More on power, accountability and honesty

So I’ve been thinking some more about power. How to handle it. How to keep it in check.

When I was a young Trotskyist, we used to talk a lot about leadership. How there was a crisis of leadership and that was why the Labour Party and Trade Unions never actually stood up for the working class.

In some ways, I think that line was just a way we justified seeking elected office in the unions and Labour Party – we would be in a better position to offer principled leadership because we had a better analysis and a democratic centralist party behind us. In practice, we had little effect on the way things turned out, by and large, and we seemed to have to spend an inordinate amount of time going to dull Labour Party meetings.

We said things like “it’s important not to substitute ourselves for the movement” and “punching above our weight”, while doing things like taking the minutes at the ward meeting, campaigning for the election of right wing Labour councillors and MPs, agonising over the precise wording of conference motions that were defeated or ignored and occasionally getting expelled or – worse – elected as councillors.

Being a local councillor is a bizarre experience. I haven’t done it myself, but both my parents did while I was a child and I’ve always been interested in how local government works. As Emma Daniel noted today on Twitter, councillors are not generally highly rated by the people who work in local government.

In my brief experience as a local government officer, councillors were mostly irrelevant to the work we were doing day to day. When they did turn up, everyone had to quickly run around and get them the information or answers they wanted. Sometimes they would get cold feet and pull the plug on a project people had been working on for months. They were neither popular nor central to the task at hand.

As with many structures in our complex society, the precise location of power is hard to pin down. For the residents who called my parents most evenings during dinner, their councillor was a powerful person. They could cut through the endless layers of bureaucratic fog and come back within a week with an answer to the question and a promise of action. As I discovered later, a journalist can have a similarly miraculous effect.

But for the officers on the ground, getting things done for people every day, councillors are remote and generally meaningless. The procedures and management hierarchies are much more powerful in determining what happens in each particular case.

Councillors themselves often feel frustrated at their lack of power to change things on a bigger scale than the outcome for an individual constituent. Spend any time around them and you start to hear phrases like “wading through treacle”, “turning round a juggernaut” and “Yes, Minister”. Yet the media (often egged on by councillors and activists from opposing parties) write about them as though they are autocrats who can fix everything immediately with a snap of their fingers.

Anyone with a position of responsibility in an organisation feels pressure to act in the interest of the organisation itself, even if those interests are opposed to those of the members or people the official has power over. This is true of the secretary of a residents association and it’s true of the managing director of a big company.

It’s true of local councillors too. They have a range of conflicting pressures on them – they are expected to speak on behalf of their electors, both individually in personal cases and collectively on matters of policy; they are supposed to be loyal to the other councillors in their party’s group, and to the members of their party generally (these sets of people don’t always see eye to eye); they are also required not to bring the council into disrepute and they feel pressure to explain (and this can easily slip into justifying) the often arcane and opaque way things are done by the council. It’s very easy for them to get swallowed up by the council as an institution and to lose touch with what’s important outside.

At Caroline Lucas’s general election campaign launch this week, she spoke about some of the bizarre customs that prevail in the House of Commons, how damaging these are to democracy, and how important it is not to “get used to it”, but to carry on challenging and speaking out against it.

How can MPs and councillors keep themselves honest, in the face of all these pressures?

I think transparency and accountability are our only weapons against the pull of institutional power.

Emma, who is Brighton & Hove’s newest councillor and represents the ward where I live, is doing a good job – I think – of reporting back to her constituents on what’s happening in the council, what she’s doing and why. I don’t agree with some of her conclusions and decisions, but I appreciate having the opportunity to say so and debate with her.

Jason Kitcat has also done a commendable job of opening up some of the key decisions of the council administration to greater public scrutiny. He answers questions on Twitter, maintains his own blog, has championed the publication of all Freedom of Information requests on a dedicated council website, and regularly holds webcasts where he answers questions from the public.

Jason’s biggest mistakes as leader of the council have been those occasions when he failed to be transparent and accountable. His sudden silence during the bin strike last year was noticeable and it cost him dearly. His attempt in last month’s webcast to spin deep cuts to services as innocent reorganisation was shabby and unconvincing.

