For all the talk of a Green surge, the party is unlikely to win any new seats this year. Despite the party’s bluster about its election hopes, its main aim is a defensive one: to ensure that its first MP, Caroline Lucas, is not deposed after a single term.
Yet Brighton does not just matter to the Greens. From its performance there, Labour should be able to tell whether Ed Miliband will become Prime Minister. Each of the city’s three seats – Brighton Pavilion, Brighton Kemptown and Hove – were held by Labour between 1997 and 2010. They fell, in unison, during Labour’s disaster in 2010, but all three have majorities of fewer than 2,000.
They now all rank in Labour’s top 30 target seats. In theory, Brighton Pavilion should be the easiest for Labour to gain. It only needs to overturn a majority of 1,252 votes. But the party is struggling to gain traction.
A Labour councillor reckons that it is actually the party’s worst electoral prospect in the city. That was borne out by a recent Lord Ashcroft poll, which had Labour trailing by ten points here. Six months earlier, Labour had led by a point.
Lucas may have benefited from the furore over the Green Party’s apparent exclusion from the TV debates. While Labour’s default setting is to attack the Conservatives for cuts and being close too to big business, it is not quite sure how to respond when, as in Brighton Pavilion, a party does the same to them.
I get a sense of Labour’s predicament as I stroll around with Purna Sen, Labour’s candidate for the seat. She would add to a woefully under-represented demographic in the House of Commons: the first female Asian MPs were only elected in 2010.
Sen is a fizzy candidate and no carpetbagger: she has lived in Brighton for six years and been visiting since 1968, when her brother studied at Sussex University.
She also possesses “real life” experience of the sort so lacking in Westminster, with a long career in human rights—she was Director for the Asia-Pacific Programme at Amnesty International and an Advisor to Justice for Gay Africans.
She even marched against the Iraq War, a seminal moment in moving many Brighton voters against Labour.
None of this will matter much unless Sen is able to articulate a powerful case for why voters who self-identity on the left should rid Britain of its only Green MP. While Sen asserts that the Greens are “not in favour of growth” and oppose all housing development, she emphasises her agreement “on a number of positions” with Lucas.
But her real case to the voters of Brighton Pavilion is not about policies. “What we disagree with is how to change things,” Sen tells me. “Her political method is to be outside a mainstream party and to be an independent voice. My strategy is to be part of a party of government that delivers change.”
The difficulty is that this pitch – “We’ve got to be practical about what can be done” and “not just protest, which is what Caroline Lucas does, but to govern” – risks sounding like yearning for an age of two-party politics that has long since gone.
In an age of political promiscuousness, this attack rather suits Lucas. I meet her manning a stall on London Road. It is a long way removed from North Lane, which, with shops like “Vegetarian Shoes”, is the caricature of Brighton.
Several of London Road’s shops have fallen into disuse and are laden with graffiti. The protruding 99p store serves as evidence of the Greens trying to extend their appeal beyond their traditional base of well-off students and young professionals.
“It’s too simple and dismissive”, Lucas tells me, to say a vote for the Greens is “only a middle-class vote from the North Lane. It isn’t. It’s a lot of people who are just fed up with the political system and want to be able to believe in politics again.”
But there can be few seats where the two leading candidates agree on so much. Sen has tried to position herself as more pro-immigration than her party and shares Lucas’ opposition to nuclear power.
An oddity of the tussle in Brighton Pavilion is that, while Senemphasises areas of agreement between the two candidates, Lucas does the opposite, attacking her as a Labour Party lackey.
“I don’t think Purna Sen can have it both ways,” she says. “On the doorstep she’s saying that we need a Labour government. That implies that if she’s elected to represent Brighton Pavilion she will support a Labour government come what may. She will go through that voting lobby according to her party whip.” To Lucas, “by implication she is saying that she will support Ed Miliband even when she doesn’t agree with him.”
