Brighton has lost patience with the chaotic Greens

In October 2013 I wrote for the New Statesman on the collapse in Green support in Brighton and Hove:

There are probably three basic tests for any political party. The first, of course, is winning power. At the 2010 general election, Caroline Lucas won a narrow 1,200 vote victory over Labour in Brighton Pavilion, pulling together a coalition of the left, students, disaffected Labour voters, tactical Lib Dems, environmentalists and people from the city’s more radical subculture. A year later, 23 Green councillors were elected on a citywide vote share just 1% larger than Labour’s, enabling them to form the first Green council administration, albeit a minority one. An efficient election machine, an appealing “anti-politics, anti-cuts” message and ruthless targeting enabled the party to score successive victories against the backdrop of Labour unpopularity, but only on the narrowest of majorities.

Some within Labour, admiring Lucas and the Greens’ freedom to express more radical policies, have urged co-operation not competition. Yet the Green message has always been clear. Eighteen of the 23 seats they won were taken from Labour, and they have continued to take aim at Labour even after the Conservatives, who have 18 councillors and two MPs in the city, took office in Westminster. After the Greens’ first 100 days in office, their leader said “if we get this right, it will make things very difficult for Labour in the city in 2015.” Not better for the city, environment, businesses or residents. Not harder for the Tories. More difficult for Labour.

The second test of a political party is holding office, and what you do with power once elected. What worked in free-thinking opposition soon became unmanageable in government. Having no internal discipline or whip soon saw their election-winning leader replaced, and their new leader commanding a majority of just one over “re-open nominations” in successive internal elections. With no sanction, their councillors have been free to call publicly for their leader to quit. Early on, the “Green Left” started to peel away. A little over a year after standing as a Green council candidate, one member was running against them in a by-election under the TUSC banner.

One Green councillor joined street protests to save a city centre tree, just weeks after she herself voted to fell it to make way for a cycle lane. That same councillor, part of the rebel “watermelon” faction in the Green group, then sought the assistance of the Labour group in trying to oust the Green group leader from his post heading the council. This lead to a local newspaper billboard reading “council calls in counsellors to counsel councillors” as mediators tried to bring the warring factions, now unable to speak to each other, together.

An early and substantial increase in parking fees, one of several heavy-handed attempts to force people from their cars, severely dented residents’ goodwill. Policies widely accepted elsewhere have met fierce resistance in the city, most notably the introduction of 20mph limits as the Green administration has pushed through blanket, unenforced restrictions at a rapid pace. Instead of negotiating a difficult change of terms and conditions to the city’s refuse workforce, the Greens again forced the issue through, leading to a damaging confrontation with the unions and a strike which saw bins overflowing in the streets. Even before the strike, recycling rates, a key municipal environmental measure for any authority, let alone a Green one, were falling.

The public have seen the division among their members, heard controversial statements from their councillors, felt ignored in consultations and seen their flagship “Urban Biosphere” and “One Planet Living” projects as increasingly out of touch with the daily reality of stagnant wages and rising bills. A “no eviction” policy on the Bedroom Tax was widely seen as window dressing in comparison to Labour council policies elsewhere, such as room reclassification.

When one of their councillors quit after the attempted leadership coup this summer, Labour spectacularly defeated them in one of their stronghold wards, wiping out a majority of almost a thousand votes. Caroline Lucas saw her majority disappear in just one of the seven wards in her constituency, the eleven point swing to Labour some ten times that needed to take her seat.

Now a poll by ComRes for the BBC has shown that Green support has fallen by a third since its peak, with Labour opening up a lead of 17 per cent over the party that once vowed to replace them in Brighton and Hove. Damningly, one of the top two factors influencing voting intention was “getting the Greens out”.

Perhaps the defining moment for me was speaking to one voter on the doorstep in the by-election this summer. He told me he’d been speaking to friends and neighbours at the local pub, where all agreed that “we gave the Greens a try; now we are coming home to a party we know and can trust.” In the contest against a Conservative-led government imposing brutal austerity measures, those who flirted with the Greens are now choosing sides in a national battle where, electorally, the party is irrelevant.