We can’t be expected to vote for people if they don’t tell us honestly who they are and what they think.

That’s why I find the Labour group’s motion of no confidence so disappointing as a response to the Green group’s decision to propose a 4.75% council tax increase.

Labour disagree with the proposal – that’s absolutely fine. They should put their own position forward so that people can see what it is and judge whether they agree with it. They should honestly debate the politics of the issue. Since they agree with the Tories on this question, they can be confident that their view will prevail in the council chamber when it is put to the vote.

But instead of doing that, they are huffing and puffing with a procedural motion that has no official meaning in the council’s constitution. I imagine that is the case because of the danger that it could be abused in precisely this way. An opposing party making a proposal you disagree with is not a reason to turf them out of office, when they have the largest number of council seats.

I hope the Greens do not resign in response to this grandstanding by Labour. They should continue to make the political case for a council tax increase and put it to the vote in February.

If, after that, Labour and the Tories find themselves having to collaborate to run the council, let’s hope they will finally share with us how they propose to keep services going in the face of an unprecedented attack on local government.


Let’s stop looking the wrong way

I was going to blog about the Brighton & Hove Labour group’s astonishingly melodramatic reaction to a simple difference of opinion on the level of the council tax.

But actually, that is not what I think is most interesting or important about the current situation in Brighton & Hove.

Here are three things I’ve noticed over the last couple of days:

1. People outside Brighton & Hove can see more clearly what’s happening

The minutiae of who said what in which committee meeting are only interesting to local government geeks like me.

But supporters of Compass Online, War on Want, the New Economics Foundation and other progressive thinkers, the editor of the Local Government Chronicle and even Simon Jenkins (no friend of the Green Party) can see the bigger picture – this is about challenging the stranglehold by which Eric Pickles is squeezing the life out of local councils.

Even the mention of a referendum is seen as exciting and challenging by people all over the country who have seen their councils impotently protesting while apologetically cutting budgetsshedding jobs and closing services.

2. People in Brighton & Hove do not want social care services cut

Even in the Argus comments, there are many contributions by people who begin with some variation on “If the money was ringfenced for social care, I would support an increase.”

3. Both council unions are likely to support the Green proposal

As I said in my last post, it’s very unlikely we will get a referendum.

Instead, what we are getting is an opportunity to debate the way our local services are paid for and organised. The unions representing the people who deliver those services know better than most what the potential cuts would mean for their members and the citizens they serve.

They know that the “efficiency savings” made over the last two years have left services cut to the bone and staff under immense pressure.

They know that the mythical ‘elsewhere’ – from which Labour and Tory councillors and Argus commenters alike would like to find the money to avoid damaging cuts – does not exist within the council’s budget.

Maybe, however, we all need to look for that ‘elsewhere’ a bit further afield. Oxfam reported this week that just 85 people own as much wealth as half the world’s population. We are all being ripped off by the super-rich, and we’re too busy squabbling about speed limits to notice.

Here are some questions that matter more than the backstabbing and backroom dealing in the Town Hall:

Do we want to live in a city, or a country, where the weakest go to the wall?

Or do we think it’s important to look after each other, to share what we have with our neighbours and friends, in the knowledge that they would do the same for us if we fall on hard times?

Why are housing costs in Brighton & Hove so ridiculously high? Surely we can do something to provide decent, affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Who, exactly, is telling us we have to accept cuts on cuts? What do David Cameron and Eric Pickles know about getting by on minimum wage or subsistence level benefits?

Referendum or no referendum, let’s stop looking in the wrong direction and start asking some better questions.


Power, responsibility and ‘heavy lifting’

I had been mulling over a blog about power – how it affects people and how to defend ourselves against those effects.

The thought was kicked off by watching (again) these two fascinating videos about a series of experiments to learn about how people behave when they have an unfair advantage. Do watch them if you haven’t come across this story before – it’s an eye-opener.

Here’s John Green of the vlogbrothers talking about the study and drawing some conclusions:

And the scientists themselves talked about their work on PBS:

Anyway, while thinking about that, I was also (as you do) wondering about Brighton & Hove council’s budget decision, looming up on us at the end of next month.

