27 August 2013

A Green Vote - What Should it Mean?

Last year I stood as a candidate to lead the Green Party. The excellent Natalie Bennett was the winner in that contest, and has brought her organisation and strategic vision to the leader role. In the next two years we face a really important set of elections and it is crucial that we make progress as a political party. With Caroline Lucas demonstrating time and again how essential she is to British politics, the rest of us need to work on delivering the progress we need.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what we must stand for as a party and how we articulate that. I nailed my flag to the mast during the leadership contest. I stood as an anti-austerity candidate and I would not change that. It reflects my view, as someone who lived in two council houses and saw the effects of unemployment when I was growing up.

Those parties to the left of the Greens, by which I mean TUSC or the SLP, will argue that there should be no cuts and that we should not hold power at a time when cuts are being implemented. There is a certain logic to this. If all Labour councils and the single minority Green administration were to threaten to give up administration at a council level, rather than implement cuts, it would have a significant political impact. A single council alone would be picked off, isolated and defeated. Whatever claims are made about militant running Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, the legacy here is clear, with not a single Socialist Party councillor in the city, and the well known Tony Mulhearn still not gaining enough votes to save his deposit in the Mayoral election last year.

So those to the left of the Greens will criticise us for implementing cuts in Brighton and Hove. There is no argument that Greens like myself, who are Trade Unionists with a working class background, can make that change the choices we’ve made. However the criticism that there was not a strong attempt by the Greens to resist cuts is wrong. There was a honeymoon period. In the first six months of the Green administration, the Greens proposed the end of the second home discount for council tax (which would have raised £177,000 in Brighton). In April of 2013, this was scrapped by the government. A small victory that will only now have a positive effect. The Green Party implemented the Living Wage in Brighton and Hove.

Readers will also recall the controversy over the first Green budget, where the Greens were proposing a 3.5% increase in council tax to raise money and defend services with the limited power left with councils. The then Green leader of the council, Bill Randall, argued in this piece that a rise was the right thing to do. Any larger council tax rise would have needed a referendum, which given the leaning of the local press, would not stand much chance of being won. The Greens were backed in this move by the GMB. It was Brighton and Hove as a Green council who spoke out on this and defied the pressure being heaped on them by Eric Pickles. Bill Randall wrote to 18 other councils (out of about 430 nationally) that were also considering a rise, asking for a united front.

So a much less ambitious plan, to partially reduce the cuts through a council tax increase, demonstrated that the Green Party in running a council, were willing to defy the level of cuts that the Tory and Lib Dem national government were forcing upon local councils. What happened next is well document by this Red Pepper article. The Labour group on the council voted with the Conservatives to vote down the increase. The following year Labour in Brighton agreed to a small increase.

There has been a lot going on in Brighton and Hove since then, including the damaging bin strike. After a full week of strike action, further negotiations finally resulted in a settlement. There is no doubt that the effect of this strike has been to damage the image of the Greens on the left. While we have experienced industrial action here in Liverpool, the fact that the service is contracted out largely immunised the Labour council and mayor from any blame, even though in my road and many others, bins went uncollected for three weeks. In what has normally been a safe Green seat in Hanover and Elm Grove, we lost a byelection by a narrow margin.

Things are hard in local government and as a minority administration, now down to 21 councillors out of 54, it’s clear that the remaining 21 months in power will be challenging, so what should we seek to be achieving? What benefit must be shown from electing a Green council? The idea floated by members about a Progressive Council Tax should be explored for viability but we must recognise that once again, a go-it-alone approach, without a number of other councils adopting our proposal, will be ruthlessly targeted for destruction.

So there has been a commitment from Greens to equality and social justice in council, even in times of austerity and central government cuts. We won't have satisfied our critics both to the left of the Greens who are small in number but vociferous, or to the right, which includes Labour and the rest of the political establishment.

What else matters? Well for starters, 44 out of the 46 air quality stations in Brighton and Hove are showing an improvement, with one of the two that hasn’t being one that is central and affected by the increase in public transport. Recycling in the city is slightly down, much to the joy of Labour (who have refused to apologise or remove the statement on emissions which is factually wrong), but this is based on the policies inherited two years ago. The plan for communal recycling in the city centre is expected to raise rates 3%.

Our record in Brighton and Hove will be measure in two years time in a document like this. There will be two judgements to be made by voters and they will not be made in conventional political terms. The first one will be whether Greens have addressed environmental concerns and improved the environment. That includes a reduction in emissions. We are already well on our way, but the reduction in CO2 emissions is crucial. The second one will be about whether we have improved quality of life, which will include better air quality, the living wage for low paid council staff and the quality of life for people living in the city.

I would love to see us take on another national battle on Progressive Council Tax but that should not be a battle that just the Greens fight alone. We need that strategy debated nationally, with fellow travellers and other councils, whether they be SNP or Labour run, to also consider how this could be implemented practically and successfully in the face of this coalition and their cuts. To take it to a referendum without a prospect of winning would be wrong.

Resistance to cuts is not futile and our first administration has had some small successes, but the record of a Green council that will be judged by Brighton and Hove voters in May 2015 is going to be based on more than just our opposition to austerity. It won't be a referendum just on how we handled the bin strike and the negotiations. It will be a judgement on four years in power and the difference that makes. The divide in the local Brighton and Hove party has been discussed at length. What is important now is how we go forward, with mediation a very Green approach. I hope to see a refocusing on what we can achieve over the four years, and I'm looking forward to speaking with good people from Brighton at our forthcoming conference.

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