Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Brighton and Hove Budget

Brighton and Hove budget was passed on 23rd February. The main debates centred on the details of the Green party proposals, not on the question of fighting the overall funding reduction. According to Council leader Bill Randall:
“We've limited the effect on essential services this year but next year is going to be very difficult because we could well have to find savings of £20million.”

The Greens planned to raise council tax by 3.5% per year to raise revenue. This was an attempt to find room for manoeuvre within the overall funding reduction imposed by the government. However the Greens have rejected calls for a campaign against that funding reduction. This leaves them raising taxes and making cuts while attempting to 'make the best of a bad situation'. That means a further 5 years of cuts, up to 120 council posts are now threatened, public toilets will be shut, charges for a number of council services will rise, subsidies for bus routes will be removed and cuts will be made to children's centres.
However the Council tax rise was defeated by the combined efforts of New Labour and the Conservatives. This obliges the council to find an extra £3.6m in cuts this year. Once this amendment was agreed the budget was voted through with one Green councillor voting against. The collusion between the Labour party and Tories to force through more cuts again reveals how little difference there is between these two parties. It must also raise further questions within Unison and the GMB; why do these trade unions continue to fund a party that is actually looking to increase redundancies?
Green Fightback?
The Greens have presented the council tax rise as the cutting edge of their fightback against the cuts. This is not true; raising council tax is cuts by other means and is not the answer to the onslaught facing the working-class. However, accepting the grant to freeze council tax is likely to lead to a shortfall in funding when the grant is withdrawn, as subsequent year's settlements is based on this year's freeze.
The cynical amendments proposed by both Labour and the Tories suggested cutting one service to fund another. In the absence of a general campaign against the government robbery of Local Government funds, every party in the council is robbing Peter to slowly starve Paul.
Since the spending review in 2010 when the looming axe started to fall, debates have been ongoing inside the Green party over what the Greens would do to oppose the cuts at council level. Motions for a needs budget strategy proposed by the Green Left were defeated by the right-wing of the party. This left the Greens with a strategy of very slight vocal defiance of the government barely covering the lack of any campaign against the funding reduction.
Socialist councilors would have campaigned with a clear message of what steps would be necessary to oppose the cuts at the council level by challenging central government. This would mean outlining the campaigns that would be necessary and doing everything in their power to encourage the development of such a campaign. Instead the Green party in Brighton have barely whispered any opposition to the cuts and spent all their time trying to sell their 'lesser evil' budget proposals to the city.
Last year's budget saw £26m cut from the local budget. The Green amendments, tabled jointly with Labour, saw £2m less cuts being made, but no fundamental challenge issued to the cuts themselves.
Splits in the Green Party
In the lead up to and since the Brighton and Hove budget a number of Green members have left the party. Joseph Healy, co-founder of the Green Left and Parliamentary candidate for the Greens in Vauxhall, explained in his resignation during Green party conference:
“The radical speeches of Caroline Lucas are not enough, she it was who called for “a different sort of politics” at the Occupy Camp on the steps of St Paul’s. As Athens blazes and Europe is in turmoil, many of us, angry and disillusioned with capitalism and business as usual, looked to the Greens for hope. It is now clear that those hopes were misplaced.”
The speeches of Caroline Lucas have encouraged many in Brighton and across the country, as a nearly lone voice in Parliament arguing against the austerity of this government. But every time the Greens are tested they look at the options available to them and they pick the least vicious. With no sense of the steps necessary to fight for an independent 'no cuts' option they fall into managing the decline instead of fighting it.
Can the Greens Fight the Cuts?
In Brighton this capitulation was foreshadowed by the council's attempts in 2007 to sell off the council housing stock (see here). The Greens, at the time in opposition, supported the ALMO option, of privatised management (a step towards complete privatisation). The Socialist Party was active in the successful campaign which called for a 'fourth option' of keeping the council house stock in council hands and increasing funding for renovation and improvements. Despite a huge campaign by the council the residents voted to stay with the council.
Until last year the Irish Greens were in a coalition with Fianna Fail and implemented austerity packages at the behest of the IMF. This was shrugged off by the Greens in England saying they would take a different path if they were in a similar position.
Need for a New Workers Party
Many workers have hoped beyond hope that the Labour party, despite their actions over thirteen years in government, would act as a real opposition to the Tories. Those hopes have been dashed with Ed Miliband opposing pension strikes and members of the Shadow cabinet lining up to endorse most of the government's cuts. This has stoked the anger within the trade unions, stretching the 'reclaim labour' arguments of Len McCluskey and others to the limits. With the discrediting of the Liberal Democrats as well, trade unionists and others may now be looking for an alternative in the Green party.
So far only one tenth of the Tory-Lib Dem government cuts have been made, meaning the worst is yet to come! While the Greens put forward an alternative, they have no way of fighting the government. However there is a need for a party of the working-class and poor. That party needs to be built by and for the working-class (the strongest opposition that this government has met so far). It would have to oppose coalitions with pro-capitalist parties, it would have to encourage and rely on the strength of a mass movement to achieve its goals of opposing austerity and it would have to fight for a return of the funding robbed from local government by the ConDems.
TUSC is standing in the GLA elections with a slate of active trade union candidates, all of whom are engaged in fighting the cuts. This challenge has the potential to build a 'no cuts' alternative, backed up not by words alone but by a genuine campaigning strategy.

Jason Kitcat at Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition debate on council cuts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjlFs5e_NSE
Link to article on the legal questions of resisting the cuts: http://brightonhovesocialistparty.blogspot.com/2011/12/green-cuts-budget-proposals.html