Reflections on the Budget Council meeting at Brighton Town Hall

So what to make of tonight’s Budget Council meeting? Labour and the Tories voted down the Green Party’s Council Tax rise, and then the Greens joined with Labour and the Tories to vote through the Budget 53-1 (the one being Green councillor Alex Phillips who appeared not to be able to stomach this compromise).

For the Tories the stand out impression (other than the tie of the wonderful councillor Janio and his reference to the “great man” Ronald Reagan), was the emergence of their Leader-in-Waiting Graham Cox. His speech put clear blue water between the Tory Group and the rest. He is the Newt Gingrich of Brighton politics, the one who could capture the public imagination. Labour and the Greens be warned, he could see a Tory revival in 2015.

Labour were in a no win situation. The one Labour councillor who understood the politics of the occasion was Brian Fitch. It was he who articulated that Labour would OT be supporting the Tories. In the event, the Tories supported Labour. Labour will make much of this, countering the Green claim that Labour and the Tories had voted together. They will both be right. But there will be a nagging feeling amongst Labour supporters that the Tory and Labour budgets were not that dissimilar, and that Labour hardly ushered a word against the Tory government, focusing all their fire on the Greens.

For the Greens, Jason Kitcat was impressive, in command of his brief, and replied well. If this, his first major outing, is anything to go by, he will do fine as the Green leader. I was uncertain about the Greens voting for the budget. An honourable (?) abstention was what I would have expected from most, with more than Alex Phillips voting against. I imagine that, as Geoffrey Bowden said, most voted with a heavy heart. I thought the speeches by councillors Phillips and Sven Rufus were ones that should be noted regarding conduct.

But that’s not to say there shouldn’t be some humour, even some slapstick to lighten the mood. Councillor Janio’s ‘dual’ with councillor Hawtree is fast becoming the matter of legends, and councillor Hawtree’s repost was pure class. Perhaps a way of raising funds for this cash-strapped Council would be for the two of them to go on stage together, with half the proceeds going to libraries, the remainder to the third sector, after all, councillor Janio would not trust even a £3 note to local government.

It feels good to be back.

Mischievous Geoffrey Bowden, fighting Steve Bassam, and bullish Jason Kitcat

Do you have 3G? I don’t mean the Internet access on your phone or laptop, but Three Geoffrey’s? In the Bible the Three Wise Men travelled from the east to worship the Child God, or something like that. In Brighton and Hove, the Three Wise Men travelled to the west to King’s House. They are the Three G’s – Geoffreys Theobald, Wells and Bowden.

And rumour has it that each of the Three G’s is pulling in a different direction: Geoffrey W to the right, Geoffrey T straight ahead, while Geoffrey B pulling to the hard left (well just left of centre, really). And how do we know this? Well GB has tweeted that “Rumour has it that the Tory’s 2 Geoffreys – Wells & Theobald r @ war with Wells threatening 2 resign Tory whip @ full council on 15th”.

I know little more than what GB has tweeted, but hopefully one of my dear friends in the Tory Party will enlighten me further. Is this further evidence of the split between the Hove and Pavilion Tories on one hand, and the Kemptown Tories on the other?

But Geoffrey Bowden has been stirring it elsewhere. In another tweet, designed to get Warren Morgan spluttering, once again, over hi Sugar Puffs, he wrote: “Rallying Lab troops 2 help in Westbourne Warren Morgan reveals his fears Greens will look @ seat in E.Brighton if not stopped in bi-election.” Naughty, Geoffrey.

Less edifying on Twitter has been the ongoing obsession that Chuck Vere has about where Caroline Lucas lives. Most activists have long accepted that Ms Lucas has her only home in the Brighton Pavilion constituency, and Lady Everton, Alex Phillips, unambiguously made that clear on Twitter. Ms Lucas’s two main opponents at the general election, Chuck herself and Nancy Platts, both wasted little time returning to London after the election. Caroline Lucas is well and truly settled in Brighton Pavilion, and can expect a long incumbency as its Member of Parliament.

But what has been more interesting this week than the split between the two Blue Geoffreys, Labour’s fears for East Brighton, and Chuck Vere’s obsession as to where Caroline Lucas leaves her toothbrush, has been the role of Twitter in the debate on the City Council’s first Green budget. There have been two primary protagonists: in the red corner, Lord Bassam (the former Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council); in the green corner, the Green Administrations Cabinet Member for Finance, Jason Kitcat.

Steve Bassam has peppered Jason Kitcat with questions and comments, which councillor Kitcat has patiently answered over several days. This debate has shown two things: the tribal, street fighting, campaigning instincts of Steve Bassam, and the competence in financial matters of Jason Kitcat. For a new comer to Brighton politics, one would never have believed that, as councillor Bassam, Lord Bassam was responsible for cuts of an equal scale (including the closure of more public toilets than is currently proposed) and rate/council tax rises that makes councillor Kitcat look as though he is the true-born Son of Eric Pickles.

Finally, last week I invited supporters of Labour, the Tories, UKIP and the Lib Dems (if there are any of the latter group left) to send me their alternate budgets, saying I would post them on my blog for my three regular readers to review. But to date Momma Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave have been disappointed. The offer still stands. Perhaps Lord Bassam might oblige …?

The Green budget is politically astute; what alternatives are there from Labour and the Tories?

I have really lost the plot. You shouldn’t read this blog. There are so many reasons not to. The latest reason is my praise for the Green budget. I seem to have lost any sense of balance. Well, that is how some people, including Valerie Paynter, Linda F, and some others see it.

If you were to look at my post about the Green budget, I hardly mentioned anything about the content, what is being protected, what is being cut. I rather looked at the politics, and I stand by what I said. The Greens, and Jason Kitcat in particular, have produced something exceptional and done so in an exceptional way.

Let’s face it, under the Tory-led Coalition, ably assisted by their lapdogs in the Lib Dems, no budget set at this time would be anything but incredibly difficult to set, and cuts are inevitable.

Over the last ten years, the budgets set by previous Labour and Tory administrations would have looked not too dissimilar had they been set by the other party, with marginal changes in emphasis, and the addition or removal of a cycle lane or two.

So, too, it is with this budget. I doubt whether either Labour or the Tories will come up with anything really substantive by way of an alternative. I hope they do, but many of the cost cutting measures, perhaps with the addition or removal of a Super Director or two, would be the same.

The Greens have said that they want to protect the young, the elderly, and the very vulnerable. It appears that, largely, they have achieved this. But the content of the Budget is not my area of expertise and I have left it to Jason Kitcat and Steve Bassam to joust through Twitter on the merits or otherwise of the budget itself. How Labour in Brighton and Hove need someone like Lord Bassam to lead their recovery.

But back to the politics. The approach taken by the Greens, the inclusive approach adopted by councillor Kitcat, the assertive way in which the budget-setting process has been led, is an example of a genuine wish to involve those from other parties and from none. And an unintentional consequence (probably a very intentional consequence, come to think about it) has been to neuter the opposition.

The approach has, genuinely, been an open one. Opposition councillors have been invited and welcomed into the ‘star chamber’. There is an ‘open book’ approach. This approach, politically, puts opposition groups on the back foot. They cannot make complain about the process, and it forces them to focus on the issues.

The challenge for the opposition is to come up with an alternate budget. For the Tories it won’t be enough to harp on about a Council Tax freeze. They are the party of cuts and austerity. Let’s hear something positive from them now.

The Greens propose a remarkable budget that exceeds all expectations

I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like this. The biggest challenge to date for the administration, and what some said would be the end of the City’s love affair with the Green Party, is the UK’s first-ever Green budget.

The budget, difficult though the measures are, is a work of genius, with Jason Kitcat deserving most of the praise. The Greens claim, quite rightly, that their budget is the first to:
• Cover two years, encouraging longer term thinking
Involve all parties in the ‘star chamber’ process of evaluating proposals
Be published early and in so much detail.

The budget, the Greens say, is based on principles aimed:
• To prioritise services for the young, elderly and vulnerable
• To promote efficient use of public money
• To support partnership working with public, private and third sector organisations

The Tories, inevitably, attacked the Greens for the 3.5% rise in Council tax. Tory Leader, Geoffrey Theobald said: “This budget is an out and out attack on the core frontline services that the hard-working residents of this city rely upon. When we were in Administration we were always at pains to prioritise services that made this a city we could all be proud of and the Greens are now putting all that at risk.”

