by Phil Di Palma, Norwich Green Party
There has been widespread Labour Party outrage since 9th May, when the four Green councillors on Norfolk County Council (Norfolk CC) made public their decision — agreed in April after many months of discussion — to no longer support Labour’s George Nobbs, leader of a so-called “Rainbow Alliance” of Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP councillors since 2013. Two recent pieces in the Norwich Radical, by Josh Wilson and Hannah Rose, discuss this issue and the Greens’ role in a “Left Alliance”. Here, I will answer the questions “how can the Green Party justify withdrawing support for a party of the left”, and “has their decision resulted in a ‘new order’ at Norfolk CC?”.
Labour’s Record on Norfolk CC
Greens point to the Labour-led Alliance’s poor record under George Nobbs:
- Freezing Council Tax in 2014-15, at a time when even some Conservative-led councils were increasing it. Greens calculated that if Council tax had been increased by the legal maximum in 2014-15 and 2015-16, there would have been over £40m per annum more for services by 2019-20.
- Proposing £12m of cuts to Adult Social Care wellbeing payments in the period 2014-17, despite strong opposition from campaigning groups (the ramifications of this are still being felt today).
- Agreeing to put £1m back into the wellbeing budget after strong pressure from the Greens, then neglecting to mention Green involvement in the decision (a nail in the coffin of future Green deal making with Labour).
- Letting Balfour Beatty hike their NDR contract by £30m (20%) without any negotiation, then bypassing proper committee scrutiny of the £9.9m portion for which Norfolk CC was responsible (Norfolk CC was subject to successful legal challenge on this by local campaigners).
- Supporting the King’s Lynn incinerator until forced to back down. George Nobbs often claims to have “stopped the incinerator”, but his 2013-14 Labour cabinet did everything they could to keep the project going. Intensive lobbying got the PFI credits removed, but he tried to hold out for several more months and build it without PFI money.
- Bullying one of their own councillors out of the Labour Party (listen to Alexandra Kemp’s Radio Norfolk interview here).
- Entering into a badly-negotiated draft devolution agreement with George Osborne which would almost certainly bequeath a Tory Mayor to East Anglia for the next 30 years, then realising in April that devolution was “a shambles”. See here for the Green argument.
In spite of this litany of failure, Labour maintain that Greens should support them to “keep the Tories out”. Nationally, Sadiq Khan created an anti-Green unit which tried hard to unseat Caroline Lucas MP, but… hey, we should still support them because they hate the Tories more than they hate us!
The Green Party is an independent party with its own principles, policies and electoral following. It is not obliged to support any other party or parties, especially when those parties pursue an austerity agenda counter to Green principles.
On Norfolk CC, Green councillors backed the Alliance on a case-by-case basis for the past three years, but Labour’s ‘work together to keep the Tories out’ mantra was one-way, with little given in return. Norwich City Council is an even worse example of Labour partisanship. Labour’s attitude seems to be: support us on the County Council, while we shut you out on the City Council and shout down Green proposals which would benefit the city.
But didn’t the Greens ‘let the Tories in’ at Norfolk CC?
No. Labour’s claim that Green abstentions in the leadership vote “handed power to the Tories” relies on it being true that the Alliance controlled the Council prior to Monday 9th May, and that the Tories control the council now. In reality, the situation is more complex.
Ever since a Tory by-election win in November 2015, the make-up of Norfolk CC has been 41 Con, 14 Lab, 13 UKIP, 10 Lib Dem, 4 Green, and 2 non-aligned (1 ex-Lab, 1 ex-Con). The committee system, where most of the power lies, has a political balance based on these numbers. The Tories still have a 9-8 majority on two of the five main committees, with Alliance (plus non-formalised Green support) majorities of 9-8 on the other three. Committee memberships didn’t change on 9th May.
What has changed is the Leader/Deputy Leader of the Council, and chairs and vice chairs of committees. For example, the former chair of the Environment, Development and Transport committee, who will now be able to spend more time on his Norfolk estate watching his trees sink beneath the climate change floodwaters, was Cllr Richard “Toby” Coke, a UKIP climate change denier.
During Monday’s AGM, after the Conservatives’ Cliff Jordan had been voted leader, Green councillor Elizabeth Morgan asked Liberal Democrat Dan Roper why the Alliance was not proposing a slate of chairs and vice chairs for the four committees still to be voted on — a slate which the Greens would almost certainly have supported. He replied “we are throwing in the towel”, or words to that effect (see my Twitterspat with Dan Roper about this).
As a result of this Labour/Alliance weakness, Tory chairs and vice-chairs were elected unopposed to 4 of the 5 main committees. Chairs not only have casting votes in the event of a tie through absence or abstention, but also some control over the agenda. Those casting votes will now be Tory every time — no wonder Labour have been desperately trying to scapegoat the Greens.
Time and again, rather than attacking the Tories, Labour has directed its anger either internally (see Woodcock, Mann, Streeting et al, who attack their leader at every opportunity), or against the Greens.
As a small political group, the Greens’ job at Norfolk County Council is to scrutinise decisions and speak truth to power, not acquiesce in the mistakes and damaging policies of a larger party, whoever they may be.
Featured image: Norfolk County Hall © mira66 / Flickr