How the Greens ran ashore
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.
Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress