Power vs Principle?

Posted on March 8, 2012 at 11:22 am,

There’s been a bit of controversy within the Green Party recently (yes, this is a Green Party specific post – if you’re not a party member this post may be a waste of your time), which I think illustrates the problems with trying to do principled politics in the real world. If you’re a political geek, then you’ll be well aware that Brighton and Hove Council is the first Green-run local authority in the UK, and that the Greens are a minority administration – they can be outvoted by the other parties (in this case Labour and the Tories).

A couple of weeks ago, the council held their vote on the annual budget. The Greens had proposed a 3.5% Council Tax rise – which would have left the council £5.4 million better off over a two year period – as a way to significantly reduce the impact of cuts being imposed by central government. Labour and the Tories put in an amendment that removed this money from the budget. Up to this point, there’s no real controversy. The Greens are opposed to the principle of implementing massive cuts to public services, whilst the other two parties are in favour of the principle. The voting up to this point simply showed the local parties being in step with their national policies.

What did cause controversy, however, was that all but one Green councillor decided to vote for the budget as amended (i.e. without the extra money), and that the Greens decided to stay in office to administer the budget, rather than handing over power to a Tory-Labour coalition. Because these actions were seen as Green councillors supporting a cuts budget, a number of prominent and long-standing Green Party members have resigned in protest. I’m told that this issue dominated the party’s spring conference (I didn’t make it this time, but some of what I’ve heard isn’t pretty).

I can see and sympathise with both points of view. The Brighton and Hove Greens want to protect the people of their city from the impact of the cuts, and believe that a Green administration would do so better than a Labour-Tory coalition. I’m told that the relevant trade unions asked them to stay on for just this reason. The budget doesn’t contain their major proposal, but does contain almost everything else they put in.

The party members who object, however, view this as a case of the party becoming indistinguishable from the big three parties when it comes to the crunch. Some view it as the party’s elected representatives selling out for a taste of power. Others think that the B&H Green Party naively walked into a trap set by the other parties. Either way, their decisions make it more difficult to claim that we as a party take a different approach to the cuts – which will continue to be the defining issue in UK local government for the next few years. There’s a good case to be made that the right thing for the Green councillors to do would have been to abstain or vote against the amended budget, and also a case to be made that as the amended budget was essentially a Labour/Tory budget, they should have been made responsible for implementing it.

The root of this disagreement lies in one of the inherent tensions within politics. Usually getting your agenda through requires some degree of compromise. Whether it’s party policy, election promises, or enacting policy at any level of government, sometimes you’ll have to water down proposals in order to get them through or sacrifice some policies in order to get others through. Like it or not, this is how politics works once you’re on the inside (single issue lobby groups usually don’t have this problem). The question is this: how far do you have to go down this route before you’ve sold out and betrayed your principles?

The Irish Green Party is a good example of being clearly on the wrong side of this line. In the 2007-2011 Dail, they propped up a right-wing party’s austerity budget, achieved nothing of substance as a result, offered empty assurances to their members, and were completely wiped out in the 2011 election. Their compromises achieved nothing, cost them all their seats, and may well lead to the dissolution of the party.

The Brighton and Hove budget proposals were clearly on the right side of the line. Even if they had been able to get everything through, the scale of the cuts to the money they get from central government means that some jobs and services would have gone. By law, if a council sets a deficit budget, the local finance officer (a civil servant) takes over to set a balanced budget – and is under no obligation to take the views of the public into account (whilst the Greens did as much as possible to engage the public in the budget-setting process). Therefore some compromises did take place, but their proposed budget was about as close to Green principles as it could have been in the circumstances.

The Brighton and Hove Green group’s reluctant support for, and willingness to administer, the amended budget falls in the grey area where it’s not clear whether the compromise was worth it. It has certainly damaged the national party’s reputation amongst left-wingers who hope that the Greens will get the chance to articulate a genuinely left-wing politics on the national stage (something that Labour hasn’t really done since the 1980s). It also highlights the danger of the Greens going down the New Labour route – putting the pursuit of political power above holding to the principles that we are supposed to be fighting for. Unlike those who have resigned, I don’t think we’ve done that yet – but this controversy does serve as a warning that we are capable of doing so.