This is a bit churlish coming from the spokesperson of the party that is imposing the most severe cuts in living memory, and the party that is eroding living standards at the fastest rate in history.

The approach to setting the budget is extraordinary, a genuinely open approach, with Labour and Tory councillors being invited to participate at all stages in a process that one senior Council officer said is unlike anything he has ever witnessed in Brighton and Hove or elsewhere, for that matter.

An area where the Tories have attacked the Greens is commercial parking charges, but the Greens have demonstrated that the charges in Brighton, which are going up from £175 to £400 compares favourably to Eastbourne at £420 and Lewes at £1,000.

The use of tables is effective, not least in defending the 3.5% council tax rise. The table shows that this increase is only the second time since 1998/99 that the increase has been below CPI, the third lowest since 1998/99, and lower than anything that Labour implemented. The Tories implemented two lower rises in the past 3 years, including one increase freeze.

The Green budget will be attacked from the left, even from within the Green, where some are asking whether there should be any cuts at all. Jason Kitcat responds: “Some may ask why we need to accept these Government cuts. We don’t accept them, but by law if councillors don’t set the budget, then civil servants will set it for us. We believe that it is better for democratically elected representatives to set the budget in line with their manifesto than let appointed commissioners take control.”

He continues: “We stated in our local manifesto that we would “resist, to the greatest extent possible, the service cuts and privatisation imposed [on us]” and that is what this budget does. By finding a fair balance between efficiencies, reducing services in the most sensitive ways possible and increasing income we are seeking to set a fair, values-led budget.”

You can read the Green’s budget announcement here

Greens must make the most of their backbenchers

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But can this be said to apply to the Greens who now control Brighton and Hove City Council? 150 days or so since getting the keys to the Town Hall, the Greens have been accused of selling out.

It is rumoured that a Green councillor has asked that the use “sustainable” be used rather than the word “green” in Council reports and publications because the word “green” is too political.

I don’t know if that is true, but the Greens are now entering the most challenging period of the administration – their first budget.

Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald sent me a statement in which he said the new administration was being “green” as in being “inexperienced … in their approach to running the council so far”. He wrote: “u-turns on issues such as the work programme contract, building on Toad’s Hole Valley and the ‘meat-free Monday’s initiatives show that they have got a long way to go, however they chose to label it.”

The reality, though, is that the ups and downs of the new administration is not much different from the first 5 months of any new administration. There have been no u-turns on any matter of substance. And neither the Tories or Labour have managed to lay a decent glove on the Greens. None of this is a surprise. Where the real battle will commence is the budget.

Most Green Cabinet members have been impressive in getting out and about and engaging with the business, third sector and community groups. Green leader, Bill Randall, in particular, has impressed the business community, and the feedback from the voluntary and community sectors has been very positive.

But for the Greens to continue to thrive they need to think about the role of backbenchers. Cabinet members and a single MP cannot, alone, carry the party and help maintain the Big M, momentum. They are likely to be the ones who will drawn negative coverage when the cuts are announced and implemented. Unlike other parties, the Greens are more likely to tolerate dissent in their ranks. Backbenchers can have a constructive role in presenting the Greens as a party of hope and aspiration while the Cabinet members take the flack for the inevitable compromises that they will have to take.

The names of a couple of Cabinet members have been suggested to me as possible candidates to take on Mike Weatherley. If the election was this week I would think that they would not be unreasonable choices. But after the budget the responsibility for being candidate must pass to a backbencher.

But part of the problem for the Greens, with one or two exceptions, their backbenchers (particularly newly elected ones) are largely invisible. To effectively challenge Weatherley in Hove, and more so in North Brighton and Hove, a lot more is needed from backbenchers who are needed as the eyes and ears of the Party.

The Brighton & Hove Budget 2012 – where clear political battle lines will be drawn

The Green administration in Brighton and Hove has announced that Council Tax in the City is to go up be about 3.5% in each of the next three years, or 10% over 3 years.

