I was fascinated to read an article by Nancy Platts, Labour candidate in Brighton Pavilion at the General Election, on a Labour party website, discussing why Labour lost Pavilion to Caroline Lucas.
As someone who voted Green in 2010 and joined the Party immediately after the election I agree with much of her analysis. Nancy Platts was a very good candidate; she clearly articulated a powerful, attractive and radical political vision which was more calculated to appeal to Brighton voters than her party’s official line. She is certainly right that the Green party was able to motivate students and others who might in other circumstances have voted Labour – or, more likely, not voted at all. She is right that Iraq, tuition fees, PFI and environmental issues were important (the student vote was vital to Green gains in Hollingbury and Stanmer ward at the local elections). And she is also right that electing a free radical who would not be whipped into line as soon as she set foot in Westminster held a lot of attractions.
But there are other issues at work too.
First, demography. In many respects, Brighton, with its two universities, its high proportion of graduates and its focus on information technology and media jobs, is a classic Liberal Democrat town. But the Liberal Democrats have long been an irrelevance; a tradition of infighting has never allowed them to gain any purchase. These are people who are motivated by issues, but, as Nancy Platts said, Labour let them down. But the effect may have been mitigated by Labour tribalism – I recall so many conversations before the election with people who expressed their disgust at New Labour over Iraq, Afghanistan, tuition fees, PFI, appeasing the Murdoch press and so on, but who also said they’d be Labour till the day they died. Whether these middle-class tribalists revolted in the privacy of the polling station I don’t know; the vehemence of the protest did suggest a certain lack of conviction.
Second, it’s important not to underestimate the arrogant, complacent tribalism of Brighton Labour. I was, around the time of the 1997 election, briefly a member of the Brighton Pavilion Labour Party. Even at that stage it was inward-looking and arrogant, reluctant to reach out to new members. Actually finding someone who would talk to a new member about meetings and events was hard enough, but the moment when I decided that this shower were no longer worth the candle came with a local election candidate selection meeting from which I was excluded for the crime of arriving five minutes late – as a commuting wage-slave dependent on trains home from London. Evidently the reality of life for many of their core supporters mattered rather less than the letter of the rule-book.
It was an attitude to those outside the inner elite that extended to Labour’s management of the council – given the behaviour of the recently-departed Tory administration it’s easy to forget how awful Labour were. Having – as a governor of a primary school in a Tory suburb – been told that the extra resources we needed were unlikely to be forthcoming as the kids concerned were not “our people”, or having watched the stitch-up that led to the building of Falmer Stadium, in which Labour at local and national level showed a contempt for process that would have had Eric Pickles whistling in admiration, I have no difficulty in understanding that, when presented with an alternative, many people who might otherwise have been natural Labour supporters turned to a radical alternative elsewhere. Brighton Labour’s obsession with demonising Caroline Lucas demonstrates yet further that Brighton Labour still looks like a group intellectual self-abuse session conducted behind closed doors. I don’t think Labour has any prospect of winning Pavilion back while Caroline Lucas remains a candidate, but continually fighting the last election is not an intelligent or confident approach to the next one.
And of course there is the conflict between the apparent continued belief that Labour “owns” the left while, in almost all the essentials, it has ceased to be a party of even the social democratic centre left. Yes, Labour achieved some important things in office – like the minimum wage – but only when it was being true to its roots. Today, the national party’s acquiescence in the cuts agenda and its continued support for neo-con adventurism abroad, along with its refusal to speak up for those suffering as a result of cuts in DLA and other benefits, is an illustration of one of the reasons why there is a crisis of democratic legitimacy in Britain – three parties fighting over an ever-smaller piece of political ground, none of them prepared to challenge a neo-liberal economic and foreign-policy agenda, with increasing numbers of voters simpy opting out or lured by the extremes. One of the reasons why Caroline Lucas is likely to remain MP for Pavilion for as long as she wants to is that she is not compromised by the intellectual and moral evasions of the Labour Party when faced with the shock doctrine. My own experience of the last local election – in a Tory suburb, no less – is that there is huge respect for Lucas’ unequivocal and eloquent opposition to the Con Dems’ ideological agenda. Her rejection of the economic illiteracy of Osborneomics is a more convincing and powerful argument than Labour’s agenda of slower, fluffier cuts that don’t upset the middle classes.
The real problem for Labour in Brighton is that the Green Party is standing up against Cameron, Osborne and Clegg’s agenda; Labour, intellectually and morally compromised, can’t and won’t. How a Green minority administration manages our city will be a hugely important test, but Labour’s problems in Brighton are deep-seated, structural, ideological and will not be solved by organisational change.