Why the Greens were beaten back in Brighton

Something very special happened on election night in Brighton and Hove – one of Britain’s most creative and staunchly independent minded cities.

As our worst fears came to be realised – following that night’s shocking exit poll – Hove bucked the national trend and turned ‘red in a sea of blue’. The three parliamentary seats across the city went Conservative, Green and Labour respectively. Number twenty-eight on Labour’s target list, Peter Kyle pulled off a stunning victory in Hove reversing the incumbent Tory’s majority.

Our excellent candidate, Nancy Platts, was very unlucky to miss out on a parliamentary seat losing by just 690 votes.  She increased Labour’s share of the vote by four per cent compared to the result in 2010. Caroline Lucas for the Greens was always on course to increase the size of her majority given the way she has personally positioned her politics as a cause célèbre, both nationally and locally. There is a large constituency in Brighton for those who define themselves almost exclusively through the lens of ‘protest’, which partly explains the Green party’s single parliamentary success.

But when it comes to the politics of power and making a difference to citizens’ daily lives through sound local administration, the Greens were badly punished on election night. They lost nearly half their seats on Brighton and Hove council making them the third political force in the city, compared to the dizzy heights of 2011 when they took minority control. The local Argus newspaper’s front-page headline summed up the rout: ‘Green dream dies’.

For non-residents of the city it is hard for them to fully comprehend why the Green administration made such a hash of it. The reason for their failure goes far beyond the totemic scenes of the endless bin strikes and rubbish piling up on the streets. They were hopelessly divided, riven like a student common room, with factional infighting and regular coups. The genuine concerns of residents’ were too often secondary to ideologically driven projects implemented regardless of the consequences. Political opponents were treated to the kind of trap laying that would make Machiavelli very proud. Still, despite all this, it is probably not what really done for them in the end.

Out on the doorstep in the council ward that I fought for Labour, the thing voters said time and time again was that the Greens were ‘incompetent’. Residents were certainly fed up of the pantomime, but what they said they wanted more than anything was a local administration that got the basics right. To them the council was about exemplary civic leadership and vision, combined with a relentless focus on delivering effective local services. Take recycling rates, for example, these have plummeted to 106 place in the league of local authorities during the Green tenure. Voters were simply puzzled by how a group of politicians committed to saving the planet could allow this to happen.

While governments may lose elections, oppositions also have to win them, by constructing a narrative and campaign approach that gives people something positive to vote for. There will be a lot more written and said about Peter Kyle’s campaign in the coming months I am sure. For those of us who took part in it, the one word that springs to mind is simply: inspiring.

From the get go, Peter and his team set out to counter the ‘you are all the same’ cynical view of politics by reinventing the rule book of parliamentary campaigning. Take the campaign shop on Hove high street: it had the welcome appearance of a place you wanted to drop into, and indeed many members of the public did just that – free Wi-Fi access and a cup to tea to boot.

There were a string of well-coordinated community based campaigns from cleaning up estates to saving local children’s centres. People who worked on Peter’s campaign were under strict instructions not to be negative about political opponents. The idea was to present Labour as a professional, positive, competent party who would listen to residents’ concerns then act on them accordingly. Hundreds of activists volunteered for door-knocking sessions, sometimes 7 days a week in the closing stages. Candidates were selected from a broad range of backgrounds, which included trades unions and community workers, but also people with experience of running multi-million pound businesses. The majority of new councillors elected are women.

So the positive result for Labour in Brighton and Hove is about a local party that quickly dusted itself down following a catastrophic defeat in 2011. The party’s internal citywide decision-making structures were certainly reformed and a new leader elected. But above all, politics has been brought back to the high street. It is Labour at its best when it listens, seeks to represent everyone, and stays firmly rooted in local communities – fighting for fairness, yet delivering competent, credible government, as well.

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Tom Bewick is a newly elected councillor on Brighton & Hove city council

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Photo: iFot

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Comments: 14...

  1. On May 19, 2015 at 1:33 pm @BobTwoHats responded with... #

    This is a very unbalanced view. Which is a reason why Labour did so badly in the General Election. Labour act very bitterly to other parties to the left and that comes through loud and clear in this article.

    It is a mistake to believe that people who vote Green are a protest vote. Caroline Lucas’ anti-austerity message is very popular. But more than anything, she is regarded as genuine and trustworthy. And that is why she not just increased her vote but turned a marginal into a relatively safe seat. Check the result for yourselves.