However, the People’s Geoff, (Tory Leader Geoffrey Theobald) said in a communication with this Humble Blogger that he thinks “residents will be concerned”. He said: “I find it quite irresponsible that the Greens are planning these large increases, for the next 3 years, at such an early stage in their administration”. He said that the Tories’ “first priority was always to look for savings in back office functions before ever turning to the council tax payer.”

Inevitably, as I warned last week, the Tories have raised the issue of the new head of media relations, as well as the decision to taking on the management of the Council’s downland estate.

I think Geoffrey Theobald is being a bit disingenuous. After all, the council tax freeze last year, indeed much of the budget set in the dying days of the Tory administration, was a decisive …. deferring of difficult decisions until this coming year’s budget.

A 3.5% increase is significantly less that the rate of inflation which is running at the moment at about 5%.

Council Leader Bill Randall has said his Green administration’s aim is to “protect front line services which support the city’s most vulnerable people.”

When it comes to setting a budget, it is clear that 23 Greens will vote one way, 18 Conservatives another, leaving the ultimate decision in the hands of Labour councillors. The 13 Labour councillors are in a tricky position. After they have put forward their token amendments which will have no chance of being agreed, they will either have to support the Conservatives’ opposition (and lose further credibility in the City) or support the Green’s budget (which will frustrate them and Labour activists who continue to see the Greens locally as their main opponents).

Of course Labour could abstain, thereby allowing the Green budget to be set. But an abstention would beg the question: what is the point of Labour councillors in Brighton?

Simple arguments for the Tories and the Greens, an impossible argument for Labour to make in Brighton and Hove

The Noble Lord, Baron Pepperpot, has disagreed with my analysis of the political implications of Thursday’s Budget votes at Brighton and Hove City Council. He writes: “I find it very difficult to believe-despite today’s Argus headline, that any Conservative-apart from those in those leafy outwith suburbs, will be laughing to the polls. Sometimes we over estimate the average persons interest in the intricate nature of these issues. Most people, however, will have heard about the proposed 1% reduction in council tax, most people will know about the cuts. It is my conclusion, from those I have spoken to, that people see the 1% reduction as a gimmick and that people know cuts are coming and are, whether rightly or wrongly, resigned to them. From this conclusion (and some people on here will agree, some not) I see that no damage has been done long term to either Labour or the Greens. Both can sell an alternative argument. And most people don’t have the time or inclination to draw an in depth conclusion.”

I don’t agree, Baron. The Tories will emphasise the fact that Labour and the Greens voted against the cut in Council Tax. Theirs is an easy (if sloppy) argument, one that ill-informed voters miught buy. Imagine the line on the doorstep/on leaflets: “We put forward a cut in Council tax but Labour and the Greens voted against saving you money.”  No mention of amounts, a simple, accurate message.

There is damage for Labour.  The Greens message will be: “We could have voted down the Tory cuts budget, but Labour abstained and allowed the cuts to go ahead”. Again, a simple, accurate message.

As for Labour, what will its message be? At best “While we don’t like the cuts, we had to abstain to allow a budget to be set to avoid chaos”.  Huh? A confusing, not so accurate message.  Floating voters like me won’t be convinced.  (Before I am accused by Labour activists of being pro Green, I intend to split my votes in May. Whether it is 2 Green and 1 Labour or 1 Green and 2 Labour is yet to be decided, but Labour’s abstention encorages me towards the former).

Warren Morgan makes a brave attempt to explain Labour’s position: “We co-operated on some amendments, we made a difference in what was passed. There was a disagreement over whether to vote out the amended Tory budget or let it go through with the changes we had agreed.  The Greens had other amendments that they put in which they will use on election leaflets to differentiate themselves from Labour, and chose to make a stand and vote against the Budget. Again they are using that position to differentiate themselves from Labour. We could have done the same, and would have had to do the whole thing again next week. That may or may not have enabled further changes, or it may have lost the changes already won. We could not, lawfully, have continued to vote it down and deny the reality of Tory govt imposed cuts.”

That’s a complicated argument, less still a convincing argument that will be difficult to make in response to the simple message that the Greens will be making.

