Labour’s win in yesterday’s Hanover and Elm Grove by-election – capturing a seat in the Green Party’s central Brighton electoral stronghold – may have been unexpected but is not altogether surprising. Its exposure of the deep malaise in Brighton Green politics has, within a couple of hours of the result, led for calls for the resignation of Jason Kitcat as Green Group convenor; but in my view those calls completely miss the point. There is a much deeper, systemic failure that the Brighton Green Party needs to get to grips with.
That failure is exemplified by a leaflet that the Green Party circulated ten days before the election. It purported to be an information note about the background to the recent City Clean dispute, which saw the city’s refuse workers taking strike action over pay modernisation proposals that involve substantial cuts in their take-home pay. I’ve blogged before here and here about the administration’s decision to devolve responsibility for the decision to officers and the subsequent divisions in the Brighton Green Party over that. It’s important to remember that the Green candidate in Hanover and Elm Grove, David Gibson, had publicly backed the CityClean workers in their fight to avoid detriment.
The Green leaflet – curiously printed without any Green Party branding apart from the agent’s imprint – essentially rehearsed the officers’ case over the dispute, and crassly commented on aspects of the revised offer to workers which is still subject to a ballot. In other words, a party that had chosen to walk away from a negotiation issued a leaflet defending officers and in the process not just traduced Green Party policy but undermined the political position of the local Green MP and the Green candidate. Politics simply doesn’t come much crasser than that. And the fact that this was dressed up as an information leaflet – rather like one of those disreputable Liberal Democrat fake local newspapers – compounds the political error.
My first reaction on reading the leaflet was that the authors had taken leave of their senses. On reflection, it speaks eloquently of the fundamental problem of the Green administration – that they appear no longer to be doing politics. And it played into the hands of those who claim that the Green administration is officer-led and not really up to the task. It’s confused, defensive and ultimately bad politics. Who authorised this? What was the political rationale? Has the novel experience of being praised by Tories for “realism” gone to some Green councillors’ heads?
Moreover, the by-election will perhaps be remembered for the sordid sideshow of a local blogger and Green Party activist conducting a vicious and personal campaign of attack against the Labour candidate, Emma Daniel. I’m not going to dignify this particular individual’s efforts with links but, taken as a whole, the campaign was more than a piece of cyber-bullying (rationalised by its author as “scrutiny”); reading the blog posts and comments on social media as a whole, it is impossible to miss the stench of misogyny. Now the Green Party famously claims to “do politics differently” and nobody is suggesting that it would be realistic (or desirable) to gag an individual blogger, however obnoxious his rambling. The bigger political failure lies in the Party’s silence – not one councillor and only one party official (tweeting in a personal capacity) called the individual concerned. In fact, as far as I’m aware only two Green Party members (of whom I am one) – one male and one female - have used social media to call this individual – and the difference in the response to the two is instructive.
I’d argue that the failure of the Green Party collectively to dissociate itself from this campaign is a real problem. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Hanover and Elm Grove, has campaigned powerfully against the misogyny of Page Three; faced with similar attitudes within its own ranks, the Brighton and Hove Green Party collectively turns a blind eye. It’s all the more extraordinary when one considers that part of the reason for the rise of the Brighton Green Party was the behaviour of Labour; one of the stranger paradoxes of this campaign was the participation of former councillor Joyce Edmond-Smith, one of Brighton Labour’s Disappeared, in support of the Green campaign. I’m not going to pretend that in anything other than the imagination of the blogger concerned this issue affected the result; but if Green Politics is to mean anything at all, it means calling cyber-bullying and misogyny for what they are; and in Hanover and Elm Grove the Green Party collectively failed to do that.
There remains at the heart of this result a huge paradox. Austerity is the dominant issue in contemporary politics; in Parliament, the local Green MP, Caroline Lucas, remains perhaps its most consistent and eloquent opponent. But it is the implicit backing of austerity, in the form of its abandonment of political decisions over the pay and conditions of Council staff, that appears to be the biggest single factor behind the Green defeat in Hanover and Elm Grove. What this means for the vote in Brighton Pavilion at the next election is unclear; Caroline Lucas’ support extends a long way beyond the local election core Green vote. But this result has energised Labour and, with a new Labour councillor with deep community and voluntary sector roots, allowed Labour – almost incapable of uttering a progressive thought at Westminster on the economy, or social security, or free schools – to look like the more naturally progressive party. The question now, perhaps, is whether a divided and increasingly dysfunctional-looking Green party can recapture the political agenda in our city