A new twist in a long road

I’m currently reading this book about the history of the women’s refuge movement. Its subtitle is “We’ve come further than you think”. As the author, Gill Hague, explains in this taster article, the first women’s refuges grew directly from the second-wave feminist movement, and they were nothing less than revolutionary:

“At the time, they were new to everyone and the struggles to get them established were conducted with ferocious dedication and against the odds.  But women trying to get away from domestic violence immediately arrived at these brand-new projects.  Immediately.  They had found out, somehow, that there were these other unknown women around – and that, almost out of the blue, these other women might offer assistance.  And so they threw their fates to the winds to try to get help. These were acts of almost unimaginable courage at the time.

The new women’s initiatives confronted – in a concrete and undeniable way – men’s rights and power within the family.  And the (male-headed) family was then the heart and bedrock of how personal, family and sexual relations were organised in society.  Women were taking unprecedented action to leave their husbands who they had probably, at the time, promised to ‘obey’. They were suddenly trying to get themselves and their children out of violent marriages and partnerships, often without warning.

Not only were they doing this – extraordinary at the time – but then they were doing something even more extraordinary. They were going to live together with groups of other women in safe houses run by women.  It was a quite remarkable – and entirely unpredicted -development, stunning in its fearlessness and daring.”

Gill Hague is, of course, correct, that the situation of women experiencing domestic abuse is vastly different now from that of those early refuge residents and volunteers. Her book traces the evolution of the refuge movement over the last five decades – from volunteer-run collectives to ‘professional’ service providers; from women working together to physically maintain and repair safe houses for themselves and each other, to organisations with dozens of staff, funded by government grants and contributing to policy development as experts.

Supping with the devil

As she takes the reader along that path, she often pauses to point out what has been lost as well as gained. Reflecting on the move towards funding and paid workers by the start of the 1980s, she notes that “Some feminists, like Ellen Malos, have spoken ironically of this as ‘supping with the devil’ … as radical and feminist ideas were put under pressure by the demands and restrictions imposed by funders, and by criminal justice and local authority bodies. But it seems the ‘supping’ had to be done as there had to be funding if the services were to expand and consolidate.”

Later on, it was pressure from funders again which forced a shift away from collective organising towards more formal organisational structures with CEOs, boards of trustees and the like. I have a lot of sympathy with Gill’s call to celebrate the courage and commitment of the refuge movement’s pioneers, as they created organisations that involved all workers, volunteers and residents on an equal footing. In a particularly powerful passage, she describes the impact this way of working had on the women she interviewed, who had been residents in those early, collectively run, safe houses:

“To many of them it had been transformative indeed, and they have never forgotten it. They were finally being taken seriously by others. They were listened to and could participate in decision-making. They were viewed as worthwhile members of something bigger, and their lives changed, often forever. Many previous workers felt the same. The radical politics and experiments in flattening hierarchies built a new and challenging way of working. … one previous resident … wanted it to be added, loud and clear, that the ‘over-idealistic’ argument was absolutely the opposite of her experience. To her, the equality visions of the movement had lifted her life forever after.”

He who pays the piper calls the tune

Looking at the current situation of women’s services in my local area through this historical lens, I am left feeling that we may have tipped over some kind of watershed in the last few years. What if all these cumulative encroachments and compromises have ultimately allowed those pioneering women’s accomplishments to be sold out from under us?

My local council, earlier this year, awarded a new five-year contract for women’s refuge provision to a big Housing Association, not to the women-led, grassroots charity which had built up the service from scratch, over the previous 25 years.

East Sussex County Council has also recently contracted a national Housing Association to provide refuge services.

These organisations do not share the history, principles and traditions of the women’s refuge movement. That has not stopped them from winning contracts, because the local authority funders awarding the contracts do not see those principles and traditions as important. This has been a very recent shift (at least, locally) – as recently as 2017, Brighton & Hove City Council had a comprehensive and integrated Violence against Women & Girls strategy, which recognised that:

“Violence against women and girls is a continuum: it is the basic common characteristic that underlies many different events in women and girls’ lives, involving many forms of intimate intrusion, coercion, abuse and assault, that pass into one another and cannot always be readily distinguished, but that as a continuum are used to control women and girls.” (p. 9)

The strategy was based on the expertise and analysis developed over decades by the feminist movement. This analysis was influential on a global scale, as noted in the same strategy document:

“Protection from violence against women is found in a number of International, UN and European agreements, which recognise that violence against women and girls is inextricably linked to women’s and girls’ subordinate status in society, and to an abuse of male power and privilege; and also recognise it is a function of gender inequality, and connected to the broader social, economic and cultural discrimination experienced by women.” (p. 5)

In the decade since that strategy document was drafted, this understanding seems to have been lost to our local council bureaucracies. You can scour the current draft Pan-Sussex Strategy for Domestic Abuse Accommodation and Support in vain, looking for any such clear statement of feminist principle.

