It is clear some people in the Green Party of England and Wales haven't learned any lessons from the blunders of the Irish Green Party. If you don't know the story you must read "A Deal with the Devil - the Green party in government" by Mary Minihan. In brief, the Irish Green Party, lured by the prospect of power, and a chance to implement green policies, entered into a coalition with Fianna Fail, and ended up imposing savage neoliberal cuts on the Irish People, which are causing huge damage to Irish society. As a result, activists left the party in droves and the Irish electorate, quite rightly, destroyed the party at a general election in 2011.
What did the Irish Greens gain from all of this? Er.... not much more than a watered down stag hunting bill. What is really scary about Minihan's account is that it describes the staggering capacity for self-deception in the Irish Green MPs, the ability to think you are doing good when you are actually doing the opposite, and gaining nothing useful in the process. The Greens even stayed in a rotten and reviled government long enough to push through an immensely damaging finance bill out of some kind of loyalty to Brian Cowen! Clearly the Green MPs, including the new party leader Eamon Ryan, were hopelessly naive, both economically and politically. Whilst Rome burned around them they kept on fiddling around with their hopes for a climate change bill.
All of which brings me to Brighton and Hove Council and the Green Party (GP) conference. I have been planning to write a full conference report but that will have to wait, this is too important. This weekend the GP spring conference has been dominated by the decisions made by Green councillors in Brighton. The council is run by a Green minority administration, the first Green council in the UK, and something of which the party has been rightly proud. Just before conference, on Thursday 23rd February, B&H council had its budget setting meeting. At that meeting an unholy alliance of Labour and the Tories cynically destroyed the Green budget by amending and removing a crucial part of it - a 3.5% council tax rise. To their credit, Green councillors were the first in the country to propose such a rise in order to help alleviate the savage cuts of £17 million in Brighton demanded by the Coalition government.
Having had a key part of their budget removed, Green councillors, could have voted against the amended budget and left it to the Tories and Labour to administer that amended budget by stepping down. Instead they chose to vote for the amended budget and to carry on in 'power'. Only one Green councillor, Alex Phillips, voted against the budget. Clearly Green councillors were in a difficult position but they chose the easy way out, to remain in power, and that, as the Irish Greens learned to their cost, could have significant implications for the party nationally. And make no mistake, stepping down is a lot harder than staying on. Cuts are cuts are cuts, and arguing that green cuts are better won't wash. Even if they had voted against the budget and remained in power that would have been a better option than the one they chose.
Why is it that the Green councillors decision could be so damaging for the party? Its because we claim that we are a party of principle, that we are different to the other parties and that we oppose the cuts. If we had stood down as the council the Tories would have had to administer their cuts, supported by Labour, and this would have been hugely damaging to Labour, who are out to destroy us in Brighton. As it is we are left with implementing a cuts budget which is no longer our own and we can be picked off at a time of our opponents choosing. Now Labour can cynically claim that we are the party of cuts and use that to try and destroy us at the next election. As a party, we are at a crucial stage where thousands of people around the country are considering voting for us and joining us. Now, many of those people are going to look at us and think that we are no different to the other parties. We have already lost members over this issue. In addition, the actions of Green councillors in Brighton could rob us of our only MP, and greatest asset, Caroline Lucas.
I have no doubt that our councillors in Brighton are doing a great job in really difficult circumstances and that Greens can govern far better than Tories or Labour could ever do. I support them, but I don't agree with their decision. This is about politics, not a loyalty test. Some people in the Green Party seem to have become blinded by electoralism, as the Irish Greens were. They think that is 'grown up' politics and they are right - but only if you have the tactical nouse to make the right political decisions when you are in power. Some of the comments I heard from supporters of the Green councillors at conference sounded depressingly like the Liberal Democrats - our party right or wrong - and I've no doubt that exactly the same arguments were used by the Liberal Democrat leaders to keep party members in line to support the Coalition government.
The Green Party must not fall at the first political hurdle. So far we have done extremely well, punching above our weight, and we have a great asset, in our politically astute leader, Caroline Lucas. Now its time for our Green councillors to show the same political astuteness. In order to help to repair the damage done at last Thursday's budget meeting, Green Councillors in Brighton now need to seriously consider doing at least four things:
1. show that we are still at the head of the anti-cuts movement by hosting a national anti-cuts conference, inviting as many councils and groups as possible. The aim of this conference must be to explore alternatives to austerity such as those outlined below
2. explore every avenue possible for a radical party to alleviate the damage done by the cuts and raise revenue to fund services. This could include issuing local bonds and setting up a local currency
3. set a shadow needs budget which reflects the true cost of services that the people of Brighton and Hove need, consult on this and publicize it, and make sure that people understand we are not responsible for the cuts being imposed
4. hold a referendum in the autumn for a greater than 3.5% council tax rise and explain to the people of Brighton that this is necessary because of the cynical actions of Labour and the Tories, and essential to help maintain services, and resign if they lose it
Sometimes people on the left like me are accused of being oppositional, that we don't want to exercise power, we just want to sit on the sidelines carping, and complaining about those who have to make the 'difficult decisions'. Well make no mistake, I want power, and I want a Green Party government. But not power at any price like the Irish Greens. I'm happy to make the difficult decisions but they have to be the right decisions.