Lucas has another riposte to Sen’s claim that a solitary Green MP can achieve little. She claims that her re-election would lead Labour to be “more radical” and push the party to the left. To Lucas, the timidity of Labour is embodied by its “half-hearted policy” on railways.
The party would allow state-owned providers to bid for lines against existing franchises, proof of a party that “doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.” In a commuter town with a notoriously unreliable train service – my train to Brighton is 15 minutes late, which elicits weary resignation rather than surprise among passengers – Lucas’s call for full-blooded renationalisation of the railways is a popular one.
And the rare sight of a grandmother asking an MP for a selfie is proof of Lucas’s popularity. Jo, a self-described “activist and anarchist” in her 40s, asks Lucas how she vote for her—in what would be her first vote.
The warmth with which constituents greet her is an antidote to the notion that politicians are doomed to be loathed. Even her enemies concede as much. Neil Schofield, a former Green councillor who has now defected to Labour, describes her as “a very conscious, very able MP who has a really strong public profile and has raised issues in Parliament”.
Lucas’s presence in Westminster reflects the long-term disengagement of the electorate from mainstream parties. The percentage of the population who supported the Conservatives or Labour at the ballot box declined from 80 per cent in 1951 to just 42 per cent in 2010.
Brighton has been at the epicentre of this new, pluralistic world. Keith Taylor increased the Green vote in Brighton Pavilion from 2.6 per cent in 1997 to 21.9 per cent in 2005 – a strong third-placed finish from which Lucas, who controversially replaced Taylor as candidate before the last election, used as a springboard to winning the Green Party’s first seat.
“The sense that people will vote just what they’ve always voted and what their families have always voted is breaking down massively,” Lucas says. “We see that obviously with the rise of Ukip. But one of the things that the rise of Ukip has done is actually just remind people that there is a greater variety out there in terms of the options of who to vote for.”
The rise of Ukip has also allowed the Greens to trumpet its own credentials as the “anti-Ukip” party.
Yet support for Lucas has not been replicated by support for the party. Brighton Council, which became the first Green-controlled council in the UK in 2011, is widely unpopular.
Shoppers and shopkeepers on London Road grumble about a litany of problems: bin strikes, exorbitant parking prices and a 20mph speed limit. The problem seems to be less one of ideology than competence. Brighton council infamously ranks 302nd out of 326 councils for recycling.
The council’s failings are a big threat to Lucas. A knotty pensioner confronts Lucas on her stall, accusing the council of “creating more traffic for no reason”. The exchange ends with Lucas saying she “will pass it on” to Green councillors.
Whether Lucas wins re-election will partly be determined by whether she avoids being dragged down by the council’s unpopularity. Her strategy is to run as a quasi-independent. She describes her appeal to voters as “less a policy issue but just the sense that they’ve got an MP that will stand up for what they believe in”.
Lucas has not been shy about criticising the council. “There are lots of things I would have done differently to the council,” she tells me. Lucas has publicly criticised its handling of the bin strikes, and calls the parking hikes to up to £20 a day in parts of the city “too far and too fast.”
Labour carp that there is little mention of the Greens on Lucas’ campaign literature: the Green Party logo nestles discreetly at the bottom of a Lucas leaflet.
That Lucas stood down as Green leader in 2012 makes it easier for her to distance herself from the council, and win over voters like my taxi driver. “I’ll vote for her again because she’s very good,” he tells me while simultaneously berating the council. “They don’t like car drivers.”
Should Lucas retain her seat, it will be reward for her competence and assiduousness as an MP. Even in the Green fiefdom of Brighton Pavilion, voters have no sympathy with ideological grandstanding.
While it is a lesson that few Green councillors appear to have recognised, it should not go unheeded by Green candidates, like Darren Hall in Bristol West, who hope to join her in Westminster.
The Greens launched their election campaign today. Tim Wigmore’s profile of Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas’ constituency, originally appeared on our sister site May2015.