How the Greens ran ashore

Bicycle with Green party posters

Three years ago Brighton residents elected a Green council. The results have not been pretty, finds Stephen Bush

My heart sank. I had come to Brighton to talk to its residents and find out what they made of their Green council, and I had just wasted half an hour talking to a nutter.

Duncan had looked promising when I knocked on the door: he commutes into London every day and he works in publishing. We share a football club and we are both making our way through the Game of Thrones books – Duncan has seen the television show, but I have no idea what is coming next – so I have high hopes of the interview. Then he starts effing and blinding about the 20 mile per hour speed limit. Great. I have knocked on Jeremy Clarkson’s door. Even the City of London – hardly a treehugger’s paradise – has a 20 mile per hour limit. I passed two protests on my way from the station, and I am talking to the one person in the city who thinks that the 20 mile per hour limit is bad news.

Then I get to the next door, and I realise that Duncan might not be quite as eccentric as I had thought. Amanda is a teacher with an NUT sticker on her window and a mandala in the front hall, and the first thing she mentions is the speed. Something is rotten in the state of Brighton. ‘What’s that cliché?’ Amanda says, ‘I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.’

Three years ago this month, Brighton residents woke up to find that they had made history: the Greens were the largest party on a local authority for the first time in the party’s existence. But with just 23 seats to the Tories’ 18 and Labour’s 13, they were four seats short of what they needed to form a majority. That meant that, to govern effectively, they would need to remain disciplined and united; something that very soon proved beyond them.

‘Before the elections,’Warren Morgan, the leader of the Labour group, tells me, ‘they were very good at keeping their divisions in house.’ In reality, though, the Greens had always been riven: between the more radical ‘Watermelons’ – I promise I am not joking – with a Green outside but a ‘red’ interior, and the more moderate ‘Mangoes’, with a Green skin, but a moderate orange core.

These divisions, once hidden, burst out into the open very quickly. Even their first budget – the first Green budget in history – could not command the support of all 23 councillors, with Alex Phillips, who would become a regular thorn in the Green leadership’s side, voting against a budget that included swingeing cuts. A year later, the Green leader, Jason Kitcat, faced a leadership challenge, but his rivals were unable to find an alternative, so they turned to RON (Re-Open Nominations) instead. Faced with the choice between Kitcat or nothing, the Greens chose Kitcat, but by only one vote.

Part of the problem is that Kitcat is not really the leader. ‘They’ve got another name, don’t they?’ Greg, a recruitment consultant and father-of-two, asks his partner, Rhiannon. ‘Ooh, yes,’ she says, ‘He’s not their leader, he’s their “convenor”.’ The Greens have always had leadership problems: notionally, they were managed by a speaker, not ‘led’ in the traditional sense, until Caroline Lucas, now member of parliament for Brighton Pavilion, drove through a series of radical reforms. It gave the Greens unprecedented success, but, at a local level, the old model of decision-making still holds sway.

‘They are not whipped,’ Morgan tells me, ‘[so] they have never voted unanimously on their own budgets.’ There are no sanctions for voting down Green measures or challenging the convenor; the Green councillor who tried to arrange a Labour-backed coup via Twitter is still in place; and Green councillors have joined protests against their own council.

It is not just the splits, the lost votes, the backyard scheming, the abortive coups or the fruit-based warfare that have made Duncan, Greg, Rhiannon and Amanda so angry. A few months after that first attempt on Kitcat’s job, things were about to get a lot worse for the Greens, and for Brighton.

‘We will devolve the axe,’ one Tory told Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee at their party conference in 2009. Austerity is a decision made by national government, but, for the most part, it has been a local government problem. In 2013, Eric Pickles handed Kitcat the axe, who promptly dropped it on his foot. Knowing that his divided group would be unable to carry on negotiations with the city’s workers effectively, Kitcat – and the rest of the Greens – voted to leave the negotiations in the hands of the council’s officers.

The result was chaos: weeks of work-to-rule by the city’s refuse workers, and a week-long strike. Lynne Truss, the writer and journalist, recalled ‘a tide of used tea bags, eggshells, soiled kitchen paper, banana skins, smelly tin cans, and used sanitary towels’ on the streets. Amanda, who travelled through the Gold Coast on her gap year, says: ‘It reminded me, overwhelmingly, of a township. It was honestly like living in a third world country again.’

With no one collecting the bins, the last thing anyone in Brighton needed was a food fight, but that is exactly what happened next, as conflict between the Watermelons and the Mangoes paralysed the council. As Kitcat was bungling the negotiations, Green councillors and Lucas joined the picket line. Lucas was trying to have the best of both worlds, but to most residents it looked as if the Greens’ internal wrangling mattered more than running the council.