Allie Cannell thinks my views about the future prospects of Labour-Green co-operation is too pessimistic: “Labour and the Greens are always going to disagree about things, thats why they are seperate parties! You can’t expect them to get along all the time, what is encouraging though is that they found so much stuff that they did agree on so that they could significantly change the Tory budget so it wasn’t quite as bad. There is some overlap and I think the collaboration in this budget shows that mostly both parties can work with that overlap and that politisicing hopefully wont get in the way.”  I hope you are right, Allie, but the tone of exchanges of late (well, since Thursday night) suggests some activists are less likely to stab others in the back, it is an all-out, full-frontal assault!

Christopher Hawtree says that the Budget is largely a non-issue: “I spoke with a lot of people yesterday, and did not hear the Budget mentioned.”  I doubt that the Tories or the Greens will allow that situation to last long.

The Greens blame Labour, Labour blames the Greens, and the Tories laugh all the way to the polling station

Yesterday I was upbeat and positive about the collaboration between Labour and the Greens.  Tonight they are back at each other’s throats.  This is how I see it. It was great that there was a shared approach to the Tory budget.  Labour and Green councillors were joined by Lib Dem Paul Elgood and independent (former Lib Dem) David Watkins, in voting through some amendments.  So far, so good.

It was right to amend the Tory budget, but that did not mean it was no longer a Tory budget, in spite of what the Grizzly One might say: “I am very disappointed that the Conservative budget proposal was voted down. It was, on the whole, excellent.”  The tens of millions of cuts remained.  Labour and Green councillors were then faced with a choice of what to do.  Together with Elgood and Watkins, they had more than enough votes to throw the whole budget out.  And there would have been enough time to review the Tory proposals and to come up with some alternatives.

But when push came to shove, all 13 Labour councillors abstained. All 13 Green councillors votes against the budget along with Watkins and Elgood.  A truly courageous group of Labour councillors would have seen this as an opportunity to make a real stand against the ConDem Coalition.  But it was not to be. The Tory budget, mildly amended, was comfortably carried. Andy Richards writes: “The opportunity which is being missed here by all of the non-Coalition councillors is to say to an increasingly weak and divided government, ‘we are not going to pass on your cuts’.”

There is a debate about whether it is ok to vote against a motion you have amended. It is no difference than abstaining if the vote goes in favour of a cuts budget.  Dani, as always, speaks sense: “The amendments were just tinkering at the edges of a £23 million cuts package. They restored less than £3 million – welcome, but not enough to make the overall budget acceptable.  Amending a motion you are intending to vote against is perfectly reasonable. It means you are saying that you don’t want to do what is proposed, but if you are defeated and it ends up being done, you would prefer it done in a different way.”

I entirely disagree with Ian Chisnall who writes: “If the Greens and Labour were not happy that the final budget was adequate they should have either tabled more robust amendements or tabled no amendments and voted against the unamended budget.”  Wrong.  It is right that Labour and Green try to make the best of a bad deal, but that doesn’t mean they then have to vote for that bad deal.

What will the consequences be? Immediately the prospect of any form of reconciliation between the two parties of the left has been lost, the likelihood of co-operation after May’s local elections gone.  The blame game has begun. Labour activists accuse the Greens of being unrealistic, the Greens blame Labour for selling out.  While I tend to take the latter view, the one party that will be laughing all the way to the polling stations is the Conservative Party.  They have their headline – a Council Tax being voted down – along with the defeated cut in the cost of parking permits.  Geoffrey Theobald ended with some egg on his face over the cycle path, but that is small change compared to the vitriol that is being expressed between the two opposition parties.

I am sorry not to have responded to the record number of comments left today, but the debate rages on in the Comments section of my last post which gave my knee-jerk reaction immediately after the end of the Council meeting.

An immediate, knee-jerk reaction to the Brighton and Hove City Council Budget Meeting

And so there we have it: the Brighton and Hove City Council budget for 2011/12. Here is my immediate and largely unconsidered knee-jerk reaction (nothing new there).

The amendments put forward by Labour and the Greens have been passed. That’s some good news at this time of harrowing cuts elsewhere. There are two ways of looking at this. One, put forward by @sandyd68 on Twitter, is that it is soft cuts as opposed to hard.  (Those supporting this view were calling, until the final vote, for Labour and Green councillors not to vote in favour of the amended budget.) The other, put forward by some Tories, is that if the Tory budget had remained unamended, elsewhere in the country people would be jumping for joy.

