George Grant, a former foreign correspondent and think tank analyst, on the dispute between a Green MP and a Green Council. Follow George on Twitter
There’s trouble afoot down in Brighton, the super-lefty slice of England that’s home to the country’s only Green-led council and its only Green MP. The row has largely passed below the radar of the mainstream media, but it highlights a much bigger issue that merits more attention.
Several months ago Brighton & Hove council announced plans to overhaul special allowances paid to its workforce, a fancy way of saying it wanted to reduce the pay bill. About 6,000 council employees will be affected under the scheme, with union bosses claiming that around 1,000 staff are in line to lose as much as £4,000 a year.
The council says the move is necessary to prevent layoffs in light of the need to curb public spending.
Enter stage-left Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, who has denounced the plans as “unacceptable” and made clear her “opposition to any cuts in take-home pay”.
Bolstered by a local party vote last Tuesday evening to condemn the offer and express “dismay that responsibility for the pay negotiations was handed to council officers”, Lucas has now pledged to join striking workers on the picket lines… against her own council.
At first blush the situation might appear extraordinary, but it is in fact indicative of a much broader malaise within modern political life. I’ve yet to coin a pithy phrase to sum-up the problem, but the principle essentially holds that a dangerous dichotomy exists between what those not in power think should be done and what those same people realise actually can be done if and when they ever take office.
The problem exists amongst political parties and activists of all persuasions, but appears to be particularly pronounced on the Left, at least where anything to do with public spending is concerned.
The classic example was the experience of the Liberal Democrats upon joining the Coalition Government in 2010. Having entered office and been presented with a few home truths, Lib Dem ministers realised, doubtless uncomfortably, that many of the policies they had promised voters were possible were in fact no such thing. The two most obvious examples were the U-turn on tuition fees, and the broader rallying behind the Conservatives’ efforts to get a grip on public spending.
With Liberal ministers in Government for the first time since the Second World War, you would have thought party members and Lib Dem supporters generally might have given Clegg & Co some benefit of the doubt: perhaps some of the old policies weren’t really viable and a bit of a rethink might indeed be in order.
Depressingly, the reaction was quite the opposite. Far from backing team Lib Dem in Government, vast swathes of the grassroots took up arms to condemn their ministers of “selling out” to the Tories, of being cowards and any number of other unpleasant things.
“Of course the policies were workable”, the grassroots exclaimed, “we just need to tax the rich and hit the corporates harder!” Little more than scathing contempt is usually afforded to objections from those in government (yes, that lot again) that such policies, if not balanced carefully against the risks of damaging incentives to generate wealth and precipitating capital flight, might actually be counterproductive.
Back in Brighton, and the absurdity of the situation can be grasped by taking a look at the Green Party’s broadcast for the local council elections, described by its supporters as “thrillingly unapologetic” and “socialist”, and which the cynics amongst us might summarise in seven words: demonise profit, renationalise, and borrow, borrow, borrow.
That Green Party local councilors can therefore be backing a policy to reduce the wages of some local staff, essentially on a rationale of pay cuts not job cuts, suggests that the financial situation must really be quite serious. You would think that Caroline Lucas and the party grassroots might appreciate this, but apparently not.
To my mind, however, the most striking example of the truism outlined here was provided by Barack Obama just 48 hours after taking office on 20 January 2009. On 22 January, in one of his first acts as president, Obama sat behind that large polished desk and signed an executive order directing the CIA to close Guantanamo Bay within 12 months. The new president recognised that the camp was a scar on America’s conscience and a foreign relations disaster which helped recruit as many terrorists as it incarcerated. Nearly four-and-a-half years later and Guantanamo is still operational, not because Obama has subsequently warmed to the deplorable concept of detention without trial, but because he has discovered that closing this facility is much tougher in practice than in principle.
And that is the point of all this. It is so very easy to condemn our political leaders for their actions in government and blithely assert that a 10 year-old could do better, and break fewer promises whilst at it. But much of the time that just isn’t true.
Of course, this all feeds into the much bigger problem of peoples’ engorged expectations of what government can or indeed should be in the business of trying to accomplish. The widespread view that government is responsible for righting wrongs in almost every conceivable walk of life means that politicians are being set up to inevitably fail, having previously promised the earth to get elected, which only exacerbates the problem further.
Without question, politicians need scrutinising, and there will be plenty of occasions where they could indeed do things better. But as the poor old Greens have learned down on the council in Brighton & Hove, sometimes things really are easier said than done. It would certainly help Caroline Lucas and others like her to ease their sense of righteous indignation if they could come to the same conclusion.