Instead, we find much blander, gender-neutral statements, such as:

“Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, sexuality or background.”


“The Government’s definition of domestic violence is ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.’”

Sex still matters

The trouble is, we haven’t come as far as our local councils seem to think. Outside the pages of their strategy documents, women are still dealing with systematic, brutal inequality. Women in abusive relationships are trapped in a series of age-old double-binds:

  • they are advised and expected to end the relationship, especially if they have children (with the well-understood implication that their children may be assessed as at risk if they don’t)
  • refuge provision is chronically underfunded and inadequate. According to the draft Pan-Sussex strategy, Sussex needs 171 refuge spaces for women and children, to meet the standard set by the Council of Europe. We currently have 90
  • exorbitant rents, the benefit cap and the two-child limit mean that many women remain financially dependent on their abusers
  • perpetrators are routinely using secretive family court processes and accusations of parental alienation to secure ongoing contact with children, binding women into lifelong contact with the men who abused them

None of these impacts is gender-neutral. But the draft strategy does not even consider sex as a factor in its list of protected characteristics.

When feminists created the first women’s refuges, their understanding of the continuum of male violence and their commitment to a meaningful process of empowerment for women led them to create spaces that were for women only. The reasons why this was important have not gone away.

But East Sussex County Council have now decided that all 47 of their previously single-sex women’s refuge places – now provided by Clarion Housing Association – will henceforth accept referrals for transwomen. This change is not subject to consultation, it is simply stated as a fait accompli in the draft Pan-Sussex strategy.

Although Brighton & Hove City Council officers assured members of the public in June this year that the city’s refuge would remain single-sex, the Equality Impact Assessment they conducted for the contract they eventually awarded to Stonewater Housing Association suggests that this may change in future, unless women speak up.

Women are rising

This weekend, the policy of our local rape crisis service, Survivors Network, to offer all its services on the basis of self-identification of gender has been criticised by many women, following an article in the Mail on Sunday. Funders and service providers who perhaps think women no longer care about feminist principles may have to revise their assessment of the situation. As we have known for a very long time, real change always comes from below.

If you live in Sussex (or even if you don’t), you can take part in the consultation on the draft strategy document until 19th December. I hope that many women who care about the legacy of those pioneering feminists will take the time to do this.

Jeremy Corbyn: the right answer to the wrong question

British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.

The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.

This attitude prevails not just for the leaders of political parties and football teams, but for senior managers in all walks of life, especially in what used to be known as public service. We are told, for example, that our local council needs a Chief Executive on a salary of well over £100k, in order to ensure that we attract a “high calibre individual” able to “provide leadership”. [PDF] Unfortunately, the job of Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove Council now seems to be endangered by every shift in the political balance of the council.

The combination of (real or perceived) political patronage with salary levels that mimic those of private sector CEOs, has proved pretty expensive for the council’s budget over the past few years.

Maybe we should try organising our local services without a Chief Executive for a while. While we’re at it, we could get rid of all the managers and trust the front line staff to make decisions about how to organise their work. Maybe it would save enough money to pay care workers a decent wage.

It’s not just the mainstream that looks for answers in leadership. The left is always in search of new leaders whom we can idolise, and later despise. The political tradition in which I was educated (the Trotskyist Fourth International) held that there is a crisis of leadership in the working class, and that overcoming this is crucial to getting out of the pretty pass we find ourselves in.

So wedded are we to the leadership model of political organising that we simply don’t know how to respond when people (even famous people) speak about something quite different.

What Russell Brand has brought to the national conversation is a recognition that there is a crisis, not of leadership, but of representation and accountability – a crisis of democracy. Our elected representatives are distant from the true centres of power and our voting system denies most of us any meaningful choice, even from within the diminished pool of candidates presented to us.

The Labour Party should not be asking “who will be the leader who can return us to electability?” They should be asking “how can we represent and support the people who are at the sharp end of austerity?”

