3 June 2013

Balls in their court now

Ed Balls speech this afternoon cements the marriage between Labour and the coalition, with a vow of austerity now, next year and beyond.

Those of you that know I was once in Labour, will also know the reason I left:

“As a young activist, working in a marginal constituency in London in the run up to the 1997 election, I met Blair and Brown. I listened as they explained how it would be different this time. While they pledged that they would match Tory spending plans in opposition, I convinced myself that when Labour did win the 1997 election they would look at the needs of everyday folk around the country and realise that we needed to transform our society. Once elected, with an overwhelming mandate, the timidity and the fear of change quickly left me disillusioned. I didn't renew my membership and I'm glad that I was not still in the Labour Party when a Labour leader decided to side with the most right wing American president in history to invade Iraq.”

Is the opposition anti-austerity in name only? Has the national Labour Party that brought about the Welfare State and which defied American pressure and stayed out of Vietnam gone? Yes, and it is with sadness I say that. The opposition is supposed to be there to reverse this austerity whirlpool that sucks demand out of the real economy. But what clearly matters to Ed & Ed, is that focus groups in marginal constituencies are satisfied about Labour’s economic competence. So we have new political phrases “zero based spending review”, “savings and switches” and the “balance of advantage”.

I don’t want to become overly partisan in this post. There are good people in Labour, genuine anti-austerity people, in Liverpool, the North West and around the country. Look at Peter Hain making some accurate observations about the dangers of ending universality of benefits. This isn’t a criticism of Labour members, but of the direction Labour as a national political force is taking, and it is also a reminder why the Greens, however imperfect we are, can be a force for positive change.

I remember a small CLP meeting in Mitcham and Morden, early in 1997, when Hain came to speak passionately about the difference a Labour government could make, even as Blair and Brown pledged to match Tory spending plans in the first year of a Labour government.

How many good Labour activists in the country hear people like Peter Hain speaking out, or see Tony Benn, still a member of the Labour Party, and think that even if Ed and Ed are wrong, they should stay loyal? In my opinion and my experience, that is the wrong conclusion.

The Greens are no longer just a protest party. We are wrestling with the difficulties of cuts as a minority administration in Brighton and Hove. Labour majority councils such as Liverpool and Manchester are doing the same, but there is a difference still. Whether it has been Liverpool or Brighton, the Greens have been prepared to make the argument that in local government we should use the only lever left available at a local level to protect services, which is to raise council tax.

Of course, you can look at what we advocated in our 2010 General Election manifesto. It was a costed approach to tax rises on the richest in order to pay for a Green New Deal and the revival of our economy. On the other hand, Labour had only raised taxes on the very richest at the end of 13 years in power, a missed opportunity and the reason why I had not stayed a member after 1998.

Yet at a local level, the Greens have been given an incredible rough ride over the single status issue by the GMB, who have been a major contributor to the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove. I’ve been clear that we cannot be seen as a party that is cutting the pay of workers by £4000 or blame GMB for fighting their corner. You’ve seen the huge emotions this has raised for us as a party in Brighton & Hove, as well as at a national level.

At the moment there is a lot of point scoring but no realistic solution coming from the Progress led Labour group on the issue. The biggest barrier as I see it to addressing the single status issue and the vital equalisation of pay between women and men at the same grades, is finding a “detriment free solution” (hat tip – Notes from a Broken Society) and that could only be found by having more money available for all the workers affected. That could only be achieved by making cuts in other areas.

That is exactly what is being proposed by Labour nationally today. Some areas of spending might get a boost (“savings and switches”) but it is a “zero based spending review”. It seems like Labour nationally won’t have the courage to fight the next election willing to even talk about taxation. We need to at least see a pledge to return higher rate taxation to 50%, but I fear we will not see that as a commitment.

Rewind to the 24th February 2012 and you’ll recall that Labour in Brighton and Hove joined with the Conservatives to vote down a council tax rise of 3.5% which would have prevented a further £3.6 million of cuts in each subsequent year. Let’s also acknowledge that this year a welcome but smaller 2% rise was agreed by Labour.

The difference is one of political direction. The Green administration and Jason Kitcat in particular, who has been singularly and personally attacked on this issue, might have had more flexibility to deal with this if the council had more spending power. The Greens made the difficult argument that council tax should rise above inflation but Labour voted with the Conservatives against it in 2012. While the door has been left open by the administration for any suggestions for improvement, rock / hard place seems to be the conclusion from those people I’ve spoken to about it. I’m not suggesting that the tax rise alone could have solved this issue, but it shows a clear political difference between the two parties.

Is it conceivable that if Labour had chosen from 1997 to be a braver, more redistributionist party, willing to talk about taxation and not beholden to the interests of the square mile and its unrestrained capitalism, we would be in a much different society today? Small choices can make a difference. If Labour members had revolted against their leadership in 2003 then we could have avoided a war that this Labour leader says was a mistake.

Today the two Eds should have come out to say that local government, particularly in our large urban areas, has been decimated by the cuts, and that progressive taxation on the well off would be used to rebuild local government budgets and restore services to people where they need them most. Where is the courage to stand up for the working classes in Britain at a time where a right wing populist movement is targeting voter frustration in the Labour heartlands?

History, much to my frustration, is repeating itself. I expect Labour to win a majority in 2015 as the UKIP protest vote splits the right, just as the SDP vote split the left in the 1980s. I expect an administration that is cautious and lacking vision, and I expect a backlash as voters realise that contrary to their expectations, austerity will be remaining with us under a Labour government. It worries me to think that UKIP will be the beneficiaries, but that isn’t necessarily going to be the case after 2015.

The Greens were barely registering in politics in 1997. In 2015 we are a small but growing force, with councillors, an MP and representation at most levels of government. There will be a need for a left of Labour alternative, from a party where more than 60% of the members earn less than the median wage.

We have a lot to do, and Brighton and Hove’s pay dispute is one of the big issues we have to deal with between now and then. The other challenges are to become a truly national party, by winning European representation outside London and the South East for the first time next year.

However the priority must be to ensure that Caroline Lucas is returned to Parliament as a Green MP, as someone that will stick to her principles and retain our voice to challenge the incoming government. We need someone to stand for an alternative and a better way forward. Caroline is continuing to do that as a local MP in the dispute in Brighton and Hove.

As I said, this is about political direction. Whatever criticism is being levelled at us as a party over the minority administration in Brighton and Hove, we are saying nationally that we want an end to the austerity, that local councils should not be getting forced into further cuts, and that there should be a new way forward, a Green New Deal. Throw in the fact that we are the only party that wants to scrap Trident and the white elephant that is HS2, then maybe a few Labour activists might save themselves the disappoint I experienced in 1997, and get involved in a party that is building for the future and the immense social and environmental challenges we are going to face from our changed and changing climate. More on this soon.

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