Defiance of the government - not a referendum - is answer to budget crisis

Jason Kitcat (left) will go head to head again with Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the Conservative Group, and Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour and Co-operative Group
Jason Kitcat (left) will go head to head again with Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the Conservative Group, and Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour and Co-operative Group

Firstly, well done to Brighton and Hove Independent for organising a meeting about the city council’s proposals to hold a referendum on increasing council tax by 4.75%.

Firstly, well done to Brighton and Hove Independent for organising a meeting about the city council’s proposals to hold a referendum on increasing council tax by 4.75%.

The fact that The Argus was forced into holding a meeting of its own - albeit without the same public participation - is an achievement of its own. I have never before known The Argus even to think of taking the pulse of its own readership.

The hall itself was packed, with more than 200 people present - along with the leaders of the three parties on the council: Jason Kitcat, of the Green Party; Geoffrey Theobald, of the Conservative Party; and Warren Morgan, of the Labour and Co-operative Party.

People with learning difficulties made their voices heard at the meeting. There were a number of good contributions from the floor - and a few not so good!

But Jean Calder’s was the most moving and telling when she described how her elderly mother was forced to leave her privately-run nursing home because Jean had complained about care standards. She was later told by a senior social worker that she was making too much of a fuss about the conditions.

I know from the recent death of my own father that the privatisation of care homes has been a scandal, which is only now emerging. Private companies, whose only loyalty is to their own shareholders, see the residents as income-earners.

The debate, however, was frustrating.

Jason Kitcat was the most eloquent; Geoffrey Theobald made it clear that he would like to "market test' - that is, privatise - most of the council’s responsibilities; but it was Warren Morgan who came off the worst. His disagreements with the Greens were petty and personal. And his claim that he opposed a larger increase in the council tax, because it is regressive, begged the question as to why New Labour had done nothing to reform the council tax in 13 years in office.

I will declare an interest: 20 years ago, I was one of about 50 people in Brighton who were purged to make the council under Baron Bassam of Brighton immune to criticism. Jean Calder and Andy Winter, Jean’s partner, were purged along with another four councillors. New Labour paved the way for the present coalition government cuts with Blair’s "choice agenda".

Everything the coalition government has done was inspired by New Labour. It is no surprise that the scandal at Stafford Hospital impacted on Andy Burnham, the Labour minister. It was New Labour that also began taking the axe to disability benefits. Which the present government has taken up with relish.

The whole demeanour of Councillor Morgan left me in no doubt that he resented having to explain his political stance; it was equally clear that the Labour Party’s venomous attitude to the Greens is purely sectarian and opportunist.

When the Tories lost power, he considered Labour should have automatically been able to form an administration. He mentioned his ward’s poverty but forgot to mention Eb4U, New Labour’s "regeneration" agency - which spent £50 million in East Brighton and has left no trace.

Geoffrey Theobald made no bones about the achievements of the coalition, including the savage attacks on the very concept of a welfare state - while seeking a scapegoat in immigrants. Privatisation was the way ahead, Councillor Theobald said - forgetting to mention our experience of the rail and the utility companies: private monopolies that rig the market and make billions of pounds doing so.

There is an assumption, beloved of the commentariat, that the free market is the only road to take, whereas the real choice should be between public need and private greed.

I was reminded of the government’s panicked reaction to the flooding in Somerset and other places. The publicly-owned Environment Agency was the target of Eric Pickles, the local government minister, who does not mention that the agnecy's budget has been cut to the bone. Even Mr Pickles, as far as I know, does not advocate privatising the Environment Agency!

As a number of people pointed out from the floor, privatisation of care means council-tax-payers makie a contribution to the profits of Capita, G4S, and other sharks.

I know from the Sussex Autistic Trust Day Centre my son goes to that the dedication of staff is second to none.

Privatisation would mean staff being paid the lowest wages and the quality of care collapsing.

But the question remained as to whether the Green Party strategy of increasing the Council tax by 4.75% is an answer - in the unlikely event that the other parties agree to it.

Even were there to be a referendum and the Greens won, then it would just postpone the day when government grants to local councils dry up altogether.

There was a time when Labour councils – Clay Cross, Liverpool, Lambeth, and others - defied central government.

If our Green-led council goes back to 1921, it will learn that the councillors of Poplar - an impoverished borough in London, led by future Labour leader George Lansbury went to prison rather than impose higher rates on impoverished ratepayers. After six weeks, they were released from prison as the government passed an act to equalise the rates between rich and poor boroughs, via a grant.

The Green Party, for all its rhetoric, remains a party that believes capitalism can be greened. The council is caught between a rock and a hard place. As long as it plays by the book it will lose.

There is a very strong argument for the council to refuse to accept Mr Pickles’s decision to make the biggest grants to the richest boroughs and set a "needs budget". But this involves civil disobedience.

The Greens have a chance to make a difference in our city and save themselves from the expected slaughter of the innocents in next year’s local elections.

Instead of gimmicks, like the 20mph speed limit, they should concentrate on winning the major battle. Which is the slow death of local democracy in Britain.

Despite his eloquence, Jason Kitcat’s alternative strategy is no strategy at all.