Brighton-based blogger Paddy Vipond has recently published an open letter to Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion, Purna Sen, outlining why he will not vote for her and will support the incumbent Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, instead. It’s an eloquent piece – in a very different tone from that usually reserved by Green Party supporters for Labour – but begs a question that I, for one, have been asked occasionally on the doorstep – why vote Labour when Caroline Lucas is such a visible presence on the left, opposing austerity?
It’s a genuine question, although one that often reveals a rather disconcerting vein of entitlement among Caroline Lucas’ supporters, who challenge Dr Sen’s right to stand at all (there is often something rather cultish about Lucas’ activist supporters, especially on social media). Vipond argues that in Brighton Pavilion, Labour is opposing “a political and moral titan”:
Though your stance on issues is good, Caroline’s is better. Though your party is decent, the Greens are better. And though the UK under labour may be okay, the UK under the Greens would be better.
I do not say any of this because I am a Green voter, or a Green party member. In fact I am an Anarchist and I believe that the entire system is dirty and tainted. Amongst the waste that filters through the House of Parliament, Caroline Lucas shines like a diamond.
You talk about campaigning to get help for foodbanks, but in actual fact what you should be campaigning for is the abolition of all foodbanks. Their mere existence shows the depths poverty has sunk to in this country. Accepting them as part of society is accepting that that’s the way it should be, and that they belong.
If Labour are to win the next General Election, they should see in Caroline Lucas a left wing ally. She should immediately be invited into the Cabinet, and rather than attack the Green party, Labour should work with it. The time, money, and energy put into this fight for Brighton Pavilion is a waste. If, as you declare, the Tories are the enemy, why not put the resources into fighting them?
But even if that were true – and having campaigned alongside Purna Sen for more than a year I simply don’t believe that she would for a moment advocate that foodbanks should be accepted as part of society – it ignores the fundamental point: Labour are contesting Brighton Pavilion – and contesting it hard, to win – because we offer something fundamentally different. This is not about different positions on a political continuum, or about personality politics, but about a completely different approach to how politics is conducted.
The question that Labour is putting is simply this – do you want an MP who is a lone individual, a party of one, who has no real clout at Westminster – or an MP who is part of a party of Government, one that believes in collective politics, and who can wield real influence as a result? And ultimately this is a vote about what you believe politics are for – whether they are about protest or government. Caroline Lucas has increasingly presented herself as an independent MP: you have to look hard at her website or her campaign literature to find any reference to the Green Party. She can make speeches, propose Early Day Motions, appear frequently on Question Time, and articulate her message. But again and again, it begs the question – what can she achieve, and indeed what has she achieved? Has her anti-austerity message made any difference to, for example, the savage cuts that have been visited on Brighton and Hove’s Council budget – while the negotiating clout of three Labour MPs in Whitehall under a Labour Government could make a real difference? That’s a legitimate question, and one that electors in Pavilion are more than entitled to ask. Labour is a party of Government; and it is the only party that can remove the coalition from office. Do voters want to support a party that can effect change, or an individual MP who can only – however eloquently – offer a critique from the sidelines? And, yes, it’s certainly possible to criticise the last Labour government over issues like Iraq (and Purna Sen marched against Blair’s invasion), but the real achievements of that Government – massive investment in health and education, a huge reduction in child poverty, the introduction of the minimum wage – often go unacknowledged.
One comment I often hear is that Caroline Lucas has been “an excellent MP”. Again, I’m not going to criticise her record – I’m not going to suggest for a moment that she has not served her constituents diligently and well. But I do want to ask what people mean by that. I’ve spent a lot of time on the doorstep with David Lepper, MP for Pavilion from 1997 to 2010, who is now one of Purna’s strongest supporters. It’s a fascinating experience: nearly five years after he left office, people still come up to him in the street and remind them of the time he helped them get their council flat, or deal with their school appeal. David Lepper did not seek the media limelight, but everybody knows him and he is universally acknowledged to have been an outstanding constituency MP. And I do wonder whether some of those who see Lucas’ media profile as a measure of achievement are privileged people who do need that kind of basic, bread-and-butter support that David so unstintingly gave. Certainly, after four years in office in Kings House, Caroline Lucas’ party seems further than ever from engaging with the concerns of those in Brighton’s less privileged, more peripheral districts. There are places in the city – and in the Pavilion constituency – where the Greens just don’t go: Labour understands that and its team – PPC, Councillors, candidates and activists – engages with forgotten, peripheral areas like Coldean – where residents are often (and not pleasantly) surprised to learn that they have a Green Councillor.
So when people ask why Labour is standing against such a radical candidate I give them three answers. First, Brighton Pavilion voters are being given a choice – a clear choice between different styles and approaches to politics, one focussed on government and the other on protest. Second, there is a deep and rather unpleasant sense of entitlement in the idea that Lucas is so very good that she deserves a free run; especially when Purna Sen will be an outstanding, radical MP who would bring a deep personal commitment to social justice and a track record of achievement in international institutions that Caroline Lucas frankly does not possess: the sight of the Brighton Green Party, with its record in office patronising Purna Sen is incongruous, to put it at its mildest. Third, let’s turn the question around – why should the Green Party, with its record of systematic failure in office in Brighton and Hove, be granted a free run? I’ve argued before that the failings of the Green council lie not just in the inexperience (and often arrogance) of individuals but in deep flaws in the Greens’ political method. For all her coyness about it, Caroline Lucas remains a member of the Green Party, and should be held to account as part of that party.
And, ultimately, there is a deep paradox here. Caroline Lucas distances herself from her party; yet her re-election campaign is wholly dependent on money and workers from outside the constituency. It is one of the deep ironies that, while portraying herself as the political outsider, Caroline Lucas possibly has the largest personal campaign funding of any Parliamentary candidate in Britain; rumoured to be comfortably in six figures, taking into account the substantial number of full-time staff she and her party are devoting to holding Pavilion against a resurgent Labour challenge. And that funding comes predominantly from outside the city. Her workers on the ground are, too, largely from outside the constituency, replacing a local party that is fragmented, dysfunctional and can only find council candidates for a third of the seats up for election next May. And this contrasts powerfully with Purna Sen’s support: the dozens of local people with deep roots in the community out across the city every Saturday, giving their time to elect Purna next year (as well as working in their own wards). In contrast to the Greens, Purna Sen and the Labour council candidates across Pavilion campaign together and are proud to be seen together and support each other.
As a Labour Party member and Council candidate, I believe that getting rid of the Tory-led coalition and the indecencies it represents is absolutely paramount. I believe that a vote for Purna Sen is a vote, not just for an outstanding individual, but for real change. And that is why I am Labour, and why I am working for Purna Sen to be Pavilion’s next MP.