In May 2012 I wrote for LabourList on the first year of a minority Green administration on Brighton and Hove City Council:
With a large resident graduate population, two universities and a famously alternative cultural and political scene, Brighton and Hove was always going to be fertile territory for a political party like the Greens. However there are now signs that the city is falling out of love with Caroline Lucas and her followers.
Capitalising on the unpopularity of the then Labour government amongst those who elsewhere went Lib Dem, the Greens went from one to thirteen councillors in ten years. In 2010 Caroline Lucas won Greens only parliamentary seat by just 1200 votes. Twelve months later the Green Party scored just one per cent more than Labour in the local elections, but translated it into ten more councillors and formed the UK’s first minority Green administration.
Elected on a promise – or at least the impression of a promise – of “resisting all cuts” and pledging in election material to “freeze council tax” and strip out costly senior management, the Greens have since been beset by a series of u-turns, gaffes and vocal hostility to some unpopular policies. Having promised to increase the number of desperately needed school places, the Greens have been severely restricted by their uncompromising opposition to academies, even co-operative ones.
This has meant a continuation of Conservative plans to add portakabins and “satellite classrooms” to existing schools, a plan Michael Gove seems set to veto. With a lack of places in Hove, free schools are seizing the opportunity. Badly thought through and poorly implemented Green environmental policies have caused a furore. Trying to price residents out of their cars and the city centre tourist and shopping district, parking fees have been put up massively. Resident and trader permits have in some cases doubled. Visitors to Brighton seafront now need £20 in change to pay to park. Those on lower incomes have been disproportionately affected.
Local businesses reliant on the tourist trade are furious. Repackaging of existing sustainability initiatives (some started by the earlier Labour administration) under the “Urban Biosphere” and “One Planet Living” labels are starting to look costly, as was the attempt to bring in house the management of council owned Downland, apparently in order to impose organic farming methods. Frustrated that the Greens went back on their “no cuts” pledge, one former Green candidate ran against the Party in a local by-election in December, one the Greens hoped to win as they had in neighbouring wards in previous by-elections.
Faced with a reorganised and revitalised Labour team, the Green bandwagon for the first time seemed halted and they dropped back in third place. The biggest setback for the Green administration was to follow in March when their Cabinet member for finance Jason Kitcat, due to be installed this week as the new council leader, saw the first of his three annual proposed 3.5% rises in council tax blocked by a Labour amendment. Allotment holders, a natural Green constituency one might think, rebelled over Budget plans for huge hikes in plot rental fees, again blocked by Labour.
Councillor Kitcat, it should be noted, already has his sights set on bigger and better things, winning selection for the European Parliament in 2014 even before becoming council leader. In recent weeks their image as a “student politics” party has become harder to shake. One Green cabinet member has attracted national media attention for apparently encouraging aggressive protests in the city, tweeting “f*** the pasty tax” and suggesting that cannabis cafes might boost the local economy. He’s the city’s Police Authority member.
Some, even within Labour, have urged co-operation not competition. Yet the Green message has always been clear. 18 of the 23 seats they hold were won from Labour, and they have been open about their ambition to replace Labour entirely as the local opposition to the Conservatives, who still have 18 councillors and two MPs in the city. A telling comment came from outgoing Green Leader Bill Randall after 100 days in power. He said: “if we get this right, it will make things very difficult for Labour in the city in 2015 (the next local and General Election)”. Not better for the city, businesses or residents. Not harder for the Tories. More difficult for Labour.
Last week saw two leading Greens defect to Labour in the South, as the Greens failed to increase substantially their vote or number of elected representatives in the local elections. With increasing hostility towards this former party of protest now facing the challenges of office, it could be that the Green bubble centred around Brighton and Hove might be about to burst.