A few weeks ago a Daily Telegraph blogger added greatly to the general amusement of Brighton’s political class by claiming that Brighton was the sort of place that could lead a Tory revival. The laughter could probably be heard as far away as East Croydon; as complete a misreading of the place as you could find. Yes, Brighton and Hove currently has two Tory MPs, elected in 2010. But the author has forgotten that before the 1990s Brighton was a true-blue Tory town; safe Tory seats, a Tory council, and in the long term has shifted decisively away from the Tories. Brighton appears to have a progressive – if split – majority.
Moreover, the two Tory MPs may need to do rather more than at present to keep their seats. The rebarbative and rude replies sent by Mike Weatherley MP’s office to constituents who query Government policy are something of a Brighton and Hove legend; their tone does not suggest a political cause that is confidently looking to the long term. The simple fact is that this is a time of political ferment in Brighton – a two-year-old Green minority administration at a number of turning points following its disastrous mishandling of pay modernisation for low-paid council staff, with party, MP and administration all at odds, culminating in a thumping defeat in a by-election in its previously safe Hanover and Elm Grove ward, followed by the loss of the Green casting vote on key council committees. Yes, Brighton is a politically fascinating place just now. But the fascination entirely revolves around the progressive end of politics; the city’s deeply unpopular and largely politically incoherent Tory party – despite its two MPs and its status as second party on the council – is little more than a sideshow in all this.
The events of the last few months beg some fascinating questions about the temper of Brighton’s progressive politics. Take the Tories – and (for one moment) Caroline Lucas’ vigorous and much-respected one-woman fight against Westminster’s austerity consensus – out of the equation, and you could come to the unexpected conclusion that Brighton, for all its reputation for being trend-setting and progressive, has a far less radical political culture than it likes to think.
Taking first the Council administration, the handling of pay modernisation (the very words scream New Labour) offers some insights. The pay modernisation issue is horrendously difficult – it is about dealing with traditional disparities between allowances paid to different workers apparently based on historical gender-balances, issues that have been fudged by the previous Tory administration in particular; the administration, backed by the Tories, voted to leave the task of sorting this out to officers without oversight from elected members – something I’ve described before as a disastrous error of judgement.
The thing that strikes one so forcibly about the administration’s defence of its position – and especially its response to the GMB union representing the Cityclean workers at the heart of the dispute is the language. That word – modernisation – is a clue; as is the rhetoric of tough decisions, of realism, above all – whether consciously or not – of hostility to the values of trade unionism. The language is pure early Blair – Brighton’s bin dispute lacked a people’s princess but all the other essentials are there. It’s doubly ironic when one considers how the Brighton Green party is political home to many ex-Labour members disgusted by that Party’s capitulation to the right, with the Iraq War as a totem of Labour’s abandonment of its radical values. What is fascinating though is the way in which the language of Blairism has become the default of this administration, embracing both elected members and officers. That language is the political expression of the cult of managerialism so it’s no surprise to hear it from officers – but to hear Green politicians using it is startling and disquieting. And, as with Blair, the quiet approbation of Tories – advocates of ensuring that power remains firmly where it has ever been, in the hands of the wealthy and privileged – is the most telling part of this. The Tories were using social media to praise the administration for its “realism” – something that ought to chill the heart of anyone who believes in effecting real social and economic change.
Which brings us to Labour, whose position is equally strange and conflicted. Labour’s electoral ambition should not be underestimated; it is firmly fixed on regaining the city’s three Parliamentary constituencies and control of the Council in 2015. It will have been enormously encouraged by the Hanover and Elm Grove result. But how far is it really presenting an alternative? Nationally, Labour has not broken free of the politics of austerity and its language – especially towards the most vulnerable and those on benefits – still closely mirrors that of the Tories. Locally, it is as difficult as ever to discern a big Labour vision, least of all one that could be delivered with the Easy Council funding that is likely to be available after 2015, even under a Labour Government. Labour looks like an increasingly confident party, but not a particularly radical or visionary one. It’s interesting that one of Labour’s key local lines revolves around electing an experienced council team that you can trust to deliver; leaving aside the obvious question (to deliver what?) it rather assumes that memories of Labour’s last chaotic term in office have been expunged from electors’ collective memories. Labour Group leader Warren Morgan is prominent supporter of Progress, the über-Blairite faction that the GMB at one point was seeking to ban from the party. Brighton Labour’s eminence grise, Lord Steve Bassam (memorably described to me by a journalist friend as the hand up Brighton Labour’s sock), although once of the fiery left (in the views of some a bit less fiery than legend has it), is now New Labour personified, ennobled by Blair and a former adviser to KPMG and Capita.
