Honey still for tea

I visited some dear friends in Cambridge last week. It’s a beautiful place, and I had a really lovely, restorative few days, putting the world to rights and seeing the sights.

One train of thought kicked off by this trip was about how different places develop and maintain their distinctive characters. I am fascinated by this process, not that I really know anything about it. (I’m toying with the idea of doing an Open University course – maybe this one will help me understand cities better).

Anyway, of course, every place is a multitude of places, coexisting, sometimes competing, occasionally connecting. One version of Cambridge is the one that incubates and reproduces a significant section of the English ruling class. In this Cambridge – almost unimaginably ancient – tradition is all-powerful and it’s all about who’s in and who’s out.

I learned that if you have ever been a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, you always retain the privileges that affords you – including the right to walk on the grass, have tea in the Senior Common Room and (thrillingly) go up onto the roof of the famous medieval chapel. I learned that King’s has a reputation for being very forward thinking, having been one of the first colleges to admit women – in 1972!

In this Cambridge, the ebb and flow of politics is really insignificant. The old traditions persist, regardless of which party happens to be in office, which theory is in favour this decade. The chapel still stands, the students learn important lessons – not about their particular discipline, but about their place in the world, things change very slowly, there’s always honey still for tea.

To see it up close is both shocking and beguiling. It is a charming place, with lovely green spaces all around and in the middle of the town. The orchard at Grantchester is idyllic. The college buildings are stunningly beautiful.

And yet these institutions are an integral part of the power structures which are currently driving people (including people in Cambridge) to desperation, forcing people to leave their neighbourhoods, pushing people into food and fuel poverty and making life unbearable for people who need benefits. While scientists produce ever more dire warnings about the real and present danger of climate change, our government of Oxbridge graduates blithely offers tax breaks to fracking companies and fails to take decisive action to reduce carbon emissions.

Things need to change, quite radically and quite quickly, but standing beneath the magnificent vaulted ceiling at Kings College chapel, it’s hard to see how that could ever happen.

Here in Brighton, we live in a different kind of bubble. Like Cambridge, Brighton doesn’t care very much what’s happening in the rest of the country. We aren’t easily swept along by the prevailing flow of political ideas. But rather than floating aloof, we tend to stand in the middle of the stream and cause a bit of turbulence.

Unlike most of the rest of the country, in Brighton we do have a credible alternative to the major parties. The rise of the Green Party in local politics has given the kind of people who are disenfranchised almost everywhere else a way to express our need for real change.

A mixture of inexperience, errors of judgment and unjustified mudslinging by opponents may have damaged the Green council administration’s reputation beyond repair, but Caroline Lucas has been a positive whirlwind of fresh ideas, enthusiasm, energy and principled commitment.

We need many more MPs who are prepared to get arrested for what they believe, who understand that protest is an essential component of democracy, who are not impressed by the ancient traditions and patriarchal flummery of Westminster (PDF). We need many more, but first we need to make sure we don’t lose the one we have.

Like Caroline Lucas, I’m inspired by the people of Balcombe, who are putting their money (and their roofs) where their mouths are and taking practical action to develop new renewable energy for their village. They in turn are following in the footsteps of our own Brighton Energy Coop and similar initiatives all over the UK and Europe.

Maybe this is how the old structures will eventually dissolve – by people simply getting on with making new ones. After a sunny day in the beautiful Sussex countryside, near Balcombe, I’ll allow myself a bit of hope.

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.