I think it can’t be said often enough that the people with power in the matter of Brighton & Hove’s budget are not the Green group of councillors. The Green group is a minority administration – they cannot get any proposal through the council unless it is supported by at least seven councillors from outside their group.

More fundamentally, no council administration has much power over their own budget in 2014-15. Councils are being asked to do more with less. As the needs of our population continue to grow – fuelled by demographic changes and the effects of national government policies on benefits and housing – the resources available to meet those needs are shrinking rapidly:

bhcc resources to 2019

(graph from budget update paper presented to Brighton & Hove Council’s Policy & Resources committee in July 2013 (PDF))

This is not a situation created or chosen by the Green group, or by any local council administration. To describe any local council administration as being “in power” under these circumstances is a misnomer.

There are people with power in this story, but they are not in Brighton. George Osborne and Eric Pickles could be giving local councils the money they need to provide decent public services. They are choosing not to. That choice has nothing to do with the national deficit and everything to do with the government’s ideological commitment to lining the pockets of their mates in the private sector.

So, what’s the responsible thing to do, when you’ve been unexpectedly elected to manage a local authority in these dreadful circumstances?

According to Labour convert Neil Schofield, the answer is to man up and do the ‘heavy lifting’ of voting through a cuts budget. It’s a theme echoed by some local Labour activists this evening, on hearing the news that the Green group is proposing a council tax increase of 4.75% (for which, under new Coalition rules, they would need to win a local referendum) in order to avoid the kind of damaging cuts included in December’s draft budget.

Following the intemperately swift response of their leader, Warren Morgan, to this new proposal from the Greens, some Labour supporters have taken to Twitter to accuse the administration of copping out by suggesting a referendum.

I find this line of attack, and the Labour group’s decision to reject the proposal out of hand, puzzling and disappointing. It is of course entirely in keeping with the aggressive attitude of the Labour party in the city ever since the surprise success of the Greens in the 2011 election. It seems to have been a vote-winning tactic, if the polls are to be believed, but voters (a shrinking minority in the city) seesawing between Labour and Green really shouldn’t be the main show in town.

Both parties have (until now) shamefully avoided addressing the real abuses of power that are affecting the everyday lives of thousands of local people, preferring to squabble over the meaningless bauble that nominal control of the council now represents.

Finally, with the proposal to increase council tax, the Greens have done something that challenges the narrative that is undermining and damaging local services all over the country. At last, our council leader, elected on a manifesto promise to resist cuts, is saying things like:

“The Coalition’s cuts mean we cannot deliver the services we were elected to provide and which our consciences say we should provide.”

This is a welcome step forward from his mealy-mouthed justification of the damaging cuts included in the December draft budget.

People with learning disabilities, trade unions and other local campaigners have spoken out against the proposals to pass on the Tory budget cuts to the most powerless people in our community. I am pleased that the Green group have listened to those voices and taken seriously their responsibility to represent the city and its people.

Council tax is not a progressive tax. The property based banding is crude and out of date. An increase of 4.75% would put additional pressure on those low income households who have already been hit by the changes to Council Tax benefit. It’s by no means a perfect solution and the council’s revised budget must include proposals for minimising or eliminating the impact on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

But I think Labour have missed an opportunity to make a strong case for the phenomenal efficiency of public services funded by taxation. For under £6 a month, I can take part in an act of collective responsibility and solidarity with my fellow citizens. Together, we can choose to pool a small amount more of our income in order to support families with disabled children, adults with learning disabilities, people who need the support of mental health services and elderly citizens who need residential care or day centres.

I wish I could have the chance to vote to chip in something out of my wages to lend a hand to these fellow citizens – the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting of keeping body and soul together in the face of relentless cuts to in-work and out of work benefits, rising costs and falling wages.

I’m a bit stunned that I won’t get that opportunity because of the snap decision of a few members of the Labour Party – a party that has long since forgotten its roots as a collective voice of working people.


Protected: Unhappy New Year

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: