Dawn Barnett found guilty – a day of shame for the City’s political processes

Conservative councillor Dawn Barnett has been found guilty by Brighton and Hove City Council’s ‘Standards Committee’ of bringing her office or the local authority into disrepute. In the summer councillor Barnett handed out letters to travellers camped in her Hangleton and Knoll Ward directing them to open spaces in Green-held wards.

A full write up of the hearing can be found in Brighton and Hove News, and excellent and up to the minute online newspaper serving Brighton and Hove.

Until now I have not named the councillor who made the complaint. I had hoped that he would withdraw it. The complaint was made by Green councillor Phelim MacCafferty, who represents Brunswick and Adelaide ward. I actually think Phelim is a lovely man but that he got this one wrong. The use of the ‘Standards Committee’ system is unnecessary. Political differences should be sorted out politically rather than using a procedural process designed to silence dissenting voices. I am delighted that the days of the Standards system are numbered.

If there is one silver lining to this cloud it is that no sanction is being imposed on Dawn Barnett. I am just sorry that she, as with Jason Kitcat and Averil Older before her, have been subjected to the stress of such a hearing.

I conclude by quoting the Tory MP for Hove, Mike Weatherley: “The standards committee is not a forum to stifle freedom of expression based on political disagreements.” Absolutely right. I hope that this discredited system is not used again in Brighton and Hove.

In defence of Dawn Barnett (and even of Tony Janio)

Once again, a democratically elected councillor might be prevented from representing her constituents because councillor Dawn Barnett is being taken before the ‘Standards’ Committee following an anonymous complaint, allegedly from a fellow councillor.

In early summer, shortly after the election of the first-ever Green Administration, councillor Barnett handed out letters to travellers encamped in her ward (Hangleton and Knoll) giving them directions to open spaces in Green-held wards.

I thought it was an imaginative and hilarious protest by councillor Barnett. So much of local politics is taken too seriously. While much of what local government does is serious stuff, occasionally a light hearted and irreverent intervention is to be welcomed. Councillor Barnett’s made one such intervention.

I like, for example, the style of councillor Tony Janio who has strongly held views that can be summarised as small local government, big third and private sectors. He takes a special delight in winding up Green councillors as witnessed by the wearing of a Stars and Stripes tie at Full Council meetings.

Now it may come as a surprise to my three regular readers (Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave) that I might not entirely support each and every political view articulated by the Hangleton Twins (Barnett and Janio). But I like their style.

But back to the attempt to discipline councillor Barnett. I am shocked that the hearing by the ‘Standards’ Committee might be held behind closed doors. Papers relating to the hearing have not been published because the council believes that “the public interest in maintaining the exemption outways the public interest in disclosing the information”. According to Tim Ridgway at the Argus, “It is believed the decision was made by council lawyers as they wanted to ‘downplay’ the publicity surrounding the hearing”.

This is not a matter of process, it is a political show trial. On the panel will be Tory councillor, Ann Norman, Green councillor Leo Littman, and Labour councillor Jeane Lepper. Two ‘independent’ members of the panel (which is scheduled to meet at 10am on Tuesday morning) are Peter Rose and Dr. Michael Wilkinson.

If council officials thinks that by “downplaying” the panel hearing that there will be less publicity, they are completely wrong. Try keeping something confidential, you can be assured it will leak.

And if Labour and Green councillors take a stance against Dawn Barnett because they disagree with her views regarding travellers, the issue will come back to bite them on the butt. For mark my words, if Dawn Barnett is suspended from office for even a micro-second, if she is censured for her actions, she will become a bigger legend in Hangleton and Knoll than she is already. Any chance of Labour regaining that ward will be lost; any thoughts that the Greens might have of gaining a foothold in that ward will be lost.

I opposed the Standards Committee action against Jason Kitcat, against Averil Older, and will do so against anyone else brought before this panel. The only group entitled to replace a democratically elected representative should be the voters who put them there in the first place.

I support the right to recall as strongly as I oppose the Standards Committee. I call on the person who made the complaint against councillor Barnett to withdraw it, and I call on councillors Norman, Littman and Lepper to refuse to hear this matter.

