Brighton and Hove’s Greens facing their toughest test

Posted On 06 Jun 2013 at 10:01 am

Divisions have come out into the open among the Green group of councillors who run Brighton and Hove City Council.

The split was most apparent at the annual meeting of the council when the key jobs were agreed for the coming municipal year.

Councillor Jason Kitcat was re-elected as the leader of the council but six of his party colleagues left the council chamber rather than vote for him.

He faces a tough year ahead. And the party has some soul-searching still to do, with two years until the next local elections.

More imminently, a by-election is being held in Hanover and Elm Grove on Thursday 11 July after one of the three Green councillors in the ward, Matt Follett, resigned.

Councillor Follett, a Brighton University lecturer, said: “I am to moving to live with my family in another part of the country.”

Councillor Follett was one of two Green councillors who missed the annual council meeting altogether. He praised Councillor Kitcat’s leadership in his resignation statement.

David Gibson

David Gibson

The party has chosen Hanover community activist David Gibson to try to hold the seat.

If he is elected, some activists hope that he may side with those who are unhappy with Councillor Kitcat’s leadership.

If so, the numbers supporting and opposing Councillor Kitcat would be much more finely balanced.

If he loses, don’t expect the critics to take a vow of silence.

At the most recent local elections, in May 2011, the voters of Hanover and Elm Grove returned three Greens in what was once a safe Labour ward.

Labour chose 36-year-old social media professional Emma Daniel to be the party’s candidate at the weekend.

The Conservatives have picked Robert Knight, a 54-year-old former civil servant, who lives in Hollingdean.

With no disrespect to Mr Knight, he is likely to seem like a spectator at a straight Green v Labour fight.

His goal has to be to save the Tories from losing face in a secondary contest against any Liberal Democrat and UKIP candidates.

The divide within the Green Party has been described by some as a contest between the “watermelons” and the “mangoes”.

The watermelons are so called because they are green on the outside and red on the inside. They tend to lean more to the left. The mangoes – green outside and yellow inside – are more liberal.

While this may be oversimplifying the position of the two main camps, it is indisputable that a number of issues have exacerbated tensions within the party.

And one issue – changes to council staff’s pay and allowances – appears to have brought things to a head.

The watermelons oppose the leadership’s support for a solution that would mean less take-home pay for some of the council’s lower-paid staff.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Greens do not rely on a party whip – someone to keep discipline to try to ensure that members vote the same way. Instead they regularly vote on individual issues at meetings of the Green group of councillors.

And the Brighton and Hove Green Party, which includes hundreds of local members in addition to the party’s 22 councillors, also votes on certain issues.

The local party has voted against the leadership’s stance on pay and allowances.

Councillor Jason Kitcat and striking CityClean staff

Councillor Jason Kitcat and striking CityClean staff

The big fallout arose after legal changes brought pressure on the council to put its house in order.

The law says that men and women doing comparable jobs should be treated the same. Basic pay rates were agreed some time ago but overtime rates and other allowances were not.

Disputes about these rates were traditionally settled by employment tribunals, with a three-month time limit on bringing most claims.

They are now in the domain of the county courts where the time limit is six years. This poses a potential financial and legal headache to the council.

Councillors agreed that all pay and allowances should be “modernised” but voted to leave the detail to officials.

It is not unusual for politicians on councils or in Parliament to agree the principles and leave the fine print for those with the relevant expertise.

The watermelons are unhappy with the officials’ proposals and they are unhappy that do not have a chance to amend the proposals.

The proposals prompted a two-day wildcat strike by Brighton and Hove’s binmen and street cleaners who also held a demo outside Brighton Town Hall.

They are the biggest single group of losers under the current proposals.

Their union, the GMB, is holding a ballot on whether to call an official strike. The result will be known tomorrow (Friday 7 June).

The watermelons, with the support of Green MP Caroline Lucas, want a solution that does not involve cutting anyone’s take-home pay.

And they are not impressed with the compensation being offered by the council to sweeten the pill.

Councillor Ben Duncan

Councillor Ben Duncan

The local Green Party made its views clear with a decisive vote. But a majority of the Green group of councillors is pushing ahead with the proposal as it stands.

Many of the Greens seem more ideological than their rivals in the Tory and Labour groups on the council. They also tend to be younger and less politically experienced.

They are certainly unhappy at what they see as a democratic decision being ignored.

And the unhappiness has come about just as the dust was settling from the dispute over whether to fell a healthy elm tree at the Seven Dials which also divided the party.

One councillor, Ben Duncan, summed up some of the dissatisfaction with the leadership in a recent blog post.

He said that Councillor Kitcat’s policies had “time and time again betrayed working people, city residents and the electoral interests of the Green Party of England and Wales”.

Councillor Duncan added: “Whether it’s refusing to rule out cutting pay of unionised staff or evicting council tenants who fall into arrears because the nasty Tories have cut their benefits, championing the erection of a 140m high metal viewing platform on the seafront (committing millions in public money to the project), cosying up to local privatisers of public services, publicly championing tax-dodging Apple products, bullying and lying to colleagues – I could go on but, well, I’m sure you get the picture.”

He was one of the six Green councillors who left the council chamber rather than vote to re-elect Councillor Kitcat as leader.

Another, Alex Phillips, tried to enlist Labour’s support for a change of leadership.

Phélim Mac Cafferty, who was one of the council’s two Green deputy leaders at the time, was suggested as an alternative.

Labour group leader Councillor Warren Morgan declined to get involved and made the exchange public.

His party went through its own turbulent spell in Brighton at a time when the national leadership was purging the “militant tendency”.

Under Lord Basssam of Brighton – then council leader Steve Bassam – the party expelled six councillors.

Councillor Alex Phillips

Councillor Alex Phillips

Councillor Kitcat is unlikely to go down the same road. A motion proposing disciplinary action against Councillor Phillips was withdrawn within 24 hours. And she was reported to have apologised for her naïve mistake.

But the source of the discontent remains.

Like its rivals, the Green Party is a broad church. Unlike its rivals it relies on regular votes rather than party discipline.

But its members could do worse than remember the words in Mark’s gospel: “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

And if they prefer a more secular version of the same sentiment, they can look to Abraham Lincoln.

In one of his most speeches, before he became president, he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It may be a case of mid-term blues for the Greens. It may be that the realities of office are forcing those who wish to be ideologically pure to make some uncomfortable decisions. It may be that personality clashes are adding to the mix.

The by-election should provide a short-term solution to one or more of the issues unsettling the party.

But the responsibility of running the council makes it vital that the Greens work hard to resolve their differences.

If not, they may not be alone in paying the price.


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