In the absence of political representation, some of those people have been organising themselves. In the absence of media coverage, people have been making and sharing their own news. The internet has been used to create the networks of knowledge, support and resistance that the traditional political system has failed to offer over the last five years.

The victory of the Tories at the election has driven people to take action – hundreds of people from Brighton joined the demonstration in London last week, including many who had never been on such a demonstration before.

This is the constituency for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. His Facebook page has over 30,000 likes. Labour MPs were pestered and petitioned to nominate him, not by the dwindling Labour left but by the growing movement of activists who are angry that the official opposition seems to find it so difficult to actually oppose anything.

I first met Jeremy Corbyn around 30 years ago, when I was a rising young thing in the peace movement and he was a relatively new MP. For a few years, he would recognise and acknowledge me when we turned up at the same meetings and demos.

Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.

He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader. He, like Caroline Lucas, stands in solidarity with the people who are fighting for justice.

That’s why I’ve registered as a supporter of the Labour Party, in order to vote for him in the leadership election. Not because I think the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Not because I think electing a new leader is the best way to do that, even if it were possible. But because his candidacy amplifies the voice of those grassroots campaigns and their demand for representation.

Into the vacuous soundbite-filled “debate” between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, the Corbyn campaign brings real politics and an understanding of the need to build a movement for real change.

God knows, we need some of that!

Will we send solidarity to Palestine – or just bombs?

I joined the demonstration in support of Brighton Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s latest campaign today. The group is calling for Brighton & Hove City council to join the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, to put pressure on Israel to cease its illegal siege, occupation and military attacks on Palestinian areas.

I’ve written to my ward councillors, to let them know why I’d like them to support this campaign. If you agree, please write to your councillors too. Here’s my letter:

Dear Liz, Bill and Emma,

I’m writing to ask you to support Cllr. Ben Duncan’s motion at the next Brighton & Hove City Council meeting, which calls on the council to join the international boycott of Israel, in support of the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, made in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organisations.

I’m sure you have been as horrified as I have by the images of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this summer. Over 2000 people have been killed, over 70% of them civilians, including over 500 children. Although it has disappeared from BBC news bulletins, the attack continues, with 20 more air strikes yesterday, including the destruction of an apartment building that was home to 60 families.

The facts are pretty clear. The siege of Gaza is a shocking example of collective punishment. The attacks on the civilian population are massively disproportionate. Israel has ignored numerous UN resolutions and reports and continued to break international law with impunity for decades.

I’m sure you’ve heard all these facts and figures before. I have too. They have become part of the background for us – another faraway war we can switch off when the pictures on the television are too upsetting.

But for some Brighton & Hove residents, these facts represent the heartbreaking reality of knowing that their relatives and friends are losing their homes and living every day in fear of their lives – or worse. This afternoon I heard a woman talk about a friend she met on a visit to Palestine. Her friend’s sister had been killed before her eyes, as they were fleeing their home together.

Last month I heard a member of the local Palestinian community talk about the warning issued to his relatives in Gaza – they had five minutes to get out of their home before it was destroyed, leaving behind all their possessions, family photos, everything.

What’s happening in Gaza is connected to us in Brighton another way too. The EDO-MBM factory in Moulsecoomb, a subsidiary of Exelis Ltd, manufactures weapons suspension and release systems used in Gaza, among other places.

Weapons made in Brighton are among those destroying the homes of Palestinian civilians. This is not a faraway conflict that has nothing to do with us.

Joining the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is the clearest way we can express our solidarity with the people of Gaza and the occupied territories, and our support for the Palestinian community in our city.

Please support the motion on October 23rd.

Yours sincerely,


Dani Ahrens

As a woman, I have no country

I’ll be outside Hove Town Hall this afternoon, making a last ditch attempt to persuade enough of our local councillors to vote against the proposed cuts to local services.

The agenda of the meeting is long and complicated. The 54 voting members of the council will be making decisions that affect everyone in the city, but most citizens are unaware of the meeting taking place. Of those who are, I imagine most have not read the documents, or managed to grasp the essential issues. I’m a highly educated person, with a frankly abnormal interest in the workings of local government, and I think I will struggle to follow the proceedings in the meeting.

I had hoped to try and spell out the key issues in this post, but I am hampered by the fact that the amendments to the budget from the three political groups have not yet been published on the council website (as I write at 10am, six hours before the meeting begins). I don’t know if councillors have seen them, but I think it’s ridiculous that the public are denied access to the information we need to form an opinion, let alone have an influence.