Strengthening the links between Labour and the Greens

A postscript to this morning’s post: I had intended to comment on the gender dynamic of the Bassam/Kitcat debate on Twitter, and to contrast it with the exchanges between Caroline Penn and Alex Phillips.

With Fassam and Bitcat, no quarter is offered, no quarter given. What would make this exchange better would be if Lord Bassam didn’t blame the Greens for the financial challenges in Brighton and Hove, rather he should blame the Tory-led Coalition for their obsession with cutting local government.

The contrast could not be greater in the Twitter exchanges between Ms Penn and councillor Phillips. These exchanges are robust and challenging, but they are done with respect and some affection. There are definite differences in their politics (Ms Penn is Labour, but with a tinge of Old Labour; Lady Everton is Green, but also with a tinge of Old Labour). Both fight firmly for their respective parties, yet both are respectful of the other, able to accept criticism and acknowledge positives in the views of others.

I think these two women personify what I like most about local politics. They represent what is positive about certain Green and Labour activists. I look to the day when they work together, in a Green-Socialist party. I don’t believe that they have yet met each other, but I suggest they meet for a skinny latte over the holiday period.

Where my gender theory is chalenged is the persons of Sven Rufus (Green), Pete Gillman (Labour) and Momma Grizzly herself (True Blue with as dash of Orange). Sven and Caroline Penn have agreed a Christmas truce (football and mince pies in No Man’s Land perhaps). Recent exchanges between the two of them have been warm and shows the way forward between Labour and the Greens. Pete Gillman, too, is a nice guy, but borders on being more focused on the Greens than the Tories. Should he see that Labour and the Greens have more to unite than divide them, he will be able to help bridge the divide between the two parties.

And then there is Rachael Bates. Momma Grizzly shows none of the sisterhood that exists between Lady Everton and Caroline Penn. And nor would she want to be part of such a sisterhood. While the Grizzly One will long remain in my affections, this season of peace and goodwill between humankind is not for her. But in spite of that, I wish her a happy Christmas.

Westbourne, Kitcat, Bassam and Randall: This is the week that was

And what a week it has been – the 100 Year War between Bassam and Kitcat, Bill Randall becoming Mayor-elect, and campaigning in the Westbourne by-election. Where to begin?

The Westbourne by-election takes place on Thursday and the main three parties have continued to campaign hard, in spite of the terrible weather. All parties seem to have become quietly pessimistic, although the Tories are perhaps the most confident. Some Labour activists are still displaying bravado, and I imagine that young Harris Fitch will respond with a forecast of a Labour landslide (similar to that he achieved in Rottingdean Coastal, no doubt).

I think it is still probably too close to call, but from the soundings I have taken, the Green vote is solid and not impacted by the debate regarding the budget. Electors know that it is the Tory-led Coalition that is imposing the cuts from on high, and Louisa Greenbaum has proven, once again to be a strong candidate who is capitalising on being the local candidate who stood in the ward in May.

Unhappiness with the Tories nationwide is offset by a strong candidate in Graham Cox. For someone with the quality of being absolutely singleminded and determined to achieve in whatever he does, Graham has remained relaxed and balanced, and has developed a personal vote beyond the Tory ranks.

Labour has campaigned hard but (and this isn’t an anti-Labour position although I will no doubt be accused of this) this is not the right moment for a Labour revival to begin. Nigel Jenner, while competent and hard working, is not the stand out candidate. That is shared between Louisa and Graham. The Labour Group on the Council remains, largely, invisible, in the eyes of the general public, and the Labour campaign has not set the by-election campaign on fire.

Which brings me on to Higgs bosom, or know locally as the Kitcat Bassam Particle. Never before in the field of Twitter conflict, have so many tweets been sent so often, by so few. For days now this (yawn) fascinating debate raged. It has been hard to follow, on occasions even by Jason Kitcat and Steve Bassam themselves. Bassam has shown all his qualities as a street fighter, making it tough for the Greens by throwing accusation after accusation, challenge after challenge. Meanwhile, Kitcat has patiently answered all, well almost all, of the points raised by Lord Bassam. Jason Kitcat continues to impress in his role as the Cabinet Member for Finance.

