This is the third and final installment of “James bothers GPEW leadership candidates”, and today the question is something both tiny and yet, I believe, crucial.

In May last year, the party took its first leadership role anywhere in the UK, with experienced former Labour Councillor Bill Randall heading up Brighton and Hove Council for the Greens. The city has become the party’s stronghold, with its wacky Pavilion (pictured), but it’s still a minority administration: 23 Greens, 18 Tories, 13 Labour, putting Labour in the traditional quandary of the Lib Dems – support the Greens and bolster them in office or oppose them to side with the Tories. In February, Labour made its mind up and aligned with the Tories to amend the Green budget to remove a 3.5% Council Tax increase the party had proposed to protect local services.

Now the quandary was for the Greens: vote for the amended budget and run a Council with more cuts, or vote to reject the entirety of the party’s proposals (and quite possibly be ejected from office). The group, shortly to be led by one-man brains-trust and then budget lead Jason Kitcat, voted with one exception to accept the budget. That exception was Deputy Leadership candidate Alex Phillips. I wanted to know how the others would have voted.

One leadership candidate would have voted against, two for, and one thought I probably shouldn’t have asked the question. Two deputy leadership candidates would have voted for, and another would have joined Alex in voting against. Don’t say this election isn’t offering a choice. The answers to the three questions I’ve looked at have determined my vote, and I’ll explain why at the end.

Q. The Green administration on Brighton and Hove Council represents the first real Green executive power in the UK. How would you have voted on the most recent budget, as amended by the opposition parties, and why?

Leader candidates

Natalie Bennett: We know that austerity is entirely the wrong path for Britain, and that we should be investing in the future. But until we are running the country, when we are running councils we will have to work within the circumstances we find ourselves. Brighton in proposing the maximum possible 3.5 per cent council tax rise set out an innovative approach that was copied by more than a score of others up and down the country (including some Tory councils). And their extensive consultation process, I have heard from Brighton NGOs, was much appreciated and admired.

But since they are a minority council, when the Labour councillors decided to join the Tories in blocking the plan – something we must keep highlighting – there was not way forward with that. Not having been in the room, I can only express a general view that in difficult circumstances I think it is important for teams to stick together and work together for the generally agreed direction – so I think I would have voted for the budget.

I also think that the first Green council collapsing after less than a year in office would have been seized upon with glee by our political opponents, and I think that Greens in the rest of the country, particularly those in leadership positions, can only trust our Green councillors to have done their best in the circumstances. And we must ensure that we don’t provide political ammunition to our opponents by expressing public opposition to their actions, while being prepared to ask questions and be a ‘critical friend’ in private where that seems appropriate.

Peter Cranie: Our group in Brighton and Hove united in proposing and arguing for a 3.5% increase. That was the right thing to do and getting beyond how we feel about the vote that followed, we should be asking what other party in the country is willing to argue for increased taxation to protect services? Not Labour. Not the Liberal Democrats.

I think a lot of us feel we wouldn’t vote for a budget that results in cuts but the reality is that 23 Green councillors got put in that position. We had not spent time as a national party planning how we might handle minority administration on a council. In the same way we haven’t discussed how we would manage a larger group of Euro MPs or a group of MPs at Westminster. Our national party was not in a position to support or advise our first council, or to assist with planning the budget process and working on the best approach. That is a national failing and it needs to be addressed, otherwise we are asking the impossible of our elected councillors when they do get into a position of power, shared or otherwise. They have a duty not just to the Green Party but also to the local constituents that elected them.

So Brighton and Hove councillors went into a high pressure situation and the reality where Labour councillors combined with the Tories to vote the increase down. To me, that was the crucial vote and every time we gaze internally about how our councillors should have voted, we are distracted from the real issue – a red/blue consensus on budget cuts. There is a political trap here. By not focusing on the Labour and Conservative groups voting together to force additional cuts to services, we fall into it.

I think that once again the Green group will be looking for the full 3.5% increase. There are some good ideas I heard proposed by other councillors, including those from Liverpool, that I heard about on the train back from the AGC hustings, which Brighton and Hove Greens could consider using. We need to work together as a party to prevent Brighton and Hove Greens avoid a red/blue coalition and another frozen budget. It certainly won’t be easy though.

We are an anti-cuts party. At a local level we are doing what we can to mitigate the damage wreaked by the coalition government. We lost a battle in Brighton and Hove at the last budget despite union and community support but we to need focus now on how we win the argument and the campaign against cuts in the longer term.

Pippa Bartolotti: I would have voted for the amended budget primarily because I would want our first Green Council to be seen in action for as long as possible. Voting against would have left us wide open to the very real risk that a Lab/Tory gang could have forced us out of office. However, I am very proud of Alex for sticking to her point of view, and for illustrating that we are individuals, with individual consciences who can work together, and that not having a party whip is a positive.

Romayne Phoenix: I would have voted against the Labour / Tory amended budget. Please see the Oxford hustings (YouTube).