The third and final test of a political party is how well it deals with defeat. Come 7 May 2015 it would appear, from the evidence thus far, that the Greens will face their sternest test yet.

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The Big Society

In 2010 I wrote for Labour Uncut on the Big Society:

“There is no such thing as society”. Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote from an interview with Woman’s Own actually came quite late in her premiership, in October 1987. It is David Cameron who, in just the opening few months of power, is seeking to make that statement a reality.

Whether reducing the scope of government through far-reaching cuts or through deregulation at every level (from removing speed cameras to abolishing the Audit Commission, both Tory government creations), the new government is rolling back the state faster than at any time in the last Tory administration. Indeed the pace of change is likely to be greater than at any time since the Attlee government of 1945-51.

October’s spending review will accelerate that change even further. The Tory narrative on eliminating both the debt and Labour’s “bloated state” has been bought by much of the electorate in the south east as there is little to challenge it. A by-election gain by the Tories from Labour in Kent last week is evidence that their national 42% poll rating is no illusion waiting to be swiftly punctured by a fresh face at Labour’s helm, in this part of England at least.

There’s no doubt that Labour is already starting its recovery in traditional territory, and its strength in London is heartening. Remember, however, that victory in 1997 after almost two decades in opposition only came with significant breakthroughs in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. With Cameron looking for a swift reduction in parliamentary seats under cover from the AV referendum, the task of avoiding yet another long period on the opposition benches will be daunting unless we can win back seats there. To win again, Labour under its new leader must speak to both the aspirational estate dweller and the jaded Guardian reader, pulling the former back from the Tories and the latter back from the Greens or non-voting.

As much of the Lib Dem vote will go Tories as Labour along the channel coast and Weald. Here, pain from Tory cuts is as likely to be blamed on Labour spending as Conservative ideology. Without watchdogs or a critical media, much of the rapid realignment of the public realm will be allowed to pass unchecked, unless Labour acts.

To stand the chance of winning again Labour must have a presence on the ground in every seat where there is an outside hope of winning in 2015, not just listening to but being part of communities and their campaigns. A strong and active base must embed itself in neighbourhoods, not be remote. We cannot win by emerging only infrequently from GC meetings to deliver the occasional leaflet.

We must mobilise our newly increased membership. Only by earning trust and through word of mouth contact will Labour expose the truths behind Tory claims that cuts are unavoidable when, like in Brighton and Hove, they sit on millions in reserves just waiting to fund pre-election tax cuts whilst axing services like Connexions. In the “big society”, things will go wrong. People will inevitably fall, and fall hard, through the ever widening gaps in an increasingly threadbare safety net. Government will blame commissioners, commissioners will blame service providers, service providers will blame government.

When voters look at the news or out of their windows and ask “whose fault is this?” We must lay the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of a Conservative government which has pulled back the state from any meaningful role in making society better, absolving responsibility to the voluntary sector, faith groups and charities. Labour’s overly long and needlessly divisive leadership election cannot be resolved soon enough. With few substantial policy differences between most of the candidates, the party needs to unite quickly behind the winner and make best use of the networks, contacts and ideas built by all of the five campaign teams.

New Labour, Blairite and Brownite labelling must be left to history. The new leader needs to put forward a clear and modern Labour vision of a state that does build a better society, one that does step in to support, enable and promote better lives for individuals, families and communities, rather than leaving it to the kindness of strangers.

Co-operative Schools

In October 2011 I wrote for the Co-operative Party website on co-operative schools:

Let’s be clear about one thing. Free schools are not something Labour and Co-operative members should be in favour of. They use funding that should be being spent in the state sector, by local authorities making existing schools better and building new schools for the future. Schools that exist outside of the state sector can set their own pay and conditions for staff. However, the reality is that the current Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition has said that any new schools, or schools going into special measures, should be academies or free schools.