I have to say that I don’t think that Twitter is the right forum for such an in-depth and ongoing debate. I will offer the services of this blog, once again, for the different budget positions to be set out.

I have just two further points on this debate. Firstly, other than Warren Morgan and to a lesser extent, Craig Turton, Labour councillors remain invisible which is a shame. A strong opposition from the left to the Greens would add to the political discourse locally. The second point is that Lord Bassam has been allowed to get off with the most remarkable rewriting of history. Under Labour, including under his leadership, the Council made huge cuts, closed more toilets and put up rates/council tax far higher than the Greens are proposing, but no one refers to this record.

And finally for today, leadership. The Leader of the Council, the much admired Bill Randall, is to stand down in May to become the Mayor. This is a largely ceremonial role and carries nowhere near the power he now enjoys. Some has suggested he is being ousted. Nonsense. Others say he is jumping to avoid difficult times. Even more nonsense. I understand that he never intended to serve a full term as Leader. Perhaps he didn’t believe this humble blogger who predicted before May’s elections that the Greens would win 23 seats and be the largest party. Forming the first Green administration and coping with the level of cuts imposed by government will have taken its toll. But Bill has managed the process with competence, charm, and good humour. There will have been a cost and he is looking older than his 36 years (that’s a joke, Momma Grizzly. He is too old for you).

As for his successor? I’ll return to that after Thursday’s by-election.

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

It is time to stop, once and for all, the nonsense of local council’s ‘Standards Committees’

I have written before about the Standards system in local government, how undemocratic it is that a panel made up of opposition councillors and non-elected individuals can sit in judgement on elected councillors, even depriving the electorate of one of their representatives.

This is not a party political issue, and I have rallied to the defence of both Green councillor Jason Kitcat and the Matriarch of Hangleton and Knoll, Dawn Barnett.  Not just that, but future Tory Leader, Grant Shapps, tweeted in support of Jason!  Jason was accused of posting selected extracts of video from council meetings featuring Tory councillor Geoffrey Theobald.  It must be stated that the People’s Geoffrey did not support the actions taken by one of his fellow Conservatives.

The Matriarch, it has been reported, was referred to the Standards Committee for handing out leaflets directing travellers camped in her ward to open spaces in wards held by Green councillors.  While I do not like the tone of much of the anti-traveller debate, I thought that what the Matriarch did was imaginative touched with humour.  She made her point very well.  It was rumoured that it was a Green councillor who made that referral but I am yet to see any firm evidence to confirm this. I have previously written about Dawn’s “sheer cheek”.

Jason’s case was thrown out while Dawn’s has gone quiet (although I may have missed developments during my two month sabbatical in Italy over the summer.

The latest fiasco relates to Ben Duncan, the Green councillor for Queens Park, cabinet member for public protection and representative of Brighton and Hove City Council on the Sussex Police Authority.  An anonymous complaint was made against him about posts on his blog and for attending various demonstrations.  The investigation took over a year and found that he had done nothing wrong.  I have previously posted on Ben Duncan’s case.

Quoted in the Argus he said it was wrong for standards procedures to be used to complain about people’s opinions.  “It is an abuse of the system and a waste of public money. This must have cost thousands of pounds. The standards board should be used to tackle allegations of real wrongdoing. It is not just that there is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion on policing, you could say if you’re not doing that you’re not doing the job properly.”

The implication of this case, more so that the cases of Jason and The Matriarch, would have been more sinister had it been found that Ben had been in the wrong. It would mean that a councillor could not be involved in certain activities, in this case, anti-way activities.  It would have meant that only those with more conventional views would be allowed to serve on the Police Authority.  What would be the point of that? 

I recall a Conservative councillor once saying to me that he wished that Labour wouldn’t be so political on the Council, that the Conservatives were apolitical in local government!  I got it, you are only political if you disagreed with the status quo.  Thank goodness for The Boy David, his mate Boy George and Little Nick, standing up for the status quo, and doing it, if I may say so, very well indeed.

