BHCC Budget: Why Labour abstained

Brighton town hallA 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.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

3 Responses to BHCC Budget: Why Labour abstained

  1. sven rufus says:

    Hi Dan
    My anger about the abstention is not because of the position adopted per se. I can totally understand the arguments that you have made in justifying it, arguments that I have had running around my head for weeks leading up to the vote on Thursday night. I disagree with the decision, but hey, that’s OK, I can deal with that, and respect different views even if I think that this was a real wasted chance, and worth the ‘risks’ you identify.

    No, my anger at the decision to abstain is because for quite some time before the vote, and indeed up until about 10 minutes before, we had been lead to beleive that the Labour group would be voting in the same way as us, and that we would have another week to work something out, building on the excellent joint working that had been going on in preparing the joint amendents. It was so promising, not just for the budget but for post-May as well.

    It was literally a last minute volte-face. We got back to the council chamber after the amendments had been carried, to see Gill Mitchell and Mary Mears huddled in conference, after which she returned to her group and told them how to vote now – you should have seen the reactions, your councillors looked furious, and they all left the chamber for a further debate about it. They returned to do what they were told, but their body language, faces and tone of voice when sitting there voting was so clearly indicative of a top down decision that was not supported by the group members.

    It is this sudden switch that upset me most. It undermines a lot of the messages of trust that might have been reinforced by sticking to what was said would happen. It suggests that to your group, the views of the Tories still holds more weight than those of the Greens.

    And then after the fact, we get the spin. We’re told ‘It was the principled, responsible thing to do, we had a duty etc etc’. But if that’s the case, why were they telling us precisely the opposite leading up to the night? It is a pretty lame attempt to justify a pretty craven performance. Yes these reasons are logical and understandable, but for the Labour group to pretend this is what they really beleived was right is risible. (I’m not attacking you, as you were not complicit in that charade)

    I’ve spoken to many people about this since Thursday night, including Labour members and trade union officials. It has been universally condemned by everyone except the councillors and activists. Perhaps that says something about the type of people I spend my time with. But really, that was a really poor show.

  2. dw says:

    Thanks for commenting Sven. It’s always appreciated.

    I would add that I haven’t met universal condemnation. Some confusion and ignorance, sure. But understanding too that a budget must be set and the amendments were good. Looking across the country, the Brighton and Hove amendments are far better than most have managed.

    You know I am a robust critic of the Green party but I am also a consensualist and take huge optimism from the cooperation we saw.

    Trust isn’t an end but a process. I am hopeful here for the new council elected in May.

    Best,

    Dan

  3. Dan, I thought you said you were subversive on your blog? Fraid not chum. You are still thinking within the mainframe of the mainstream media. Labour are the biggest impediment to socialism in this country. Sadly the Greens got it wrong at their conference. If one council had broken the law and refused to write a cuts budget that would have been a tremendous propaganda blow to the government and would have made Brighton the political focus of the country.

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