It’s been a dramatic week in Brighton and Hove politics. Whilst nationally the Liberal Democrats tear themselves apart over the Rennard scandal, and UKIP face mockery over yet more bizarre comments from one of their elected officials, here on the South Coast our own fringe party has been doing its best to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Faced with £23m of Conservative government cuts the Greens have avoided any of the tough decisions taken by Labour-led authorities elsewhere to ready their councils to weather the storm of Pickles’ cuts. Realising they have no way out, and wanting to put some political distance between themselves and a Labour Group that was going to support (again) their published budget proposals increasing council tax by the 2% allowed, they have opted for a 4.75% council tax increase that would have to be voted through in a referendum. Bold and brilliant, some Greens believe, taking the fight to the Tory government.
Except there are some cracks in their argument. Just six months ago the Green council leader Jason Kitcat called holding a referendum on a council tax increase “mad” and “unworkable”. Swiftly deleted evidence from a blog run by leading Green Derek Wall suggests he and his fellow “mango” councillors were forced into this position by the Green Left “watermelon” faction of members and councillors. The statement, signed by five sitting Green councillors, said: “the current Green Group leadership was becoming divorced from ordinary members and was in danger of damaging the reputation of the Green Party both locally and nationally.” Oddly, for a Party with no whip, an awful amount of control appears to have been used to bring the Green “convenor” into line. So are council tax-paying residents in Brighton and Hove being asked to pay £6 a month more just so Jason Kitcat can stay in his job?
While Green Party members and local/national media were given plenty of notice, opposition councillors were given no notice at all, being called to a meeting just 30 minutes before the media embargo was lifted. The Greens went on the attack (in many cases proving that members of the “nice” party can chuck insults as nasty as anyone else), saying they won’t vote for cuts and that any opposition to their plans means “disaster for council-backed charities and social care services to the vulnerable”. Pretty appalling stuff, ignoring the fact that even with their 4.75% council tax increase, some cuts to social care services would be unavoidable. The council has called in Ernst & Young to see where other savings can be made, but the Greens won’t wait for that report, commissioned by Jason Kitcat at a cost of £70,000. Too late they say. So why not commission it sooner, knowing these cuts were coming?
As the local press pointed out at the weekend, the move is aimed more at laying a political blow on Labour, and grandstanding in the national press, than defending local services. There is much more that could be done to save money and defend essential services. We will set that out in the weeks to come, but it is not for an opposition party to do an administration party’s job for it when it can’t agree on a realistic and workable budget.
We believe they – and I include Caroline Lucas who has backed her Green colleagues on the council to the hilt – have badly misjudged the public mood across Brighton and Hove, despite evidence their support is collapsing. On the doorstep, hostility toward the Greens is breathtaking. Those who have come to campaign for Labour in the city can’t quite believe how visceral it is. Outside of the Green-voting city centre, people are struggling to meet rising costs of fuel, travel and utilities.
Another £6 a month on top of an already overstretched budget and rising debt will be too much for too many city residents. Already hit by Tory austerity, residents should not have to pay for Green political gestures. Jason Kitcat might be able to afford it, Caroline Lucas might be able to afford it, but many residents can’t.
The referendum itself, even if held on the same day as the European elections three months after council tax bills go out, would still cost around £230,000. No-one believes that the public will vote for a rise in their taxes, and the Greens have no Plan B for how then to implement a 2% increase budget based on 4.75% income. The council would be rudderless and adrift.
Rather unfortunately, plans for the Green-led council to lend £36m to build a viewing tower on the seafront were splashed over the press just a day after the proposed tax rise was announced, adding to the view that they are keen to fund their own favoured projects whilst scoring political points over the heads of the vulnerable and low paid. All the while bins go uncollected and recycling rates fall.
Rather than take responsibility for decisions they were elected to make, they have resorted to headline-grabbing gestures and tactics designed to provide Labour-bashing lines in their election leaflets. Residents have had enough. That’s why we have tabled a no-confidence motion calling on the minority Green group leaders to quit in favour of a cross-party caretaker administration of senior councillors to serve until the elections in May next year. It’s a move that has been backed by our three Parliamentary candidates Purna Sen, Nancy Platts and Peter Kyle in a strong statement.
It’s time to call a halt to the embarrassing Green Party sideshow in Brighton and Hove, restore some credibility to our city and look to the main event; defeating the Conservative-led Government in 2015 so that the decimation of local councils can be ended.