worth remembering which principle is in play here. It’s called solidarity.
Council workers who do the filthiest job in town, the street cleaners and the refuse collectors, are currently balloting for strike action to oppose the pay offer made by Council Officers. The local Green Party has already declared its support for them (in the Extraordinary General Meeting). With a slim majority of the administration apparently unwilling to follow party policy, Alex Phillips has taken a risk to try to right the wrongs already done. Had Phélim Mac Cafferty become Council Leader, the pay offer would have been withdrawn and the negotiations restarted with full political control of them. There is no doubt about that.
Whatever the merits of her judgement call, the real eye-opener has been how much Labour relishes division, even if that means pissing on its own supporters. Warren Morgan’s motivation for revealing the private messages was to show up the Greens as divided. Every party has differences of opinion. All of them are broad churches. Show me a party where everyone agrees about everything and I’ll show you a fascist party.
Labour’s entire election campaign last time around in Brighton & Hove (in 2011) was funded by the GMB, the very union now balloting for strike action. Without GMB funds, the local Labour Party could not have fought a city wide election. Labour persistently promises to help the poor, the disadvantaged and working people everywhere. Locally, it has launched tirade after tirade against the Greens on the basis that they are the same as the Tories, that they are all middle-class, that they are politically backward, that they support cutting the pay of the poorest workers. Yet here we see Labour being given an opportunity to protect the very people who form its natural constituency and instead of immediately achieving a clear political goal – protecting their pay – instead it chose to score petty points.
The GMB is a major funder of the Labour Party nationally. It is a strong trades union which has managed to weather the storm of Thatcherism reasonably well. This weekend its leadership will be asking serious questions about its continuing relationship with the Labour Party. Many people in the local Labour Party will now be asking themselves similar questions.
For many of us Greens, the correct position is straightforward. We have a clear party policy, which supports those who fought an election against us, because it is the right thing to do by our socialist principles.
Personally, I have just landed my first ever PAYE job (I’ve been self-employed until now). Last night, I joined the GMB online. Then I realised that I didn’t have any money in my bank account but luckily my wife also supports the trades union movement and she has lent me the subscription money until I get my first pay cheque. Joining a trades union is a fundamental human right and key to progressive politics. Now that the leadership of every party in my home town opposes working people, that’s more important than ever.