I must confess I was overwhelmed by the response I received to my decision to resign from the Greens in favour of the Labour Party. Whilst it surprised a few, the thinking that lay behind it seemed to strike a chord with many more readers and at the time of writing, that blog post has received 2,000 hits and continues to rise.
I’m going to continue writing new posts, hence the redesigned format to the blog itself. I’m hoping that a wider range of voters will contemplate subscribing and hearing my unique, non-tribal take on political events in the UK, alongside the challenges ahead for those of us campaigning in Brighton & Hove.
Whilst it might not surprise anyone that I’ve always kept an interested eye on the policies and strategy of the local Labour Party, I suspect I’ll need a few weeks grace to get to know more about their vision from the inside. I’m going to learn how the party functions and become familiar with the key figures and political thinking behind their work. In the interim, I thought I might draw upon my perspective from ‘across the aisle’ to consider some of my initial reflections on the challenges confronting Labour in the city in relation to the Greens.
At the last General Election, we faced an exceptionally close three-way contest between Labour, Conservatives and Greens in Brighton Pavilion. Labour’s contention that a Green vote would elect a Tory proved ultimately futile, but it was a savvy move that resonated strongly with a good amount of the public. With success behind her and a reputation as an MP who makes the political weather, Caroline Lucas should find her votes bolstered by her growing reputation and the realisation that a vote for Greens wasn’t wasted. This should counteract the inevitable losses she might experience as an incumbent. Significantly, voters remain strongly committed to her as an individual candidate, even whilst voter confidence in the Green Council has been tangibly shattered by the recent result in the Hanover and Elm Grove by-election.
Unsurprisingly, our candidate Purna Sen currently has a lower name recognition than her opponent. One of our priorities therefore, is to work hard to build her base within different sections of the local community, but also to ensure that she has visible networks of influence within the Labour hierarchy which cut through sufficiently to those voters who fear a loss of a strong voice in Westminster. This shouldn’t be too hard, as she has a background that mirrors much of the appeal Caroline Lucas brings to politics, yet in many ways tells a stronger story. At the end of the day, it will be tough to beat Caroline on her competence as a constituency MP (especially as she has resigned as Party Leader specifically to ensure she has a strong record here), but we can beat her on wider influence within the political establishment.
Doing politics differently
There are different schools of thoughts within politics about the best approach to take with your opponents. There is a sense with and without party circles that tribalism has taken root amongst Brighton & Hove’s political class and I genuinely believe Labour has an opportunity to rise above this and be seen in a positive light as a result. Ensuring courtesy and forging consensus where possible should be at the heart of doing politics. Writing this approach into the DNA of our campaigning can filter through into the strategies we take to engage with communities, hear different perspectives and yet still promote clear dividing lines in our philosophy. As a national party, it will be hard for us to be perceived as plucky insurgents against the Greens, so a key area for us must be examining competence, drawing attention to the national klout we wield and ensuring we reflect and are imbedded within poorer communities and small businesses in the city.
Sharpening a distinctive voice
Although we are now entering a period of faltering growth, the vast majority of the population do not see it translating into a measurable upturn in the personal and family finances. The coalition continues to make use of the political weather to cut back the size of government and support to the vulnerable. Protecting them from the worse excesses of the coalition has to involve some level of political solidarity with our opponents when our political aims coincide. Yet can we ensure we maintain clear differentiation if we agree upon some elements of strategy?
It is a tricky path to tread, ceding artificial differences to ensure the wider community is served. At the end of the day though, there are areas such as around policing, creating jobs and transport infrastructure where we come out strongly and differently from both Greens and Conservatives. We shouldn’t be afraid of pushing in the same direction on issues that matter, such as the Living Wage campaign within the city.
Coalition negotiations were a salutary message to Labour after 13 years in power that they had lost the ability to nimbly negotiate power-sharing when politically needed. From an outside perspective, it has felt that local Labour similarly needs to polish up these skills, whilst hoping they are not needed.
Behind the scenes too, fracturing personal relationships amongst the Green Group of Councillors are rapidly spilling out into public view, not just resulting in the inevitable Argus headlines but amongst general conversation of politically agnostic Brightonians. Coupled with the wrong-headed aversion to party discipline that the Green Council is saddled with, the damage this is causing cannot be underestimated and a priority therefore must be to actively promote and build a strength of common purpose within Brighton & Hove Labour.
Speaking authentically to the community
Traditionally, the LGBT vote has held up strongly amongst Greens, who have taken the time to court this community, playing a prominent role in Brighton Pride (including ensuring funding was ring-fenced since they entered office) and carefully paying attention to transgender issues, which are usually an afterthought for many politicians. They have a good record, but we have a much stronger national record – the vast majority of progressive legislation for sexual minorities stemmed from a Labour Government. Even recent marriage equality would not have been possible without the overwhelming support it received from Labour MPs. Like the Greens, we talk a good game on LGBT – but we have more of a right to say that under Blair’s Government, Britain’s attitudes AND legal landscape were transformed.
Conversely, Greens struggle to substantially cut through into the concerns of a growing black and ethnic minority community in the city, although their opposition to harsh immigration policies is one area that has potential to resonate. With an overwhelming white and middle class membership in the local party, Greens struggle to speak authentically to those struggling under Cameron’s Britain, in spite of an upsurge in interest in social justice within activists. We have built up trust on issues of equity and fairness over the last 100 years, demonstrated by the swift traction already been experienced in the post-conference news cycle with Ed Miliband’s pledges on energy bills and on tax breaks for companies who provide the Living Wage for employees. At the same time, I’d really encourage a renewal and tightening of our relationships with the unions in the city, who are being courted strongly by the Greens locally.