Two of the parties have issued press releases about their amendments. The Labour group’s press release describes one effect of their amendments as being to “reverse cuts to social care”, exactly the same wording as is used by the Greens in proposing an increase in council tax by 4.75%.

However, none of the amendments mentioned by Labour actually touch the major cuts to adult social care that will take place if the budget goes through as proposed by the Policy and Resources Committee (where Labour and Conservative councillors combined to strip out the extra council tax rise suggested by the Greens).

I assume (though I can’t be sure until the amendments are officially published) that the cuts to social care they refer to are the proposals to reduce the budget for services to children with disabilities by £68,000 and divert £41,000 of school funding into this area. I agree that families with disabled children cannot afford to have their services cut, but I think it is misleading of Labour to present a change to less than 0.05% of the council’s budget as “reversing cuts to social care”.

The Conservative amendments, as described by them, make similarly minimal changes to the budget proposals. In common with Labour, they propose to reverse the cut to the respite care budget (though they identify this as amounting to £84,000, a figure I cannot find in the latest budget papers at all), to reverse the cut to community and voluntary sector grants, to retain the subsidy for Able and Willing and to cut funding to services for travellers.

Obviously, I don’t agree that respite care, community grants or supported employment should be cut. But I am horrified at the way the bulk of the job and service cuts in the proposed budget have been completely sidelined by the opposition parties.

The Green Party have not yet announced any amendments, other than to say that they will be proposing the 4.75% council tax increase again this afternoon.

This proposal, the only one that even comes close to addressing the core issues at stake, is unfortunately bound to be defeated at the council meeting.

For the non-obsessed citizen, all the arcane procedures, all the high drama of last minute amendments and surprise manoeuvres are impenetrable, boring and irrelevant. All the puff pieces about how heroic rescues have been made by this or that party are pretty distasteful.

For some of the citizens with learning disabilities who today can get friendly, helpful support with finding and keeping a job from fairly-paid, experienced and dedicated council staff, the issue is very simple. From April, that support will start to be withdrawn. Over the next few years, those staff will lose their jobs. Their knowledge, skill and experience will be lost to our community.

For some of the older citizens who today have the option of moving into residential care homes paid for from our common funds when they need to, the issue is very simple. From April, there will be fewer residential places available because there will be £1,150,000 less to pay for them.

For some of the people with learning disabilities and older people who today enjoy a sense of friendship and community at council-funded day centres, the issue is very simple. From April, their centres will be at risk of closure, their friendships will be disrupted and threatened.

For most people in the city, politics is not a game. Most people know – and the behaviour of our councillors over the last few months has demonstrated this rather dismally – that whatever politicians say, in the end they will sell you down the river if it brings them some glory.

I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas at the moment. I’m working on a collaborative banner for International Women’s Day, featuring a famous quote from that work – “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

Woolf talks about the choices facing educated women in the early 20th century, as the opportunity to participate in political and public life opened up for the first time. She reminds her readers that women have achieved great things despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of access to the structures of power and privilege designed by and for men.

She talks of “the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties”. I apologise for quoting at great length, but I think this advice remains relevant and pertinent for anyone – local councillors, for example – who hopes to make a difference in this deeply dysfunctional society:

“By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.

By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing […]

By derision – a bad word, but once again the English language is much in need of new words – is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise. Directly badges, orders or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver’s face.

By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. Directly the seducers come with their seductions to bribe you into captivity, tear up the parchments; refuse to fill up the forms.”

Social democracy 101

At the Brighton & Hove Independent Big Debate last night, I made a clumsy attempt to express my frustration at the attitude of local Labour politicians towards the proposal to increase council tax by 4.75%. Here’s what I was trying to say:

I live in a small (Band C) terraced house in Brighton. We pay £110 a month in Council tax.

Our council tax contributes to paying the wages of people who:

  • Collect refuse and recycling
  • Clean the city’s streets and beaches
  • Maintain our parks
  • Make sure building work is done safely
  • Design road schemes to improve traffic flow and safety
  • Handle planning applications
  • Monitor food safety and trading standards
  • Look after and create the excellent local museums
  • Run a network of libraries
  • Conserve the Royal Pavilion
  • Organise the school admissions process
  • Find people homes when they are in dire straits
  • Publish information about what the council does, and ask us what we think of it
  • Organise elections
  • Allocate grant funding to community and voluntary organisations
  • Run care services for elderly and disabled people
  • Support children and families in difficulty
  • Look after children when their parents can’t
  • Promote the city as a worldwide tourist destination
  • Arrange free bus transport for pensioners
  • Manage parking schemes
  • Commission essential bus routes that need subsidy
  • Process housing benefit and council tax reduction claims

And no doubt many other things I haven’t thought of.

