Labour Party conference is in town, and it’s fascinating in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Here are a few more words on how I see things developing. As I said before, now that we live in a world where six impossible things can happen before breakfast, I think it’s foolish to be too certain about anything – all my conclusions are tentative.
Let’s not mistake debate for division
I went to the Red Pepper fringe meeting last night, which was a really interesting discussion about the future of social movements, with Corbyn in the leadership of the Labour Party. There were excellent contributions from a range of thinkers and activists on the platform – most impressively, in my view, Neal Lawson of Compass and Ewa Jasiewicz, whose track record as an activist and organiser is phenomenal. She is involved in Fuel Poverty Action, Reclaim the Power and is now a Unite union organiser, working with hotel workers.
Ewa talked about the way Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been stalwart supporters of all the campaigns she’s worked on – they would turn up at the demos, put down Early Day Motions in Parliament, listen to and represent campaigners. To have people like that on the opposition front bench is a scenario none of us predicted, only a few months ago. Ewa clearly wants to offer them support in return, to defend them against the onslaught from the media and the right wing within Labour – but she is still undecided about whether joining the party is the best way to do that.
Neal Lawson told an oft-repeated story about Roosevelt, lobbied by union leaders soon after he became president, who concluded the meeting by saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Neal’s point was that progressive political change always happens because of popular pressure. Corbyn’s leadership relies on the massive wave of popular support he has attracted, and we have to keep that pressure up to keep him afloat.
Neal also spoke about the old ideas about vanguard leadership having been swept away. He said Facebook has replaced the factory as a location for communication and organising. Far from the masses needing to be mobilised and led by tactical thinkers, the wave now carries everyone and everything before it. A good social media campaign, such as the one that supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, is about making space for discussion, sharing resources and tools, and empowering people to take action, not about broadcasting the line.
If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.
It seems to me that there might be more than one right thing to do now. If Corbyn’s leadership has brought the Labour Party back to its rightful position as part of the wider labour and social justice movement, then that movement needs to remain vibrant, diverse, autonomous and challenging.
If the debate turns inwards, all is lost
Over 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected leader. Together with the thousands who joined during the leadership election campaign, these new members have a unique opportunity to give the party’s culture a much needed overhaul.
But cultures are resilient things, and there is a grave danger that instead, the new members will be “ground down with endless canvassing and procedures”, as Anthony Barnett warns in this excellent piece today.
Worse, they may find themselves sucked in and spat out, exhausted, by a vicious internal debate, as the new leadership’s policies bump up against the habits and preferences of unaltered local leaderships around the country.
I think the recent experience of socialists in the Green Party in Brighton is a timely warning. The party’s surprise success in the 2011 local elections turned its internal debates into damaging divisions. As I said in 2013, the ensuing focus of the Green left on winning arguments within the party left campaigners outside feeling abandoned and ignored. At a time when we hoped for real resistance to the assault on local government, with some of our people on the inside, our allies in the party switched their focus to an internal battle which they were unable to win.
As an alternative to this unappealing prospect, I was pleased to see this initative by Red Pepper, to build a network of anti-austerity activists committed to working together within and outside the Labour Party.
Can Brighton show the way?
In many ways, the success of Corbyn’s campaign was prefigured in Brighton. In 2010 we elected – against all odds – the first Green MP ever elected under First Past the Post. In 2011, Brighton & Hove voters surprised everyone by electing more Green councillors than representatives of any other party. In 2015, we bucked the trend again, returning one Labour and one Green MP to Parliament, amidst a sea of blue in the rest of the South East.
Caroline Lucas’s increased majority was built on her reputation for straight talking, honest politics, her commitment to clear principles and her untiring hard work as a constituency MP. She, like Jeremy Corbyn, has not forgotten her roots in the activist movement, and has been prepared to stand – and sit – with us on the streets as well as in Parliament.
The wave that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party began to swell in 2009 with the expenses scandal. It gained momentum in Brighton, with those unprecedented Green victories, and elsewhere took a more frightening form, with the growth of UKIP. It brought down the News of the World and is painfully unravelling the dark web of abuse at the heart of the political establishment. It forced the BBC to include the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 2015 general election televised debates – bringing anti-austerity arguments to more people than ever before.
Corbyn’s extraordinary success is built on all these extraordinary happenings, driven by the hunger of British people for justice.
The result of the 2015 general election was a blow to that sense of justice and the reaction has been powerful. In Brighton, hundreds more people have begun to take action on a whole range of issues, raising money for refugees, organising events on climate change, thinking about new forms of democracy, calling for an end to the housing crisis and challenging political parties to work together for the common good.
Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity is one strand in this fast-developing movement. Everyone is invited to the next People’s Assembly meeting on October 7th, to talk about how we can work together to have maximum impact locally. I hope members of all progressive parties – and none – will join the discussion.
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.
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 budgets, shedding 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.
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:
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.
By setting a 4.75% council tax Brighton Greens have washed their hands of the responsibility of power & will cost us £230k for a referendum.
— Caroline Penn (@ThePennyDrops) January 16, 2014
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.
