Ever since the results of the European Election vote in Brighton and Hove were announced last Sunday, there has been an outbreak of speculation over what those results could mean for next year’s local and general election results in the city.
Almost as soon as the results were announced, the Caroline Lucas camp was tweeting that the Greens were ahead in the Pavilion constituency. But the simple fact is that they have no evidential basis for that claim whatsoever. As Labour Euro-candidate and Brighton and Hove City Council candidate Tracey Hill pointed out in her blog, the ballot papers were mixed before counting began. There is no conceivable way that any party could claim to be ahead in any one of the Party’s three Parliamentary constituencies. The Green claim was utterly bogus, and was dropped fairly smartly once Labour activists took to social media to point this out.
But the spin continues with a fascinating blog piece by Rob Shepherd, former Chair (and current PR guru) of the Brighton and Hove Greens. He argues that Labour’s claims to be ahead in the Pavilion constituency (a claim, incidentally, that Labour never made) are pure fantasy and that the numbers across the city actually suggest that Labour is not challenging the Tories in Hove and Kemptown. The blog piece is odd, headed by one of those dodgy graphs that the Liberal Democrats in their pomp used to produce, suggesting that Labour’s lead in the city has collapsed since a poll conducted last October by the BBC, and that the Greens have recovered. It’s not remotely comparing like with like: the BBC poll was about the City Council, not the European Parliament; UKIP and the Liberal Democrats simply weren’t a factor; and more sensible comparison with the 2009 European Election shows exactly the opposite of what Shepherd claims – a strong Labour recovery and significant slippage in the Green vote. Moreover, his mathematical arguments are something of an own goal. The Greens did claim they were ahead in Pavilion, and by the same mathematics that Shepherd uses to attack Labour, that claim means that the Green vote in both Hove and Kemptown is derisory: vote Green, get the Tories back. How his colleagues Davy Jones and Christopher Hawtree, candidates in Kemptown and Hove respectively, might feel about this is sadly not known.
What is certainly true across the country is that the much-heralded Green surge simply did not materialise; true, they beat the Liberal Democrats (in much the same way that a three-legged tortoise would beat a dead rat in a 100-yard dash), and picked up one MEP and a few councillors along the way. But the rhetoric and the reality are looking embarrassingly different.
I think we are seeing just one more attempt to talk up the Green record in Brighton and Hove, rather than anything based in verifiable fact. It’s all of a piece with Rob Shepherd’s recent piece in the Ecologist magazine, in which he claims that the Green administration has turned a corner, and paints a picture that few people who live here would recognise. It appeared within days of Cllr Pete West’s rather extraordinary claim that the refuse and recycling situation in the city – the most obvious and visible manifestation of the Greens’ failure in office – was under control; walk around the city and it’s pretty obvious that it’s nothing of the sort. Across the city, there is deep hostility to the Green administration; in areas that never voted Green that hostility is visceral, as anyone who has spent time on the doorstep will know. And even in the ward where I am a Labour candidate, Preston Park, with three sitting Green councillors, there is intense disappointment; people who believed that the Greens offered something new and different seeing the uncollected rubbish piling outside their front gates. The Green manifesto pledged a recycling rate across the city of 70% by 2015 – instead it’s fallen by a sixth to barely 25%. Even on their core agenda the Greens have completely failed to deliver.
But that’s the point. These arguments are not aimed at the city itself or its people – it’s all about the people (and money) from outside the city that the Greens believe can carry Caroline Lucas to re-election in 2015. And I think it’s symptomatic of how nervous the Greens have become. They know that the council is deeply unpopular – widely perceived as incompetent, divided and little more than a forum for grandstanding by people who have lost such appetite as they ever had for the disciplines and rigour of government. Caroline Lucas’ leaflets contain no mention of her party’s administration – it’s obvious that her campaign team see the council as a profound liability. Part of the strategy appears to be to win over critics of the administration – of whom there have been many – in the Green Party outside Brighton and Hove, in order to gain support for Caroline Lucas’ campaign.
Caroline Lucas’ team’s claims that it was ahead in Pavilion in the European elections, and the combination of Panglossian optimism and Liberal Democrat-style low maths in Rob Shepherd’s article, do not suggest to me a party that is confident – and least of all one that is confident of winning on the issues but one conducting a curious dialogue with itself, in which it needs both to convince and deceive itself about the nature of the challenges it faces. The Brighton and Hove Green Party’s narrative is one of weakness, not of strength.