New Media and Brighton and Hove City Councillors: Welcome to the 21st Century

Brighton and Hove City Council have finally arrived into the age of new media. Ignoring the debate about the new head of media relations, councillors are now allowed to tweet and send emails from the Council chamber as a way of encouraging greater interaction between politicians and the public.

(Incidently, my recent post on the proposed media relations post was criticised by Labour councillor Craig Turton who was quite right when he said “Frankly, BPB this is a lazy posting not worthy of your usual insight.”)

Central Services cabinet member Jason Kitcat has said that this innovation will bring the Council into the 21st century. He said: “Despite the current guidelines, there are members from all parties who are catching up on emails in the Chamber. At the moment live feedback is limited to the small number of people in the public gallery.”

Conservative councillor Mary Mears has long opposed the change. She was quoted by the Argus as saying: “I still do not support it. I believe we are there to represent the city and should be concentrating on what is going on rather than political backstabbing while the meeting is going on.”

Labour and Co-op councillor, active Twitter-user Warren Morgan responded by saying: “Councillors should be focused on the debate but most are quite capable of listening and at the same time tweeting or researching the issue under discussion via the web on their mobile.”

Warren’s statement begs the question: “If most councillors are capable of multi-tasking, who are those who are not capable …?”

So we can all expect more interaction from our politicians which is something I welcome. I personally may not need to attend future council meetings … !

Lynda Hyde’s ‘jokes’ no laughing matter

While I was away a leading Tory councillor, Lynda Hyde, was accused of, and apologised for, sending offensive jokes to members of the public. They included a number of jokes about non-English speaking doctors and pantomime actors being sexually abused. Nice one, Lynda.

Councillor Hyde explained her actions to The Leader (the newspaper, not Geoffrey Theobald): “I get many emails sent to my Council address. Some of these unfortunately contain inappropriate material and when I become aware of this I always delete them. From what I remember of this particular email, it contained a long list of jokes, not all of which I read. A couple of the jokes at the beginning of the email were quite amusing and so I forwarded them on to a few friends and colleagues. We often share jokes like this, and I view it as a bit of harmless banter.

“If I had been aware of the nature of the jokes further down the email I would have deleted the whole thing and would not have forwarded it to anybody. I regret this oversight on my part and if it has caused offence to anybody then I sincerely apologise.”

Labour and Co-operative councillor, Warren Morgan, has called on councillor Hyde to consider her position. He is quoted as saying: “There is no place for this kind of racist, homophobic, disrespectful and divisive material in today’s society, not least at a troubled time when we are trying to bring communities together. No elected politician should be associating themselves with this kind of material and if they are they should consider their position.”

Councillor Hyde is definitely guilty of one thing, foolishness. If she did not know the content of the email she should not have forwarded it. Ignorance is no defence.

Whether it was from a council email address or not is not relevant. Telling an offensive joke in the privacy of ones home is as bad as telling such a joke in public.

There is now the question of a referral to the Council’s Standards Committee. I hope she is not referred. The Standards Committee is a costly and undemocratic arrangement that allows politicians to sit in judgement on their opponents (and enemies in their own party). I opposed the action taken against Jason Kitcat (for posting video clips from a Council meeting on You Tube), the referral of Dawn Barnett (for her political stunt of referring travellers to Green-held wards), or Lynda Hyde (for distributing offensive jokes). No panel should have the right to suspend a councillor from representing their constituents.

There are three groups who could stand in judgement on the actions of councillors:

First, the councillor’s own political group which is judged by it’s membership. If a councillor’s actions aren’t supported or cannot be defended by the majority of that group, he or she should have the whip withdrawn, temporarily or permanently (or in the case of the Greens, expelled from the Green group, with or without their protracted mediation processes).

Second,the full Council who should remove a councillor from representing the Council in an official capacity or serving on a particular or all committees.

Third, the electorate, the most important judges of elected representatives. If the good folk of Rottingdean Coastal are happy that councillor Hyde has circulated offensive material, even unknowingly, they can support her at the ballot box. Labour and the Greens should make this an electoral issue.

Of course it would be best of all if the electorate had the power of recall, but that is debate for another day.