A few people have asked me why Labour abstained last night on the budget vote for Brighton and Hove City Council. Here’s my best stab at setting a context and explaining the decision. I must say though, that over the last few years, as I’ve learnt more about local government, there are lots of things I don’t like. Frankly, council structures and procedures often don’t help but hamper.
The good news first
Firstly, yesterday saw some very good news for Brighton and Hove. The Green and Labour groups (and a few stragglers) managed to make some very serious amendments to the Conservative council’s budget. Not least we saw a reversal of the council’s proposal to reduce council tax by 1%, reduce parking permit fees by 5% and also scrapped a £1.1m plan to remove a cycle lane in Hove that was only introduced three years ago. That’s about £2.7m that stays in the budget. These various amendments squeaked through, because the council is very finely balanced even if Greens and Labour cooperate. That cross-party cooperation is cause for optimism.
Options and risks
Then the amended budget faced a vote last night. Labour abstained, Greens voted against. And as a result of Tory support it passed. The amended budget was preferable but still included serious Tory cuts, many of which I fear are inevitable in the current political climate.
Other options were available. Labour could have a voted against too and (most likely) defeated the whole budget including the good amendments. That would mean that next week, another budget council would sit and have to agree a budget all over again, starting from scratch. The Green argument is that we could cooperate again and get more of what we want. I agree that’s possible. But it’s risky. There’s no guarantee that Labour and Green groups could spend a week or so and find consensus again on a whole host of things. A week is a long time in politics. The arguments we’ve seen online since the vote show that our parties are still on the first date when it comes to forming an ongoing, trusting relationship.
There are other risks too. The Conservatives could have proposed a different budget next week. A worse budget. One which the opposition could spend time amending back into what we’ve got now at great effort. To West Wing fans, I’d call this “doing a Haffley”. Possible, but perhaps unlikely.
Risk 3. A deal could be struck. The council is finely balanced. Those canny Tories could call off the one Liberal and one independent councillor with some sort of inducement which would make the numbers very tight. They could also, conceivably, offer a deal to the Greens or Labour. The budget would be settled in those no longer smoke-filled rooms. Not ideal.
So, the way I see it, we could end up with a budget next week that’s “better” or pretty much the same as the one that passed yesterday. Or worse, you could end with a more debilitating budget or indeed no budget at all.
The real pickle
No budget at all? That’s when it becomes very serious. In such a situation, that nice Mr Pickles from the Communities department sends his civil servants down and they impose a budget upon the city. No votes. No amendments. No deals. And who knows what that would look like? Even the Greens recognised at their national conference last week that passing a budget is a council’s (and councillors’) legal responsibility.
Abstaining offered an imperfect solution. But it does strike me that it’s better to set a budget with these excellent amendments, than risk something worse. Not least, because this isn’t the end of the process. Roll on May and the city council elections. The voters willing, we’ll see a Green and Labour coalition in City Hall that can propose and pass an equitable budget without all the rather depressing process and party positioning that the current situation makes sadly inevitable. Also, and I do think we have to accept this fact, the Conservatives are currently the biggest group on the city council by far right now. They have, in a sense, the right to set the tone of the budget and they like cuts.
Future less imperfect
I appreciate why the Greens voted against and I also undertand why Labour abstained: but neither action offered a perfect solution. I agree with the pragmatists. A budget has to be set and it was. Energy spent in recrimination and blame would be better saved for campaigning to defeat as many Conservatives as possible at the ballot box in a few weeks time because until then we’re always trying to treat the symptoms rather than find a cure for the cause.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Labour party and a candidate for the city council elections in May for Regency ward. I was not privy to or part of Labour group discussions that led to the decisions they made.