Deputy leader candidates

Richard Mallender: I would have gritted my teeth and voted for it. I used to be a councillor in Brighton, I understand the political landscape there and I know how long and hard the local party worked to achieve what they have. They don’t have a majority & Labour are determined to destroy their hard-won credibility. They have a fundamentally Green budget and they should not fall back in the face of opposition sabotage.

Caroline Allen: I am anti-austerity of course; it is economically illiterate and completely immoral that those who had nothing to do with causing the crisis we face are now paying the price. I have spoken to a number of Brighton councillors about this, as this is clearly a massive issue. My assessment is of a bunch of genuine people, anti-cuts themselves, trying to do their best for the people of Brighton in face of a Labour/ Tory trap and the very real threat of a no confidence vote. The process of drawing up the original Green budget needs to be applauded. The final vote was clearly a very difficult decision and I wasn’t party to the discussions, in particular whether there was the possibility of going back to the members. However, as someone who manages a team who have to work together under very stressful situations, I know the importance of supporting your team when the chips are down. So on balance and with incomplete information I believe I would have voted with the other councillors. In either case I would want to try and avoid keep revisiting difficulties and differences. My team at work don’t always agree; but if there is an issue we discuss it, learn and draw a line under it and get on with the job in hand, in our case fixing sick animals. In this case the job in hand is of course doing the best for the Brighton residents, on which I think the Council are doing very well, but also highlighting Labour’s disgraceful behaviour.

Alex Phillips: I voted ‘no’ because for me the Tory-Labour amendment to take Pickles’ bribe and freeze council tax was unpalatable. I had sought advice from the Head of Law at the council beforehand, who had assured me that any vote of no confidence in the Leader could happen at any full council meeting and that under the Strong Leader Model, which we were operating under back in February, a vote of no confidence legally meant absolutely nothing. I knew that voting against the Tory-Labour amended budget would not mean handing over control to them, it would have meant either rescheduling the meeting for a week later (which would have allowed us to engage with the public, our members and the wider party) or implementing a budget which we did not vote for. The latter would have sent a very clear message to the public that the cuts were forced upon us, as a minority administration, and that those cuts are Labour-Tory cuts.

Will Duckworth: I would certainly have voted against the amended budget.  We must not cling on to power for its own sake or even to administer cuts a little more caringly.  Had the then Lab/Con budget been passed I would then have taken the consequences be it to have suffered a vote of no confidence or to have administered the cutting budget with the constant reminder that the cuts are a direct result of the other parties’ decision that we voted against.  Either way I believe that our future electoral chances in the area would then have been greater and our standing in the rest of the country would have been enhanced.

This one is the defining question for me. Friends in Brighton were appalled at the idea that the Greens might have handed office over to the Tories less than a year after setting up what is clearly Britain’s most progressive local authority. Minority government means accepting you can’t get things all your own way, it means picking your battles, and it means prioritising what’s in the best interests of your constituents. It also in this case means slating Labour remorselessly for picking the Tories ahead of the Greens. This will not help them in the long term. But in this case, painful as it is, it means voting for the budget.

Many of the candidates flagged up the need to criticise Labour in the strongest terms for this decision, but I want to see a leader elected who sees how vital the rest of the budget was, and how essential it is for the party to remain strong and in office for both local residents and the party. That rules out Romayne for leader, for me, and it rules out Will as well as Alex for the deputy slot. The latter is particularly frustrating, just as it was at the time, because she is an excellent speaker, a first-class organiser, and incredibly hard-working.

Peter’s position is interesting – perhaps we should move on, perhaps I shouldn’t have asked the question, perhaps indeed the party wasn’t prepared for this situation – but I think the party has a right to know whether leadership candidates prefer purism or pragmatism. It’s disappointing, although I understand his position, and I am a huge fan of Peter’s hard work in his region and his strategic analysis, but I cannot put him top for this reason. However, on every other count I still rate him highly enough to put him ahead of Pippa (I don’t really feel “centrist” is a label we should adopt, in particular, despite her calm and balanced answer here). However, if I’d been answering my own question, I might have written something pretty close to Natalie’s answer, just as I’ve admired her other two answers posted here before. I also cannot fault the positions set out by Richard and Caroline here, but Caroline has had the edge between those two for me, given the first two questions in particular.

Taking all the answers as a whole, my top two picks are therefore as follows.

Leader: 1 – Natalie Bennett, 2 – Peter Cranie
Deputy: 1 – Caroline Allen, 2 – Richard Mallender

Given the gender balance requirements, if Natalie wins, Caroline will be struck out and a man selected. It’s an unfortunate situation – I do think Natalie and Caroline would be the party’s best choice from this list. I agree with gender-balanced selection for candidates to stand in elections, at least over areas large enough for that to work, but for these positions I’m not convinced. When Caroline Lucas was the obvious candidate for leader, I’d hoped Sîan Berry might stand as her deputy, but it wouldn’t have been possible either. So be it, for now at least.

Anyway, that’s all folks! Well, technically I also asked about media management and fundraising, but I don’t intend on reflection to publish those answers, given the tension between a detailed answer and giving up details of our strategy. Any GPEW member wishing to see them can email me for a copy. Thanks again to all candidates for their very illuminating answers, and may the best person of each gender win.