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.

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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.