Shortly after the end of the dispute, the Greens made history again: they lost a seat for the first time, going from a majority of close to 1,000 to a narrow defeat to Labour’s Emma Daniel. Talking to residents now, the rubbish might have gone, but the anger is still fresh. ‘So they didn’t have a majority,’ Greg says. ‘Neither did the Tories, but I don’t remember piles of rubbish in the streets then.’ It lingered in the memories of the Greens; they knew now that they were unable to make difficult decisions as a group.

Did the Greens learn anything from 2013? Not if the first few months of 2014 are any guide. Balancing the books had broken the Greens in 2013; some within the Watermelon tendency were determined to avoid it entirely in 2014 by refusing to pass a budget at all. Others, around Kitcat, hit on a ruse that they thought would allow them the best of both worlds: an eye-watering rise in council tax.

Rises above inflation are now subject to a referendum, one that would almost certainly have been lost. Kitcat himself recognised the problem in an interview with the Argus the year before, ruling out the whole idea as unworkable. But caught between a rock and a watermelon, the idea began to seem a little more attractive. It failed, of course; neither the Tories nor Labour would support a referendum, and, in the end, it was Labour’s proposals that ended up passing the council chamber. Three years after they were first elected, the Greens are still unwhipped, unruly, and increasingly unpopular. A city that was meant to be the Greens’ launchpad looks set to be their tomb.

Does it matter? A thousand parties of the left have emerged outside of Labour; and now they are all extinct or irrevelant. Do the Greens’ faction-ridden, fractious three years mean anything else? I think not, until I start talking to one of the anti-settlement protesters outside of Brighton’s Ecostream store. ‘I thought they [the Greens] were going to change everything,’ he tells me. ‘But instead, they’re just more of the same.’

They came to power promising to change everything; they talked very little about the cuts they would have to make, or the compromises of power; and, in the end, power broke them. It may be that the Greens have more to teach Labour than we might hope.

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Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress

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Photo: LEOL30

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  • JohnnyHove

    The councillor who tried to organise a Labour coup via Twitter is Alex Philips, Caroline Lucas’s right hand woman and still number two on the Greens euro list. They have no discipline at all.

  • Anonymous

    This is what the voters of Highgate Ward in Camden found when they elected Greens as all their councillors at the last but one council elections. By the time the next elections came around, they found that they had lost ALL their Green councillors through resignations! And the leader’s name is Kitcat, you couldn’t make it up!

  • Amy

    A very poorly written article with hardly any factual backup, of which the main source is an opposing political party… going far in unbiased journalism.. I think not.

  • Keith

    Not so untrue in my youth Brighton was a place of genteel polite people of education what I see of it now is a drug fueled binge drinking load of psuedo artists and gay dole bludgers with large communities of eastern europeans and asylum seekers fleeing London for a easy life by the seaside on taxpayers money, guess what party I will be voting

    • Ross Bourne

      Clearly UKIP. You have just the right level of ill-thought-out opinion, blinkered observation, outmoded values and closet racism for them. Better to vote UKIP than struggle with rational and intelligent thought, eh?

  • Stan Rosenthal

    With all their local difficulties the Green Party is the only party flying the flag on the most serious problem confronting us, global warming. Unless this issue is properly addressed all other progressive policies fall by the wayside. Despite Ed’s rhetoric at the time of the floods I have seen very little from the party on this matter, particularly on the need to oppose fracking which will be keeping us on the carbon path at a time when the world’s scientists are telling us to come off it as soon as possible..

    That is why, as a longstanding active Labour supporter i shall be voting Green in the European election and I urge other Labour supporters who really care about this issue to do the same.

  • Danny

    “They came to power promising to change everything….in the end, power broke them”.

    A fitting epitaph for New Labour.

    • K Speck

      First of all, Labour did change lots of things. Second, Labour was re-elected twice after 1997; they weren’t ‘broken’ after just three years in power. You can’t expect any party to manage stay in government perpetually.

      • Danny

        No, but you can expect them to lose marginally less than 5 million votes in the course of being re-elected twice.

  • Peter Jameson

    This episode in Brighton shows us some of the enduring truths about politics and about political parties. There are no ideal outcomes and (representative democratic) politics is about pursuing what one judges to be the best course of action available in the severely constrained circumstances (economically, internationally etc.) we find ourselves in, while staying within the law and being subject to the retrospective judgement of voters. Politics is, to an extent, an inherently diabolical business.

    These are truths that, as we have seen, the Lib Dems were not able to escape, nor will the Greens and UKIP be able to in the future. This is why the promises of smaller, new parties proclaiming to be in some way ‘different’ from the rest are usually (not always, but usually) a chimera.