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