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.

5 Comments on “Power, responsibility and ‘heavy lifting’”

  1. Tom Coady says:

    Did you say that because of the snap decision of a few members of the Labour Party you’ve been deprived of “the chance to vote to chip in something out of my wages to lend a hand to these fellow citizens”?

    I don’t understand, but would be interested to read more details.

    • Dani says:

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, that’s what I said. The Green group is proposing a budget with a 4.75% Council Tax increase. If any council wants to increase Council Tax above 2%, they have to have a referendum (Coalition rules, introduced to deter councils from putting up council tax). Therefore, a budget with that increase also means a referendum.

      I think it would be better all round if we had a government that would be prepared to tax the rich properly and fund local services properly, and then we wouldn’t need to have a whip round to support our neighbours and friends whose vital services are threatened. But this government (and, sadly, the next one too) won’t do that.

      In these circumstances, I support the idea of a tax rise. If that means we have to have a referendum, I’m also happy to go along with that. I’m not a big fan of referendums, but I don’t think that’s the main issue here. If the Tories had given local councils the freedom to set their own tax rates, then the Greens would just be proposing the increase they think is necessary. It’s not some whacky Green notion to have a referendum. In this, as in the whole matter, they are making the best of a bad situation.

      However, we won’t get a referendum, because Warren Morgan, his fellow Labour Councillors and the three Labour parliamentary candidates (numbering 17 people in total) have decided to reject the proposal for a tax increase higher than 2%. Their stated reason for this decision is to do with the referendum aspect – Greens are abrogating responsibility etc – but I think that is beside the main point, which is how are we going to look after everybody with not enough money? They have made this decision without seeing the detailed budget proposal, without consulting the rest of the Labour Party and without talking to the Trade Unions (who are part of their movement and who represent people whose jobs and pay are at risk because of the cuts).

      Does that make things any clearer?

      • Tom Coady says:

        OK thanks Dani, I understand now. For some reason I read your comment quite literally as in making a donation to the council to help it balance its books etc. Also, or some reason I failed to understand that the referendum will not happen as the approval for this is in the hands of the other parties. While I’m sure we already have enough reasons to detest our local labour party, I agree it’s almost unconscionable to conceive that they, not only oppose the proposed increase, also seek to prevent their electors from expressing an opinion. Very depressing all round, apart from the news that the Greens at least attempted to do the right thing!

  2. […] Rebelyarns – Hanover Resident and anti-austerity campaigner […]

  3. […] Power, responsibility and ‘heavy lifting’ → […]

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