    The Green council was unpopular for a number of reasons, one of those reasons was their implementation of cuts. In fact, most of the problems of the council of the last four years can be attributed to having to make £80 million of cuts. Something that Labour very rarely acknowledges.

    We shall see how the Labour led Brighton & Hove council copes with having to make a further £100 million of cuts. I suspect a lot of residents will become as disappointed in these next four years as the last.

    Before you get excited in Labour, I would suggest you wait till 2019 and see how you do in the next council elections. I suspect you will find that you lose quite a few councillors back to the Greens. We shall see!

    • On May 19, 2015 at 8:50 pm Peter James responded with... #

      What utter rubbish! Labour did a hatchet job on the Greens in Brighon preferring to work with Tory colleagues than support Green initiatives. Why did the Green lose? Largely because they didn’t counter the rubbish spouted Labour over the past 4 years.

      How well do you think you would do if the Green councillors behave in the same petty political point scoring way during the coming years? Difference being Green councillors won’t, they’ll do their jobs and represent their constituents.

      Considering you have just been elected and you will need to work alongside Green colleagues for the good of our city, this piece doesn’t bode well does it?

      • On May 19, 2015 at 11:09 pm Parker responded with... #

        Unfortunately for your argument, one Green councillor has already stated that she aims to ’cause havoc’ for the Labour led administration. They genuinely don’t know how to behave in the interests of constituents, only their own agendas.

  2. On May 19, 2015 at 6:39 pm David Poyser responded with... #

    Well said Peter. Labour campaigning nationally needs a Hove-style make-hover. Of COURSE Labour acts bitterly when other parties of the Left successfully get power by targeting Labour votes. Labour is a broad federation of progressive opinion, designed to make society fairer. When we get the chance, we are brave in Government (the environment under Blair, the Open University under Wilson, the NHS under Attlee etc.) When a party, like the Greens, aims to get Labour votes (which is what the Greens do in Brighton) rather than join the massive Labour party (there’s room for everyone in it) and change the party, it is very frustrating, as the result is a Tory Government (or in the US case where the Nader votes in Florida took the All Gore votes, a Bush Presidency). Disorganisation and chaos in a political party (as with the Greens on Brighton Council) is just self-indulgence at the expense of the electorate. We are all going somewhere similar. Let’s get there together. I hope Green activists flock back to Labour after the Brighton denouement.

    • On May 19, 2015 at 6:50 pm Eric responded with... #

      Just reading the book ‘Blair Inc’. However did activists let this man, and people like Mendelson who seem to worship wealth, come to run the Labour party. It looks as though the Labour Party will continue to basically follow the Tory agenda and thus be ‘Tory-Lite’. There is a seismic change happening in politics. I can see Scotland becoming independent and that will leave the Tories with a structural majority in England and Wales. That is what may well happen if people like David and Peter continue to belittle those who have deserted the party that supported invading Iraq, introduced P.F.I. and doesn’t show much sign of being opposed to TTIP.

    • On May 19, 2015 at 9:27 pm A bit of common sense responded with... #

      Unfortunately, life is not like that. They are not “Labour votes” they have to be earned by vision and competence. I fear it is this arrogance of “nowhere else to go” and laziness of “being born to vote Labour” that has allowed party machinery to corrode and for competition to spring up where a void on social progress has been left.

      Take a look at the leadership election, the candidates and the policies. Is that really going to sell Labour to Green activists? If I were them I would be thinking that having grown rapidly to nearly 70000 members, the momentum is with them.

  3. On May 19, 2015 at 6:43 pm Steve Murphy responded with... #

    Coming from Wigan in the North West of the country. I find it difficult to understand Bob Two Hats comments about the cuts that the Greens had to implement in the Brighton & Hove area.
    My Local Authority has had to implement the third highest cuts of any council in the country, yet still managed to hold all three Parliamentary seats and further increase our huge Labour Majority in the Local Council chamber. In my own marginal Ward I increased my majority against the Tory who thought he was going to walk in on the back of the Tory’s national results. Standing up for local people and delivering on local issues despite the cuts implemented by the Tory’s will always win the day. No true Labour supporter would make excuses for delivering new Schools, Hospitals, improving our Health services and saving the public from the badly run Bank’s taking their savings. Better election results are in your own hands simply by standing by your constituents and supporting them when they need you.

  4. On May 19, 2015 at 9:13 pm James P responded with... #

    “Caroline Lucas was always going to increase her majority…”

    This is desperate, transparent spin. Labour were sure they could take Pavilion, and in the end, their candidate, Purna Sen, got buried by Caroline.

