Why I voted against the Brighton budget
So, the Brighton and Hove Council Budget has been passed, but people are still asking me the question: why didn’t you vote ‘for’ the budget with all of the other councillors in the chamber that evening? Why did you decide to vote against?
This blog is to explain my position. In short, I found our amended budget (by Labour and supported by the Tories), which included a Council Tax Freeze, unpalatable. I’ll clarify my thinking below.
First of all, I just want to say that I respect my colleagues, although I do not agree with their decision to vote ‘for’ the amended budget. I recognise that the other parties, who did not reveal their budget amendments until less than 48 hours before Budget Council, put us in an extremely difficult situation. This is despite us having spent almost three months in consultation with the city about our budget proposals.
I know from attending meetings in the run up to budget day that there were several distinct views in the Group on how to respond to the ‘Blue Labour’-Tory alliance’s voting through the tax freeze and all that means for more severe cuts to budgets next year. Some colleagues agreed with me and some did not. It is interesting that in the final days before the budget there must have been a shift among some colleagues in favour of supporting the budget should it be amended by the opposition on council tax as several colleagues had previously shared my position but I was the only councillor who ultimately voted against. I am told that the Unions attempted to put pressure on Labour but to no avail. But we knew that neither Labour nor the Tories would budge on their proposed Council Tax Freeze.
My view is that voting for the amended budget was incorrect, both strategically and in principle. For me it was down to a question of ethics, integrity, consistency of message and bringing our membership with us. In voting for the amended budget, I do not believe we managed to do any of these things – something that could be electorally damaging to us in the future.
Let’s put this into perspective. We led the way on refusing Pickles’ Council Tax bribe, which was a powerful thing to do, and thirty or so local authorities of all colours followed suit. Then, all but one (me) of the Green Councillors voted for the amended budget which included the Council Tax Freeze, so it looks as if ‘we’ capitulated to Tory thinking at the first hurdle. I decided to stand by my Green principles and keep my pledge to the members and the electorate, even if that meant I was the only one in the room to say ‘no’. Although my Green Group colleagues have equally sincere and different positions on this, as a politician, I believe it is important for me to keep faith with the voters: if I’ve told them that I’m against the Council Tax Freeze, then I feel that I have a duty to keep that promise and to vote accordingly.
Taking the membership with us is also crucial, and in my view, we failed in this regard too. I was the first Green to take a Tory seat in the city, and the first Green to take a seat in Hove, and so I know just how hard it is to get elected. And we don’t do it alone. We do it with the help of our members, who put in countless numbers of hours and tireless work to see us elected. As a grassroots, bottom-up Party, we are supposed to listen to our membership, and that is why we have two Green Group Moderators – party members who are there to amongst other things, ensure all members’ voices are heard. Both of these individuals had clearly set out their personal reasoning as to why we should vote against the amended budget. I felt, and rightly, that by listening to these two individuals I was listening to a view that was also held within our general membership. In my view, we ignore our members at our peril.
So, why am I, most of our members, the Green councillors and our Liaison Officers against the Tory bribe of a Council Tax Freeze? It is because of the knock-on effect that it will have for next year and future years, as we’ll have less income and our Council Tax base will be eroded.
I must make it clear that I am not advocating that the Green Party should stand down from administration; the issue is about being consistent with our policies and taking the membership with us. It is clear that we have not remained consistent with what we told members and constituents, and so people are right to be annoyed. The argument that the other parties could raise a vote of no confidence in our Leader is disingenuous. Under our constitution, which is the Strong Leader Model, a vote of no confidence holds absolutely no legal significance whatsoever. The only way in which the other parties could get rid of us as the administration would be for them to propose their own Leader and then to call another meeting to vote that person in, which would take three weeks. This is very unlikely to happen because it would mean that the Tories would have to be in a coalition with the Labour Party; that would be electorally disastrous for both of them, but especially for Labour as the Tories have more councillors. In the unlikely event that it did happen, I believe some Labour members would leave their Party and join the Greens within no time at all. However I accept there would be some significant communications challenges for the Party and the council Administration in the event of a no confidence vote whatever the legal processes and so this was a tough decision to call for everyone. I should also point out that a vote of no confidence could have been proposed at any time in the past or indeed in the future.
It is a challenging time for us to be in office, and we have had to work within the vicious constraints of central government, but the fact remains that we did not have to vote for a Tax Freeze – we chose to as part of the wider budget. Obviously others in the Green Group will disagree with me but I feel I have come to a considered position on this difficult matter.
So, where do we go from here?
Well, in my view, we cannot allow this to happen again. We must feed the dilemma outlined above into the local party constitutional review process; and we must have improved methods of engaging with the membership, especially when issues are this important and there are conflicting views within the group and the party.
Alex is Green Party councillor for the Goldsmid ward in Brighton. She is standing for the Green Party nomination for the South East Euro region.