Wednesday, 12 June 2013

We Need to Talk About Brighton

Ask a Green a few years back whether they’d expect to be in council, and they might not have been too optimistic. Ask them whether they’d think a Green council would ever face strike action, and they may have laughed at you. Yet that’s exactly the situation we face today as a party. A Green administration, albeit a minority one – is facing hundreds of its refuse workers going on strike for a week, starting this Friday, against proposed pay cuts that could see some losing up to £4000 a year, according to the GMB. We are in office, as the saying goes, but seemingly not in power.

Several local parties and individuals - including the local Brighton and Hove Green Party, Caroline Lucas (who has pledged to join the picket lines), and some university branches (including my own) - have spoken out against the bin worker pay cuts in a thus-far shambolic dispute that has seen a noble attempt to equalise pay between male and female staff leading to up to £95 a week income reductions for the (largely male) CityClean workers, idiotic comparisons to the winter of discontent by certain Greens, plausible accusations of potential strike breaking (yes, strike breaking from a Green council), and the outsourcing of the pay proposal decision altogether in order for Greens to claim ‘it wasn’t our decision’. Yet Jason Kitcat seems determined not to budge. It is, frankly a mess.

 Internal discussion about this sorry state of affairs has sadly been minimal at best, actively stifled at worst (as a proposed motion to the next conference illustrates). This will not suffice. The Greens are coming under attack over this from all other sections of the left, and Labour (as well as every other supposedly progressive grouping) will exploit this to its fullest unless we change tack and handle the situation properly. If we don’t tackle the issue head on, the other parties will do it for us. We need to talk about Brighton partly because, frankly, everyone else is. It’s not good enough to say that since the Greens are a federal party ‘it’s up to Brighton’. Brighton Greens - both the local party and our only MP - have spoken. It’s now up to the rest of the party nationally to back them up in this.

We have, bar some very honourable exceptions in the likes of Alex Phillips and others, a rogue council, refusing to cede to the wishes of its local party, its constituents, and (from what I gather) the rest of the party nationally. Sadly GPEX and Natalie Bennett have appeared silent on the issue. Worthy though bringing in a Living Wage and attempting to equalise pay between male and female workers is, a Green council should never cut the pay of some of the least well off. That should be a given. As a party which has the strongest record on workers’ rights in terms of policy, strike busting should never have even been rumoured, let alone an actual possibility. Let’s be clear. The bin workers are by no means living gold-plated lifestyles. A Living Wage is a solid base, but it should be a minimum and something to build on, not to undermine through slashing allowances.

 Though the motives of the Labour-affiliated GMB union aren’t entirely pure, the grassroots members’ reasons for going on strike (on a 96% majority) are. There are some hopeful signs. Leading figures in Brighton & Hove Greens have at last made public statements about the strike action, though still seemingly refusing to back down over the pay cut proposals. The GMB has agreed to re-enter negotiations. And the candidate for the Hanover & Elm Grove by-election, David Gibson, is a solid trade unionist who opposes the measures to equalise pay down instead of up. Nonetheless, myself - and I imagine thousands of other Greens - never thought we’d have to ever be in the position of backing workers striking against our own council. We need to be having a serious discussion about the possibility of setting ‘needs budgets’, and if not, discussing whether we should be in office at all if we are forced to act as a mere smoke-screen for Tory-Lib Dem cuts.

At what point do we start to consider that to stay in office and continue to implement cuts would be to breach our fundamental principles? As the Green Party conference in Brighton approaches (provided it isn’t moved to avoid potential strike ‘embarrassment’, as has been considered), it’s time to get backtracking on the proposed pay cuts, fast - and time to start talking.

 Josiah Mortimer (@josiahmortimer) is a Green Party activist and student based in York.

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