    “We’re coming for you, Caroline”, they said in late 2013. This rhetoric of taking Pavilion continued right up until the election. http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/10543552.Labour_warn_Green_MP__we_re_coming_for_you__following_shock_by_election_win/

    So it’s pathetic to just brush away your failure in Pavilion as if you knew it was inevitable. You got a bloody nose and now you’re trying to brush it off.

    And you failed in Kemptown because you didn’t inspire people. Turnout was at its lowest in areas with Labour councillors.

    • On May 19, 2015 at 11:00 pm Parker responded with... #

      So much wrong with this analysis. Caroline had by far the largest and best funded campaign in Pavilion, as well as a national profile and media presence that no other candidate could begin to compete with – her success wasn’t perhaps inevitable, but it was impossible to hope to resist the juggernaut that was #voteCaroline, and very clearly NOT #voteGreen. Purna could be proud of retaining the Labour vote in such circumstances – it was the Lib Dems who won it for Caroline.
      As for Kemptown, the fact that the Green Party ran an active campaign, including Lucas, made a significant difference. Since the election there have been crocodile tears from Lucas and Davey Jones, the Green candidate, (probably genuine in Davey’s case), about the narrow defeat for Labour, but still blaming Labour. Bottom line is that people voted Green and got another five years of a Tory MP.

  5. On May 19, 2015 at 9:19 pm A bit of common sense responded with... #

    I think a reality check is required here and a little less hubris. Much work has to be done to hold B&H.

    The council has changed hands on several consequative occassions (nobody likes councils!). The Greens won the council in 2011 on a low turnout. In May, it was expected the council would go red, yet the Greens vote went up 20000 in the local elections despite constant Labour friendly and Green hostile articles in the local paper. Moveover, in the GE the Green vote went up 37% in B&H despite Peter Kyle and Nancy Platts picking up a lot of anti-Tory votes that would otherwise have gone to the Greens and a good candidate in Purna Senn was trounced by Caroline Lucas, despite throwing everything including the kitchen sink.

    Cuts were largely avoided by the previous administration, how will people feel in 2019 if Labour have not done their damdest to visibily resist the worst of what is to come? Things are already looking shakey over the Valley Gardens project and potentially handing back £14 million to the government in grants.

    Remember, the Greens are a powerful campaigning force and are claiming well over 2000 members in the city, which makes them the biggest party in B&H by some margin. Will they galvanise an effective movement against cuts? Will a national blairite leader result in haemoraging of party membership to the Greens? Who will be better at getting the vote out in 2019, I would suggest that the national picture will have a major bearing on this?

  6. On May 19, 2015 at 10:03 pm Namak responded with... #

    As a singleton, as well as a celebrity, Caroline Lucas will make a noise but never achieve. Labour’s Purna Sen is a serious operator as all her activities at local and global levels shows. And as a targeted seat, Labour had to put in maximum effort in Pavilion if government was to be achieved.
    Also detected a sense of middle-class entitlement on the part of Greens. Whilst mouthing progressive slogans,their actions were quite parochial.
    And now they are pondering whether to back Zac Goldsmith in the London Mayoral contest.

    • On May 20, 2015 at 8:49 am A bit of common sense responded with... #

      Let’s be realistic here. Purna was an excellent candidate, as was Nancy Platts. But had they become opposition Labour MPs they would have disappeared without trace.

      Lucas will have a high profile and we should seek to support progressive thinkers in Westminster, Labour or not. Lucas pointed out some uncomfortable truths in the last Parliament, had Labour been more progressive from the off and not simply played to the narrative of a Tory press, just maybe we would be celebrating a narrow Labour majority and the collapse of the Conservative Party?

      So much time, money and effort was spent trying to get Lucas and the Greens out, such a long running negative campaign, with little success. Why on earth was this level of passion and resource not spent on getting any Tories out in marginal seats!

  7. On May 20, 2015 at 9:38 am objective view responded with... #

    “Endless bin strikes”

    If you want to talk endless bin strikes (worse than the Greens’ ones – and encouraging strike breakers, which the Greens never used), then look no further than Labour’s Barking & Dagenham Council: http://www.barkinganddagenhampost.co.uk/news/dates_announced_for_refuse_collection_strikes_1_3985114

  8. On May 29, 2015 at 11:58 am bobirving responded with... #

    “Take the campaign shop on Hove high street: it had the welcome appearance of a place you wanted to drop into, and indeed many members of the public did just that – free Wi-Fi access and a cup to tea to boot.” Is this not bribing the voters?