I’d say that I’m getting excellent value for my £110 a month.

But paying taxes is more than just a way of purchasing these services. In return for my taxes, I get a miraculous whole that is worth more than the considerable sum of all these different parts – I get to live in a city that works.

Whether or not I ever use the services my taxes help to pay for, I benefit from the fact that they exist, that there is a safety net for everyone who lives here – whoever they are – and that thought and care is being put into keeping everything functioning.

And because I am a citizen of this place, I get to have a say in how it works. None of the services I’ve listed is perfect – nor is our system of democracy. Trying to have a say is often frustrating.

But when was the last time your local supermarket consulted you on anything? How can insurance companies be held accountable for their decisions? How much of the money local residents spend each year ends up in the pockets of shareholders outside the city or even the country? (and how many of them go to great lengths to avoid paying tax at all?)

Local public services are under a ferocious attack. The difficulty of balancing Brighton & Hove Council’s budget is not down to poor choices by the Green administration. It’s caused by deep cuts in government funding, services already operating at full stretch, and increasing needs due to an ageing population and worsening inequality.

Frankly, increasing council tax by 4.75% is the least the council could do in the face of this onslaught. It wouldn’t reverse all the cuts included in the proposed budget. It’s not a revolutionary blow for the masses against the relentless pressure of the coalition’s austerity project. It’s also really not an outrageous raid on the hard-pressed wallets of Warren Morgan’s constituents in Whitehawk.

Surely any Labour Party member worth their salt can see that the interests of Whitehawk residents are not well served by presiding over the destruction of the social services on which many of them rely (all the while claiming credit for the ability to “make tough choices”)?

It’s a very mild stand in defence of basic social-democratic ideas. It’s a chance to make the case for the ragged remnants of our public services.

Why is the Labour Party leaving that task to the Greens?

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.

Byelection issues 2 (continued): what the candidates say on cuts

I asked the two leading candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection this question:

Emma Daniel replied the next day with a series of three tweets:

I invited her to say more, and she said she would, but has since changed her mind.

In the meantime, David Gibson sent me the following statement by email on June 20th:

“Firstly, I believe that councillors should play an active part in the coalitions of resistance, such as the People’s Assembly. Along with 400 others, I was heartened by the strength of opposition. Personally I was also proud of the part played by the Green Party in helping to organise this event. I was reminded of the mass movement of non-payment and resistance against the Poll Tax. The success of that campaign demonstrates that it is wrong for councillors to think purely in terms of operating within mainstream political institutions.

Secondly, I believe that councillors should use their position to publicly highlight the injustice of the way that ordinary people are being made to pay for the mistakes of those at the top through cuts and austerity. I will continue to be vocal about on this.

Finally, at a local level councillors should explore imaginative ways of generating revenue and getting round the constraints caused by austerity. I recall in the 1980s how local council housing departments found ways to drive a coach and horses through the restrictions on capital spending, thereby protecting investment in council housing for many years. We should also consult with residents to identify what is truly needed for our city and base campaigning on the difference between this and the imposition of cuts by central government.

The Green administration of Brighton & Hove has worked hard to protect vital services for the most vulnerable and avoid compulsory redundancies. If elected, I would work hard with my colleagues in the minority administration not only to protect services for the most vulnerable and to highlight injustices, but also to take take practical steps, such as radically accelerating the building of new council houses – something that is entirely realistic within the current constraints.”

I had been hoping to compare Emma’s longer response with David’s, but even without that we can see some clear differences between the candidates on this issue. Emma thinks the council can’t really resist the cuts, beyond lobbying, while David thinks the council can play a part, alongside residents, in mass campaigning for more resources from the government. Emma thinks the way to create jobs in the city is by supporting small businesses, while David favours direct investment in council housing. Emma sees the desperate need of local people as a concern, while David identifies it as an injustice.

