Working for social justice, equal opportunity and fairness
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords and former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council
Colleagues are sometimes amused, sometimes think I am missing the point when I have a go about the Greens. For most Labour members they are at best an irrelevance at worst a minor irritation.
So why do I bother?
Back in 1999 when I left Brighton and Hove City Council and ceased to be Leader I warned my colleagues that they faced a long term threat from the Green Party, who as Labour increasingly had to take tough decisions would be more of a problem than the LibDems. I wrote briefing notes and strategy papers on how to deal with the problem. I even went to party management committee meetings in an effort to persuade the party locally to take this seriously. Sadly nobody did.
Now they do, but too late. In the 1999 local elections the Greens got their first seats on the unitary city council just three out of 78. I knew that this spelt trouble. They doubled in 2001 to 6 and doubled again in 2007 to 12. Now they hold 23.
Basically the Greens have taken all the former middle class Labour held wards on new ward boundaries. In last year’s elections they removed all but one of our councillors in the Pavilion constituency – a seat we won in 1997, 2001 and 2005 with large majorities. They have Caroline Lucas as their first MP and of course when she won they put a former local councillor Keith Taylor in to replace her as the Green MEP for the South.
They now control Brighton and Hove council as a minority administration. But how have they done it?
In a nutshell, by putting all their political resources into the city, by relentless publication of papers and newsletters, by looking and sounding like ‘Old Labour’, by promoting a lifestyle politics, by courting the community groups and trade unions. Sound familiar?
So what should Labour do about it nationally and locally?
Firstly, not to be complacent like my colleagues were. Secondly, don’t try to outdo the Greens by being leftier than they are, or greener than they are. It simply plays to their agenda and in any event Labour is a ‘green’ party with excellent environmental credentials. I don’t think they are very radical or particularly left wing.
But how to tackle them? In my experience the best way is constant exposure. They hate it. In that sense, they are just like the LibDems – saying one thing to get elected, doing another when they are.
Brighton and Hove’s city budget is a classic. This time last year before the local elections, the Greens were campaigning against rises in council tax or fees for services. This year it is now principled for them to have a council tax hike so they proposed not one but three spread over the period to 2015. Meanwhile, fees for services increases have been eye watering. Literally too much for those with a car, or an allotment, or a loved one to bury, or a swim to enjoy, or a park bench to donate, or a sports pitch to hire, or a bowls game to enjoy.
Worse still, they promised to ‘resist cuts to the utmost’ and left voters with the impression that only they would take on the Government. What did we get? Within days of taking control they began planning £35m of cuts spread over two years. They then started promoting the cuts budget as savings and efficiencies. Labour does cuts they said along with Tories but we Greens don’t – we do savings and efficiencies. This was to be a ‘fair budget in tough times’.
The language sounds familiar, but I promise it comes straight from the Green Party. What I have discovered is they don’t know how to deal with a persistent critique, they hate Twitter attacks and anti-green blogging and they get incredibly defensive very quickly.
For Labour activists facing a Green challenge at the May elections, I am happy to make available details of their careless cuts. They don’t do equalities very well, nor do they understand the importance of services to deprived communities. Hence they cut Sure Start rather than a vanity project to develop food waste collection in Brighton and Hove’s suburbs costing £500k. Despite the right sounds and words they don’t have a social agenda.
One other glaring weakness they have is management. They won’t take the tough decisions in tough times to cut back office, do smart procurement and prune management.
In my view the Greens are a timid, not very radical party who don’t understand redistribution or equalities, they have no city vision and they can’t take difficult decisions for the longer term. But Labour people must put them under the microscope and be forensic when dealing with them. They are out to destroy my local Labour Party and in the long term they will try to do it to yours if you let them.