How the General Election campaign in Brighton Pavilion just got interesting

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.


3 thoughts on “How the General Election campaign in Brighton Pavilion just got interesting

  1. Let me try an answer here. Caroline Lucas however good an MP and speaker she may be is effectively an independent with no substantive clout in the Commons. That is why, with all respect, to say she is the only MP not in rebellion against her party line isn’t really saying very much.

    Were Purna Sen elected she would doubtless have to back “austerity” but she would do so as part of a governing party that, unlike the Conservatives is not ideologically wedded to it as part of a long term project to “downsize the state”. For Labour whether, it is effective or not in its impact on the ills it is intended to remedy, austerity is merely a means to an end. This came across to me when I recently put to a former very senior Labour figure, the dangers to a Labour election campaign posed by a mending economy. “Nothing better” came the reply with the clear implication that it would begin to ease the onus of austerity on the party.

    I don’t know Purna Sen but she sounds like someone with the nous to understand this.

    • Perceptive comments as ever, Mark. They accord with the comments that Andrew Adonis makes in his book about working inside a large party to effect change rather than being part of a smaller, fissiparous one. This is already lining up to be Labour’s argument in Brighton, along with ensuring that Caroline Lucas carries the can for the Green council’s indifferent track record.

      But I’d argue that:

      – In a situation where Labour fails to gain a working majority, an effectively independent voice could be very significant. You may see that as a good or a bad thing; a small clutch of UKIP MPs could have the same effect, although I don’t think it’s very likely to happen

      – The austerity is a means to an end point is significant, because I think if you had asked Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling before the 2010 election for their rationale for cuts, I think they would have said something like that. But the problem for me is that I see austerity economics itself as the biggest threat to the economy; cutting public expenditure further – which is what backing the CSR spending totals does – is likely to prolong what is already the longest depression since the late nineteenth century. And Labour does not often sound like a party that is hostile to downsizing the state these days (there’s a separate issue about whether what the Tories want is to downsize the state, or to change its function. Watch this space.). Moreover, many Labour front-bench comments on issues like social security and workfare suggest that it has moved a long way from a collectivist view of economic activity towards a view that poverty and the need for state support is a matter of personal rather than systemic failure. The point I think is that by rejecting a steady expansion of the economy – increasing borrowing in the short-term at what are likely to be record low interest rates when there is little risk of that driving inflation (which is currently the result of commodity prices rising) Labour is actually rejecting the best way to give the short-term boost to the economy it needs. Caroline Lucas has been a powerful advocate of sustainable expansion (Greens are not allowed to use the word “growth” even though that’s the implication of what they’re saying).

      – the thing I just don’t get about the Labour Party’s stand is that a policy position based on expanding the economy, using borrowing to create jobs and to deal with issues like the UK’s appalling housing crisis, is both economically credible and, I should have thought, electorally enormously appealing. I just don’t get why sticking to an austerity process that is clearly failing increases Labour’s credibility (even if it is designed with the media in mind). And I don’t get why Labour doesn’t appear to understand that its priorities – health and housing – are expensive and need to be led by an enabling state which increases spending. It is as if Labour shies away from confronting the Tories and the media, and thus allowing them to drive the agenda. Aneurin Bevan wrote about how the genius of capitalism is about how to persuade poverty to use its political freedoms in the service of wealth; that looks like a summary of where Labour is just now.

      The difficulty I see for Purna Sen is trying to square an intelligent dialogue around these issues – of which I have no doubt she is far more than capable – with the Westminster party line. As I say, if she can do that, we could be in for an interesting time.

  2. I’d have to disagree pretty strongly to the notion that Labour aren’t ideologically wedded to shrinking the state. For Brown, socialism was evidenced by the size of the public sector; more money being spent by the state was, ergo, proof of a good labour government using the state.

    But the price internally paid for this was the Blairite demand for ‘reform’ which was about who got to spend that money, and how accountable the delivery was to democratic control, and how much was acceptable to spend on profits for those private sector deliverers.

    Thus Labour was inflating the size of the state’s role in the economy but at the same time creating a rentier public sector in which the private sector was increasingly prominent (essentially the neo-liberal acme du jour; why risk capital on products and services when you can cannibalise the state for no-risk, high return on capital?)

    The Progress Tendency are utterly clear about this; they’re neoliberal to their bootstraps and for them, Labour’s role is to reconfigure the state. They’re left neoliberals in that this process is, in their power, to be accompanied by a focus on liberal identity politics and a discretion about the rentiers that right-neoliberals in the Tories don’t share).

    That’s the real difference – all three parties are signed up to neoliberalism, but Labour see a degree of social liberal policy essential to anchor them as some kind of progressive force, the Lib Dems would like to do that too, but not at the expense of their role in government and the Tories couldn’t care a damn, some honourable exceptions aside.

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