Unless the Lib Dems suddenly grow tired of the ministerial cars and red boxes, and discover an unnatural desire for electoral oblivion at an early General Election, we seem stuck with that reality until 2015. In Brighton and Hove we have an acute shortage of primary school places in the west of the city, and a history of some schools in the east struggling to attract pupils and achieve good results. Overall our secondary schools are not performing as well as they should. Two secondary schools are already academies run by the Aldridge Foundation, and there is a risk that Michael Gove will be imposing a further academy school on us soon.

The answer of the previous minority Conservative council administration, one being continued by the minority Green administration, is to expand existing schools or create “new” schools in separate buildings but which are part of “extended” existing schools. Some of these buildings are former schools, like my old primary school built in the Victorian era, or are portakabins. It seems likely that the Tory government will tolerate this kind of expansion for only so long. In some respects they are right; it cannot be good for primary schools to grow bigger and bigger, and for children to be taught in buildings which are not fit for purpose.

If the Conservative-led government is going to block further expansion of existing schools or the creation of satellite or federated schools, block any new school that isn’t an academy or free school, and refuse additional funding for state schools, then, as Stephen Twigg has said, we need to look at the reality of the situation and do what is best for children starting school now or in two, three or four years time. We can’t put children’s education on hold while we wait for a Labour government in 2015, and we can’t make children’s education a victim of the Tories’ ideology.

As someone educated in the neglected state secondary sector from 1979 to 1986, I know how harmful this can be. At our recent full council meeting the Labour & Co-operative Group proposed supporting the principle of Co-operative schools as a way of dealing with the fact that we may have no choice but to accommodate free schools and more academies. Despite their professed support for co-operatives, the Greens voted against, saying that no matter how they are “branded”, they implacably oppose free schools and academies.

The Greens, as with so many things, may want to ignore the reality of the situation, retreat into opposition and step back from their responsibilities, but we in the Labour and Co-operative movement, in all good conscience, can’t. Children need decent local and accessible school places and a good education. They only get one chance. Teachers need a good teaching environment, good pay, conditions, pensions and a route back into the state sector.

We need to engage with the process, influence how these free schools and academies are set up and run, wherever and whenever possible as co-operatives rooted in the community and run by the community, on a not-for-profit basis in partnership with the local authority and other local educational bodies.

On Social Care reform

I wrote an article in July 2012 for the Local Government Association responding to the Government’s Social Care White Paper:

The Government’s white paper on social care has been described by the Alzheimer’s Society as “not worth the paper it’s written on”. Its Chief Executive Jeremy Hughes said: “Millions of vulnerable people had been promised radical reform but today they are being massively let down.” The care system for older and more vulnerable people is in crisis. The Government’s own figures show that more than £1 billion has been cut from local council budgets for elderly care since the coalition came to power.

While national minimum care standards are to be welcomed (indeed Labour proposed adopting these at the last election) without sufficient funding these standards will only be the bare minimum. Existing deferred payment schemes for care don’t charge interest but will under new proposals. With no cap on costs, people will lose more of the money tied up in their home. Ros Altmann, Director General of Saga, said of the Government’s proposals: “Without committing to the additional funding, the Government has basically given people the rights to decent care without the money to exercise those rights.

Up and down the country families will still face losing everything if the level of care they require does not qualify for NHS or council help.” Labour wants some of the £1.7 billion NHS underspend spent on tackling this crisis, and a return to cross-party talks on addressing the issue – which will only get worse with demographic changes meaning more and more of us will be needing care in older age. Labour believes free social care at the end of life is achievable and fundable.

Speaking on Radio 2, Polly Toynbee outlined some ideas like changes to National Insurance payments and tax exemptions for some older people that could meet the costs. Care cooperatives might also provide part of the solution. Cooperatives UK has worked together with Manchester Metropolitan University to explore and assess the opportunities for cooperatives and mutuals as service providers under personal budgets in social care and health.

The care system should not be yet another area where the coalition Government’s priorities are focused on the potential profit for private companies operating in the sector, but on ensuring that we all share in ensuring that no-one faces losing everything in later life to pay for care – or receiving care that falls well short of the standards older people deserve.

The Greens – a first year report

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.