Sunday, 26 February 2012

Tax cuts and racism at Brighton Council

Last week members of Brighton and Hove City Council agreed their budget for 2012/13.

A lot of words have been expended - tears, stress and even physical nausea too - about the tactics of the Green Party councillors, and their decision (well, 21 of them anyway) to vote for a budget that was significantly amended by an alliance of Labour and Tory councillors who, between them, command a significant majority on the Council - between them they boast 31 councillors to the Greens' 23.

There have been significant resignations from the party over the issue, and it is no exaggeration to say the decision to vote for the budget rather than walk away from office has become one of the most divisive in the party for years.

There will be a special meeting of the Brighton and Hove Green Party tomorrow to thrash out the issue.

But for me (and as a Cabinet member on the Council I'm pretty close to the action) it is only one of three big political 'stories' to come out of Thursday's meeting - and perhaps only the third most important.

So what were the other two?

Firstly, the behaviour of the Labour group of 13 councillors. They voted to freeze Council Tax in the city - and to find the £1.2m cost by cutting specific services, to the team at the council trying to save money by improving the way we use, for example, water and electricity, and, more worryingly, to the budgets for helping people set to lose benefits and to the budget for supporting child asylum seekers arriving at Gatwick and 'dumped' on the city's borders by Tory-run West Sussex Council.

This is bound to do three things: (i) Give the richest in the city a significant real-terms tax cut; (ii) Cost the council cash and worsen its environmental performance; and (iii) Make life much harder for benefit claimants and child asylum seekers, two of the most vulnerable groups in our city.

This doesn't sound much like the action of a party committed to social justice to me. It sounds like a party desperate to enact populist policies in the hope of winning back some of the middle-income voters it has lost in recent years. Perhaps that makes political sense for a party that used to have all three MPs in the city AND run the council that now boasts no MPs at all and just 13 of the city's 54 councillors. But morally?

Secondly, the racism that usually bubbles just out of sight in the Tory party loomed briefly into view when one councillor, Lynda Hyde, suggested that outsiders shouldn't really be trusted with important decisions affecting the city, and challenged all members present over whether they were 'Brighton born and bred'.

Her challenge was beautifully riposted by Polish-born Green councillor Ania Kitcat, who pointed out that one of the benefits of immigration to the city was that it prevented inbreeding...

So in short all three parties revealed something about their political nature on Thursday: the Greens that they respected democracy enough to vote for a budget with its core ripped out by the majority Labour-Tory alliance, even if that meant the council would be forced to make even deeper cuts than anyone had hoped before the meeting, Labour that it was more interested in winning votes than in protecting the interests of the most vulnerable, or in either the long-term financial stability of the Council or the environment, and that the undercurrent of racism running through the Tories is never very far from the surface.