The Labour Party has today adopted Purna Sen as its candidate in Brighton Pavilion for the next General Election. That decision promises to turn the Pavilion campaign into one of the most fascinating in the country.
Purna Sen is an outstanding candidate. Reading her cv leaves one in no doubt that Labour have adopted an intellectually heavyweight candidate with a formidable track record of outstanding achievement. Teacher, academic, Commonwealth administrator, diplomat, human rights campaigner – it’s a personal history of a breadth and distinction that leaves the serried ranks of grey men in suits in Parliament miles behind.
She goes head-to-head against Caroline Lucas, another formidably talented woman (is Pavilion the only seat in Britain where the fight is between two women with PhDs?), and, with the Green Party in Brighton in disarray, this has the promise to be quite a campaign. It’s been fascinating to watch the dynamic between Caroline Lucas and Brighton’s Green administration – how as the Green adminstration has piled error on error, Caroline Lucas has called every issue right – notably the City Clean bin dispute, but also the farce over the Seven Dials Elm Tree. My own conversations with people around Brighton – colleagues, neighbours – make it clear that Lucas is held in far higher esteem in Brighton than her party.
One of the reasons for that is her unequivocal stand against the politics and economics of austerity. Caroline Lucas stands as the only MP in England, and one of only a handful in the UK, who can claim to have stood foursquare against the cuts agenda while not rebelling against her party line. She has become a national figure precisely because of that stand.
The problem for Caroline Lucas has always been the question of whether the performance of the Green administration would undermine her support at the next election. So far there has been little evidence that that has happened; but things have changed. As I blogged yesterday, changes to the council committee structure following Labour’s win in the Hanover and Elm Grove by-election mean that, more than ever before, Greens are in office but not in power. Moreover, with the leadership of the Council looking more and more like centrist managers than politicians with a distinctive vision for the city, it is difficult to see how the administration’s performance can do anything but damage Caroline Lucas’ chances of re-election; it seems a very long time indeed since the halcyon days of the living wage, and I think it’s fair to speculate that the administration’s track record is unlikely to be at the centre of Caroline Lucas’ campaign.
Purna Sen comes to the candidacy without any particular Brighton history – she is local, but is not a Councillor or a prominent figure in Brighton politics. In that sense she is in a similar position to Caroline Lucas when she was adopted here, although with real local ties. It will be interesting to see how her profile develops in Brighton. Labour are desperate to win here; not least because in a closely-fought General Election the results in the three Brighton and Hove constituencies could determine whether Labour makes it into Government.
But there remains a crucial issue. Caroline Lucas has, as I mentioned, been an unequivocal opponent of austerity. I simply do not know what Purna Sen’s views on economics are; I trust they will become clearer as polling day approaches. But her party leadership is committed to sticking within George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review numbers, which pile further cuts on top of those we are already experiencing. And that matters; so many of Labour’s other aspirations – like on housing – depend on a strong enabling state, and austerity undercuts those aspirations in so many ways.
The question Labour has to answer is, very simply, this: why should voters in Brighton Pavilion who are opposed to Coalition austerity vote for a party that is committed to keeping austerity in place, when the incumbent MP is an eloquent opponent of it? I have no doubt whatsoever that Dr Sen would be a powerful advocate for her constituents, not least those who face the consequences of austerity. Look at that CV – her entire career has been an exercise in advocacy. But she would be whipped to support austerity in Parliament, not least on the crucial Finance Bill that would inevitably follow a Labour victory in 2015. Who is better equipped to stand up against the effects of austerity – a (potentially) dissenting backbench voice within a a mainstream party supporting austerity, or a lone voice (because there will not be any other Green MPs in the next Parliament) campaigning unequivocally against it? That question becomes all the more important, of course, if there is a minority Labour government after the next election.
That is the fundamental question that will decide the next election in Brighton Pavilion. If Purna Sen can provide a convincing answer to that difficult and fundamental question, then 2015 in Brighton Pavilion will be very interesting indeed.