The reality is that the substantive budget put forward by the Tories was a clever election budget. There are 3 key matters that the Tories will now latch onto in the election campaign. One is the reversal of the Council Tax cut. It provides them with a useful headline and a rallying point for Grizzlies and the Estate Agent Tendency in Goldsmid. Two, the defeat of the parking permit cut will be used by the Tories in town centre wards, now the stronghold of the Greens. Fortunately, the Greens are too strong in these areas for this to make a difference. Three, the cutting of grass verges – £100k cut from that budget. Tories in the leafy suburbs will make hay while the grass grows. It could cost some votes in one or two areas of Hollingdean and Stanmer, but then that is largely a fight between Labour and the Greens. It could, however, make a difference in Labour / Tory contests in areas such as Hangleton and Knoll (now that Dawn Barnett and Brian Fitch have found common cause on the top deck of the No 5 bus).

For the Greens, the victory regarding the cycle lanes in The Drive and Grand Avenue is a two-edged sword. It preserves two cycle lanes (although not the greatest in the world) but denies the Greens a fantastic campaign issue for their campaigns in Central Hove and Goldsmid.

For Labour, they have the comfort of being part of something that wasn’t defeated by the Tories. However, they ame across as the minor partner in this budget coalition. On the whole, the Green councillors made stronger and more impassioned speeches. Some of the Tory speeches were ill-tempered and amounted to name-calling. It would have been better had more Tories made speeches that were positive about their budget rather than speak about Labour’s 2007 budget. Who the heck cares if it was Simon Burgess or Gill Mitchell who presented Labour’s last budget (it was Simon, for the record). Garry Peltzer Dunne is a very amiable chap to spend time with, but his speech was something else, not sure what, but something else!

The final twist of the evening came with Labour abstaining on the final vote on the budget (thereby ensuring it was carried).  The Greens voted against.  The Greens will be seen as carrying through its principles with Labour allowing the Tory budget through.  The Tories, of course, voted for the amended budget since it was largely theirs.  On balance, it was a good night for the Tories, Greens and, to a lesser extent, Labour. For the Lib Dem Group of One, opposing the Tory budget at least avoided political suicide.

The final word to @sandyd68 on Twitter.  “Labour sell out. Left wing coalition, my arse!”

The crucial votes of Paul Elgood and David Watkins in today’s Brighton and Hove Budget vote

‘Clive’ is right. He said that my comment yesterday, in respect of the Labour/Green Alternative Budget, that the Lib Dems were “floundering somewhere in the middle” is “just lazy. It a) ignores the political reality of the last ten years, pre May 2010 anyway, and b) ignores the important point that Paul Elgood’s vote is pretty crucial on this budget and the amendments, as is that of the former Lib Dem, David Watkins.” Fair points, all. Their votes are important, and yes, it was a sloppy comment by me. Usually I try to provide a better analysis, particularly in regard to the Lib Dems, as well as Labour, Greens and the Tories. (I trust I will be given some blogging licence when it comes to UKIP and the Estate Agents in the Tory Party!).

Today’s budget vote is fascinating. Of the 54 councillors, the Tories are down to 25 councillors following the untimely death of Hangleton and Knoll councillor David Smart, there are 13 Labour councillors, 13 Greens, one Lib Dem and one Independent (following David Watkins resignation of the Lib Dem whip), with one seat vacant.

Assuming that all 53 councillors are present, Labour and the Greens voting together would outvote the Tories if Elgood and Watkins abstain. If either votes with the Tories, and the other abstains, the Tory budget will be carried one the casting vote of the Tory mayor, Geoff Wells. What is most likely, though, is that one or both will vote with Labour and the Greens. I agree with Clive that it is most likely that Paul Elgood will vote for the Alternative Budget. To vote against would be political suicide. Paul has an uphill battle to retain his Brunswick and Adelaide seat. He hardly wants to be defeated AND become known as Hove’s Nick Clegg!

I understand that you can watch the Budget debate on the internet now that the public gallery has been cleared. Did you see me in the Public Gallery? …… I was the one with the red bow tie, glasses, scraggly hair wearing no more than a sheet and a smile!