I was invited to speak at the Green Left and Green Trade Unionists group fringe meeting at Green Party conference last night. The meeting was about how Greens in local government can fight austerity, and naturally they wanted to hear about what had happened here in Brighton.
I only had 5 minutes to speak, and couldn’t fit in everything I wanted to say, so here is a kind of extended remix.
What has been the local impact of the Green administration’s decision to balance the budget over the last three years?
I think there are four main aspects of this:
- The direct impact of cuts to the council budget
- The impact of cuts in housing benefit, which is administered by the council
- The danger of privatisation as the logical next step, once “efficiency savings” become impossible
- The damaging impact on the ability of people and organisations in the city to make alliances and fight back against the cuts
Cuts to council budget
It’s true that Brighton & Hove has so far seen no big ticket service cuts such as closure of branch libraries or children’s centres. As far as I’m aware, there have been no compulsory redundancies so far at the council.
You might say, in fact, that the Greens are doing a pretty good job of being a Labour council, which of course explains the state of constant fury in which the local Labour Party finds itself.
But there are two large groups of people in the city who have been directly affected by the council’s budget cuts.
The first group is the people who work for the council.
Over the last two years, 250 posts have been lost from the council’s workforce. Those left behind are dealing with increased pressure of work and uncertainty due to massive restructuring, not to mention a continuing pay freeze.
Obviously, this has an impact on their ability to deliver high quality services. We have seen the Connexions service redesigned, with staffing cut by more than half, the catering contract for the museums outsourced and staff transferred to a private employer, and the loss of our beloved mobile library service.
As an audience member eloquently pointed out on this week’s Question Time (minute 53:30), local government workers have paid the price of George Osborne’s so-called recovery – in wage cuts and job losses.
The second – larger and more vulnerable – group is people previously entitled to Council Tax Benefit.
Like most other councils in the country, Brighton & Hove has passed on to residents the majority of the 10% council tax benefit funding cut. Everyone of working age now has to pay some council tax [PDF], up to an initial cap of £3 per week (this will be increasing in the coming years).
This change affects 17,000 households in the city. The impact is not evenly distributed; in 5 wards, over 30% of households are affected, with the highest proportion being 42% in East Brighton.
These are, of course, the poorest people in the city – unemployed, sick and disabled people, single parents. Over 7,000 of those households include children, including nearly 600 households with disabled children. 20% of the adults affected are disabled.
Housing benefit cuts
14% of households in the city – that’s also (and not coincidentally) just under 17,000 households – have been affected by one or more of the housing benefit changes introduced since April 2011, namely the major cuts and changes to Local Housing Allowance for private sector tenants, the bedroom tax and the overall benefit cap.
Their average loss of household income due to these changes alone is £1,500 a year [PDF].
Many of these people are also affected by the changes to disability benefits and the horrific sanctions and workfare schemes being imposed by the DWP.
Through the Brighton Bedroom Tax Victims Support Group, I’ve been hearing first hand from local people about how they have been affected by all this. Here are just two examples:
“My home used to be a safe space – now I’m frightened of what the next post will bring.”
“With a starting income of £71 income support, the bedroom tax and council tax takes off £26 per week. After paying direct debits for utilities like gas, electricity, water and telephone etc. I am left with £12.50 per week to live on, to cover food, [transport] and any other thing I might need.”
Partly as a result of our lobbying, Brighton & Hove Council has agreed not to evict people for Bedroom Tax arrears. However, this doesn’t actually do much to ease the anxiety people feel or prevent them being pressured to pay.
This is the context in which Brighton & Hove Council is asking people to find £3 a week for Council Tax.
No wonder people are not paying it – they simply can’t afford to.
But in contrast to the headline-grabbing Bedroom Tax policy, the council is pursuing Council tax arrears aggressively, sending out court summonses to people who owe just a few pounds, with the threat of £100 extra court costs.
Brighton & Hove Council has done what it can to weather the storm by shedding jobs, reorganising departments and minimising the number of people affected by benefit cuts.
I’d say this last aim is highly dubious, given the nature of the wider cuts and the way the Tories have framed the debate. The effect has been to concentrate the impact onto people already being hit hard.
But there’s not much further they can go in that direction. More cuts are heading our way and we now hear rumours that the council is looking at privatising health prevention services like the sexual health clinic and even core council services like Adult Social Care.
This is not a huge surprise, given the direction of travel so far, but it’s still deeply shocking from a Green administration.
For anyone elected to public office, it’s important to keep asking “Whose side are you on? Who do you represent?”
It seems to me that the Green group in Brighton & Hove have listened too much to senior officers and not enough to front line staff.
They have squandered the chance their Living Wage policy gave them to make strong alliances with the trade unions at the council, leading to this year’s disastrous dispute with the Cityclean workers.
As campaigners against cuts and austerity in Brighton & Hove, we should be able to feel we’ve got some of our people on the inside, but (by and large) we don’t.
The position of Green Party members in local campaigns has been very difficult – they’ve found themselves on the defensive and unable to act as an effective bridge between council and activists.
I think the confrontational tone of the anti-cuts movement also contributed to a collective failure to open a real dialogue when the Green administration first took office.