So what does this mean? One interpretation is that the warp and weft of Brighton politics – or at least its politcal class – is deeply Blairite. On this interpretation the arrival of a Green administration, regarded as something new and different, was more like a continuation of business as usual from a city which, once you scratch through the veneer of self-congratulation, is far less radical than it likes to think it is; a town which was explicitly Tory for most of its louche history but which has veered to the left as that loucheness has faded into something altogether more tame and packaged.
Self-congratulation, the argument continues, has in recent years become Brighton’s dominant vibe and, increasingly, its curse. Keith Waterhouse famously wrote that Brighton looked like a town that was helping the police with their enquiries; more recently, it has looked like a town that is fixated on its image in the mirror. While the rise of Green politics has been in part a reaction to that – and to the fact that Brighton Labour remains firmly on the party’s right and has historically been brutal in its treatment of dissenters on the left – it is difficult to avoid the belief that Green Brighton (to the extent that it is meaningful to talk about a Green project at all) is an uneasy mix between genuine, deep-seated radicalism and what can sometimes look like a veneer of self-conscious cool rebranded managerialism. Look at us, it screams, we’re different, we’re new and we’re happening; an outburst of hipsterish noise that sometimes appears to disguise the conservative heart beating underneath. Being Green, like New Labour, or One Nation Labour, is something that people who do not really want to change very much can use as a tool of brand identification; the politics of self-congratulation. Things can only get better; but in reality they’re not going to change very much. It’s a malaise that affects the whole of progressive Brighton.
And “alternative” Brighton looks ever more packaged and commercialised. Pride, once a demonstration of Brighton’s free spirit, is now a big commercial event, and last year notoriously was embroiled in a row after anti-austerity protesters were sidelined in the parade. The business pages of Brighton’s (dreadful) local paper, the Evening Argus, talk about the “pink pound”. There is still an anarchist sub-culture here, and still a radical student body, but the economic realities of life in one of the most expensive cities in Europe has taken its toll.
So: Green Brighton as a sort of Mandelsonite rebranding exercise, rather than a move to a new kind of politics? It’s a tempting thesis, supported by the way political dialogue is carried on in the city. Every so often there’s an outburst of “prolier than thou” sniping between Labour and Greens, especially on Twitter – solidly middle-class politicos flicking cyber-muesli at one another across a virtual Fiveways scrubbed-pine breakfast table. It’s a strange dialogue in a city that, with a large low-wage service economy and heinously high living costs, plays home to some hardcore deprivation that barely features in the city’s mainstream political dialogue. (More seriously, there is an undertone of bullying in Brighton’s political discourse – most notably carried on by one Brighton Green blogger in the recent Hanover by-election, but also on a smaller scale against the Green candidate in the earlier East Brighton by-election, which undermines the claim that Brighton progressive politics is different. The fact that both of these outbursts involved men cyber-bullying women suggests the need for a bit of all-round privilege-checking)
So is it fair to describe Brighton radicalism as centrist rebranding? Only up to a point. Brighton progressive politics – both Labour and Green, as well as in fringe parties like TUSC - is full of genuine radicals, even if its political establishment appears not to be – whether in the form of the Green administration’s managerialism or Labour’s decision to prioritise Council Tax cuts over protecting services in 2010. But sometimes that conservatism surfaces in surprising ways – like the way in which a strain of hostility to Trade Unions, rather like that of Liberal Community Politicians in the 1980s, appears in the utterances of Green Party councillors and activists more often than is comfortable.
Most of all it is the city that returns Caroline Lucas to Parliament – emphatically not a Blairite, but the most eloquent opponent of austerity economics in Parliament; the only politician to be cheered to the rafters by the Cityclean workers at the heart of the pay modernisation dispute, and, more generally, one of the most important and visible figures on the British Left. It is the presence of Caroline Lucas, along with a vigorous and strong trade union sector that argues against this. And there remains a real radical vibe that exists outside party politics – one can see, for example, the carnival atmosphere that pervades demonstrations against the EDL’s regular trips to the seaside.
But much of that takes place outside the Brighton political mainstream. Looking at the Brighton progressive scene, you struggle to discern from either Greens or Labour an overarching vision for what the city should be. The debate within progressive Brighton appears to generate plenty of anger, but not much passion. And perhaps that, rather than the underlying proto-Toryism that the Telegraph blogger claims to detect, is the Tories’ biggest ally in the city.