What prospects are there for a Green/Labour coalition?

Mary Mears is saying to anyone who is willing to listen that she wishes Labour and the Greens well in their soon to be announced coalition. She hints that a deal has already been reached between Gill Mitchell (Leader of the Labour Group) and Bill Randall (Convenor of the Greens).

To be or not to be …. a coalition, that is, is one of the most intriguing questions in local politics. I am sure that councillor Mears might be just a tad disingenuous in her statements. “Vote Labour, get Green; vote Green, get Labour” she might as well be saying. She knows what a wind-up this is for Labour and Green activists alike. Naughty Mary.

But leaving Green and Labour activists to one side for a moment, the Lovely Dani has been pondering the prospects post May 5th: “I hope a Labour/Green coalition (or some kind of agreement) will be achievable too. I am intrigued to see how this pans out. A Green-led council in Brighton & Hove could be a rallying point for the anti-cuts movement across the country, if councillors are prepared to stick to their principles. Or it could be a disaster (see the tragic outcome of Green participation in a coalition government at national level in Ireland).”

But Dani, you have already named the elephant in the room that will have Warren Morgan spluttering over his Sugar Puffs – that there will be a Green-led council. Warren and his colleagues are adamant that Labour is on the cusp of a great victory, and that the Greens are in decline. What hope is there of a coalition should Labour fail in its recovery? Will they continue with the Big Sulk that has characterised its response to the last locals and the 2010 defeats?

Warren shows the hostility towards the Greens by rubbishing that Party’s commitment to the return of the Committee system within Brighton and Hove City Council: “I’m afraid this is another Green manifesto pledge which sounds good but which is alreadty in place and which they have no way of implementing independently.

Warren goes on: “Actually, holding a coalition council together under the committee system would in practice be harder, as the Greens would need to whip their councillors to vote with their administration in every committee and in council. Currently they allow their members a free vote on every issue. If an administration can’t carry its policies through committee and at council it will be at risk of division and of falling at every stage.”

Dani, with her characteristically optimistic outlook, responded: “It’s good to know this is an ambition the Labour group shares. I think a formal coalition between Greens and Labour will be difficult to hold together under any circumstances. That’s why I think a less rigid set of agreements on particular issues and open debate in committees might have a better chance of working in practice.

“With a leader & cabinet system, there’s going to have to be a divvying up of cabinet seats between two parties and a more sustained level of joint working.

Craig Turton responds to Dani’s comment that “a formal coalition between Greens and Labour will be difficult to hold together under any circumstances.” he writes: “Who knows? I was the only member of the Labour Group after the elections 4 years ago who proposed and voted for a coalition with the Greens. Would I do it again?” This is where the deepening divisions between Labour ane the Greens are revealed: “After 4 years of watching some of the Greens’ antics, I’m not so sure. Labour and Greens have far more in common than some in both Partys pretend in public. I have huge respect for some individual Greens, particularly Amy (Kennedy) and Bill (Randall) but holding a coalition together requires compromise, discipline, flexibility and honesty. Should the election reveal the Council is in No Overall Control, then both Labour and Greens need to reflect on these qualities which will be required in order to work together for the common purpose of serving the people of our City.”

These are wise words, but the Greens approach to whipping might be a critical factor in undermining a coalition, an approach explained by the Green’s Luke Walter “Warren knows full well that Green councillors come to a consensus decision, rather than being told how to vote by whips (and sometimes the Westminister Labour front bench or those sitting in Labour HQ).”

So what do I think? Given that I think that the Greens will end up with between 20 and 22 seats, and that Labour will end up with around 13 seats (win some, lose some), leaving around 21 Tories, some sort of compromise will be needed.

Some Greens are more than willing to work with Labour, but there are a few that might be too purist, perhaps not mature enough (in attitude not years) to understand that to achieve things in politics you sometimes have to compromise.

Within Labour, much depends on who will survive the cull of councillors. There are a couple who find it hard to remain civil even to colleagues in their own party, while others (as I have said previously) retain a pathological obsession with the Evil Princess and All Her Works, including her Green councillors. On the whole, it is Labour councillors who need to change most – accept that they will have been rejected in three elections in a row and that there is a new political order in town. That, in my mind, is the single greatest obstacle to a successful Green-led/Labour coalition.

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.