With the establishment of the People’s Assembly in Brighton, we are only now beginning to rebuild some strength and confidence.
The 2014-15 budget is crunch time. There are no more efficiency savings to be squeezed from council staff. To keep balancing the budget, we are now looking at harsh service cuts or privatisation.
More than ever, we urgently need creative dialogue between anti-cuts voices inside and outside the council.
We need to find a way to support and work with those councillors who are not prepared to vote through another cuts budget, so that their stand represents something more than a split or personality clash, and indicates the spirit and strength of opposition to the onslaught faced by thousands of residents of our city.
I read Neil Schofield’s recent post on leaving the Green Party with interest and the same downhearted feeling I always get when thinking about the state of local party politics in Brighton & Hove.
I never joined the Green Party, on the basis that I’d rather not get my political heart broken again, having finally got over the realisation that the tiny Trotskyist sect to which I dedicated my teens and early twenties was not in fact the answer to the crisis of leadership in the working class under advanced capitalism. (Here’s a clue, for anyone similarly smitten: if your organisation has less than a thousand members, and most people can’t distinguish it from half a dozen similar outfits, it’s probably not the vanguard party.)
Having recently returned to active politics after a decade and a half in which I was somewhat preoccupied by the important work of raising children, I find that in some ways I miss both the theoretical underpinning and the (often pointless) party discipline that being in an organisation gave me. It’s hard work to figure out what’s the right thing to do, and where best to spend limited time and energy. And there’s an inherent tension in being an independent activist with a primary interest in collective action and collective solutions.
So I’m interested in whether politics can be done differently, and what that might mean.
Neil makes two main points: that the Green Party has not sufficiently thought through the question of power; and that the party’s democratic structures are not sufficiently rigorous to ensure that debate within the party has an impact on the behaviour of councillors and party members as they implement the party’s policies.
Neil frames his second point in terms of “discipline”, which is a shame, as I think he has something important to say, which is not easily expressed in a word with such top-down, hierarchical connotations. I think the issue is more one of accountability and democracy, both of which require a high level of both trust and organisation.
I’ve just returned from an overnight stay at the Balcombe Community Protection Camp, where a growing group of people are living and working together to resist the incursion of fracking into the Sussex countryside. There are inevitable tensions when a group of strangers need to work together in this way, but I was impressed by the speed with which the camp has developed robust democratic structures and efficient basic organisation.
They have a working kitchen, well stocked with food, utensils and volunteers. New spaces for shared activity are created as necessary – there is a tech tent, with solar chargers and car batteries to power laptops and phones; a living room and fire circle, a dining room, a children’s space, an information tent, a marquee in which films can be shown, and several meditation and healing spaces.
They have camp meetings twice a day, at which anyone can raise any issue and decisions are made by consensus. Issues that need longer and more detailed discussion are delegated to smaller focus groups which report back to the main meeting. There are political and practical disagreements, and I think there may be a limit to the length of time the current arrangements can last, and possibly a limit to the number of people that can be incorporated. But for now, it’s working well.
Many of the people at the camp are clearly used to this way of working – they have been involved in numerous other protest camps, and have been part of the decentralised development of this culture. But it seems to me that the key ingredient which makes it work (at least for a while) on each occasion is the immediate and shared aim of the protest. Everybody knows why they are there, and when they are called upon to act, they do so immediately. Each person in the camp trusts the others to keep them physically safe. It’s a strangely intense and emotionally tiring way to live.
Things are clearly more complicated if you are trying to organise a political party. This is another way of getting back to Neil’s power question – what is the Green Party trying to achieve by standing for election in a seriously dysfunctional democratic system? Where does power actually lie in a local authority? Is it possible to do things differently within the constraints of a structure designed by your opponents?
I think Brighton & Hove Green Party underestimated the seriousness of these issues, and didn’t spend enough time considering the awful possibility of actually winning enough seats to become the largest party group on the Council. I think, as is common among parties, they became distracted by the idea of winning elections as an end in itself, and mistook the trappings of office for the reins of power.
I think any party which actually wants to transform politics – and society – needs to accept that winning seats in elections is not the main mechanism by which this can be done. Standing in elections is fine – but going all out to win them could be a mistake, if you haven’t properly considered what being an elected representative means.
It means representing the people who are being done over by the system of political power, not placating them in the name of efficiency. It means challenging all the power structures – the voting system, the funding limits, the hierarchies of bureaucratic management – not accepting that this is how it’s traditionally done. It means remembering what you are there for and being accountable to the people who put you there.
Unless you have people prepared to do that, I’m not convinced that a strategy of winning as many seats as possible is worth the damage to the integrity and sense of purpose of the individuals involved or the party as a whole, and I’m not at all convinced that what’s needed is a new political party.
Electoral politics – especially given the limitations on the power of elected councillors – is only one (arguably fairly irrelevant) strand in the overall tapestry of politics and power. For the people delaying the trucks at the Balcombe drill site, the people forced into workfare schemes and those denied disability benefits, the people faced with privatisation of their jobs and the people who can’t afford to stay in their homes, things are considerably more urgent than the next electoral cycle. We need reinforcements in those battles, not party activists focusing on their own prospects in 2015.