The strange case of the disappearing Green billboard, and what it tells us about Brighton politics

For much of the weekend, delegates arriving at the Labour Party conference in Brighton were greeted by an animated billboard in which the Green Party claimed to be the party of opposition to austerity.  It was a harmless, mildly amusing stunt.

The billboard has now been taken down, amidst dark mutterings from local Greens that the owners of the site may have been strongarmed into removing it – the unspoken assumption is by Labour, either locally or nationally.  I obviously have no way of knowing if that is true (although I am not aware of any explicit denials); if it is true it’s an astonishingly dimwitted and crass piece of politics.

There were a number of more adult responses to this piece of mild provocation.  One was to ignore it.  Another was to point out that while the Greens talked about opposition, Labour were in Brighton to prepare for Government; not in the same game at all.  A third was to point out that, on the right at the bottom of the hill, some really rather good things were going on; not least of which was the sight of a Shadow Chancellor, while saying some fairly conventional things about the need for cuts, giving himself the wriggle-room to finesse his commitment to matching coalition spending targets.  At a time when the Brighton Greens have invested much of their anti-austerity credit in a ludicrous and unworkable scheme for Progressive Council Tax, while presiding over an administration that is rapidly becoming a local laughing-stock, Labour could afford to be relaxed.  In the circumstances, if the allegations are true, confirming local Green narratives about how Labour behaves was not an especially intelligent response.

The problem that Labour – more particularly Labour in Brighton and Hove – still has is that, whether true or not, allegations that the billboard site were pressured into taking it down are all too congruent with memories of how Labour behaved before losing office in the city in 2007; a reminder of some of the reasons why the Green Party was able to capture the progressive vote in Brighton.  In contrast to the Conference, it suggests that Labour in Brighton and Hove at least has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

If, indeed, Labour is responsible for getting the billboard taken down, it does not suggest a confident or mature party.  It’s behaviour very reminiscent of the Brighton Labour Party of which I was briefly a member in the late 1990’s – tribal, chauvinistic, macho, more interested in fighting internal battles than developing inclusive political narratives.  And in the context of a conference suggesting that Labour might be something rather better than that – which might have something better to offer the growing number of progressives in the city disillusioned with the Greens, not to mention those on the receiving end of austerity – it’s a pity to see these memories revived.

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