These differences may be more about presentation than actual policy, but I suspect not. There has been little difference in practice between what the minority Green administration has done so far in Brighton & Hove and the behaviour of Labour councils around the country. But the deeper the cuts bite – we have not yet seen the devastating impact on local residents of the benefit cap and universal credit, nor of the planned £30 million budget cuts at the Royal Sussex County Hospital – the more our politicians will be forced to put their principles into action. In circumstances like these, what we desperately need are politicians with a clear grasp of what those principles are.

I have been asked why I’m not including Phil Clarke in this discussion. Phil is the candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and a member of the Socialist Party. His line on cuts is solid and strong, like a brick wall, and includes the inevitable call for a 24 hour general strike. He can’t possibly win – the TUSC candidate in Hanover & Elm Grove attracted a grand total of 156 votes in 2011. However, thanks to the stupidity of our electoral system and the peculiarities of this particular contest, an increased vote for TUSC could result in a gain for Labour against a clearly anti-cuts Green candidate.

I can absolutely understand the temptation to put forward and vote for an uncompromising stand against the cuts and in support of workers driven to strike by an administration which claimed to be on their side.

I also see the value of using an election campaign as a platform for views that are not represented by any political party with a chance of being elected. That’s part of what I’m also trying to do with this series of blog posts.

But I think voting for Phil Clarke would be a mistake in this particular byelection. I think David Gibson would be as effective as a voice against cuts and for radical action in defence of working class people as anyone elected to the council can be. His voice would be more effective because it would be added to those of others within the Green group who have shown solidarity with the Cityclean strikers, despite the damage to their party’s electoral chances.

As I’ve said before, I think the Green administration missed a good opportunity to stand up for the people of Brighton & Hove against the cuts, and that is part of the story that has brought them to a damaging conflict with their most militant workers. But those of us campaigning outside the council chamber missed a trick too. We failed to engage the Greens in a real dialogue, preferring instead to shout the “correct” answer at them and berate them as traitors when they didn’t adopt the tactics of Liverpool council in the 1980s.

I think we won’t win like that. Instead, what we need is a bit of the imagination and creativity shown by the students and workers at Sussex University, still campaigning in an exemplary way against privatisation. We need to acknowledge that these are new circumstances, requiring new tactics. And we need to allow ourselves space to debate those, without drawing up battle lines between us before we start. Please feel free to continue the debate in the comments below.

Byelection issues 2: the city council budget

I’ve been struggling to find a second question to put to candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection. It’s difficult to see much beyond the rubbish swirling about in our streets, and to get away from the feeling that the outcome of this dispute will overshadow all politics in the city for years to come.

The historical background to the dispute is long and complex, and (as I think I mentioned before) only a very few people have the information necessary to devise a solution that is just for everyone. It is also taking place in the confining context of brutal year-on-year cuts to the council’s budget.

How the council has responded to that onslaught is part of the story of what has brought us to this pretty pass. In my opinion, the Green administration has missed an opportunity to champion the needs of Brighton & Hove’s residents, choosing instead a managerial path of damage limitation, just like Labour councils all over the country.

This timid approach has meant that alliances between the council, unions and residents’ campaigns have not been built in Brighton & Hove over the past two years. It has eroded the optimistic and fighting spirit that sent Caroline Lucas to Parliament, to the point that there is a real danger of her losing her seat in 2015. And it has left Green councillors feeling boxed in and lacking in the confidence and courage they needed to take a principled stand when a court decision on an equal pay case in Birmingham brought the allowances issue to a head.

Brighton & Hove Labour, meanwhile, has concentrated on scoring points against the Greens, to the exclusion of all else – leading them to vote alongside the Tories to defeat a council tax increase in 2011, causing a reduction in the tax base into the future and further endangering local services.

Nationally, Labour remains as dreadful as ever, colluding with retrospective legislation to do claimants out of the compensation they were owed for being deceived into workfare schemes, promising a welfare spending cap to continue the misery being rained on poor people by the Tories, and engaging in bizarre policy acrobatics to avoid simply making a commitment to setting the minimum wage at a level that enables people to live decently.

Amid all this gloom, today brought a welcome piece of news – Unison’s Local Government conference passed a motion in support of Councillors Against Cuts – a network of Labour councillors who are determined to vote against the cuts being imposed on their electors, often by their own colleagues in council administrations.

So, my second question to David Gibson and Emma Daniel is this: What do you think local councillors should do to resist the budget cuts imposed by government?

I will report back on their answers, but feel free to supply your own in the comments box.