The Greens should worry Labour, but Brighton shows how to fight back

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Now that the dust has settled after the local elections and Labour groups are settling down to make good use of their hard-won political victories, it is time for reflection on the results and what they tell us about the future of centre-left politics. 

From amongst all Labour wins, one stands out in particular: Labour winning a landslide victory against the Greens in Brighton and Hove. For 20 years, the council has been hung, with a succession of minority-led council administrations. This ‘gridlock’ has been the product of a split in the overwhelmingly progressive Brighton and Hove vote. Across the city, more than 75% of voters plump for parties who identify as being centre-left – Labour and Green. If you included the Lib Dems and TUSC, the figure would be closer to 80%.

This month, it was different, and by a landslide, Labour took control of the city, winning 38 out of 54 seats with more than 47% of the vote. Elsewhere across the country, Greens were picking up seats, winning outright one council, Mid Suffolk, and emerging as the largest party in seven others – Babergh, East Hertfordshire, East Suffolk, Folkestone and Hythe, Forest of Dean, Lewes and Warwick. In several others, they are the official opposition – Norwich, Lancaster, Solihull and Wealden. Next year, they have their eyes on winning control of Bristol. In the current round of elections, they doubled their number of seats to more than 400. 

There emerges from this two questions for Labour strategists. Firstly, should Labour be worried by the growth in Green Party councillors and councils? Secondly, if the answer to the first question is yes, how does the party counter the Green Party’s appeal?

The Greens’ advance should worry Labour

Labour should be concerned at the growth of the Greens. Their ability to secure seats in urban and city councils by posing as the ‘only’ party concerned by climate change and the environment is now established. That they have been steadily building up a commanding presence in Bristol, Sheffield, Norwich, Oxford and, until last week, Brighton and Hove is now very noticeable. They have also had some successes in what we now see as ‘Red Wall’ towns.

They have been nibbling away at Labour’s vote and actively frustrating the party’s ability to take control of a number of councils. Their strategists see this as a precursor to winning parliamentary seats – as they did in Brighton with Caroline Lucas. Their impact on general elections has to date been limited, but they may have prevented Labour winning up to ten seats in past elections by taking sufficient votes away from Labour candidates to enable a Tory win. In a tight election, this could be critical.

In the most recent set of elections, liberal sentiment has been pleased to see Greens taking seats off the Tory Party. However, in some of those areas, Labour should be the main challenger – places like Lowestoft, a former Labour seat, and Lancaster too. Labour should not be conceding ground politically in smaller rural towns and coastal communities. We have a strong policy offer for those places, many of which have been left out of the national political conversation, have poor services and are seriously disconnected socially and economically. They deserve good local Labour governance as much as anywhere else, and we are after all a national party.

Greens ‘an unmitigated disaster’ for Brighton and Hove

Labour’s new leader in Brighton and Hove, Bella Sankey, was blunt in her assessment of the Greens’ running of the city council. She said on Twitter they were “a disaster for our city. An unmitigated disaster. And they needed to be kindly shown the door”.

For more than 20 years, they have acted as a brake on forward-looking progressive policy making in the city. During that time, they have hidden behind the Green brand, telling local people that only they can harness local government to combat climate change and champion the environment. The Green Party style is also an issue: they are very much ‘do as we say not as we do’. Their local leader was featured in the local press for flying to COP26. Not a good look, which struck residents as hypocritical.

How Labour won in Brighton and Hove

In this year’s election campaign, Labour locally did two things to challenge the Green Party narrative. Firstly, it offered a compelling, radical alternative set of policies that had local environmental concerns at its heart. Labour also made a strong pitch to get basic services – recycling, refuse, street cleaning, weeds removal and traffic management – right again. Secondly, it made a powerful attack on the Green Party’s record running the council.

In the two periods that the Greens have run the city, their record has been appalling. Basically, they are just not very good at taking responsible decisions or indeed any decisions. In their time, they managed to alienate the Cityclean workforce and produced two long refuse disputes, leaving the city looking a mess as the rubbish built up. The city’s recycling level at around 30% has been left unimproved at 303rd in the league table of council collection rates, right near the bottom.

Labour’s local election campaign was pitch-perfect and relentless in its messaging both on the doorstep and in the material it produced. Green Party activists were slow to respond and seemed offended that their record was being called out for its incompetence and failure. By the end of the campaign, Labour’s messages were being played back to its activists, a sure sign of campaign success. Labour’s messaging allowed us to appeal to both Green-Labour progressive switchers and working-class suburban Labour-Tory floating voters.

We must show voters nationally what the Greens are like in power

It shouldn’t have taken us 20 years in Brighton and Hove to work out that the Green Party is incompetent. It is a party like all others, and so will have good and bad individual councillors, and good and bad council groups. But one thing stands out from the Green years and that is poor leadership, with a lack of a strategic vision for the city. 

This enabled Labour to argue against what we dubbed ‘spread bet’ split party voting that had led to the succession of hung councils, with politically gridlocked decision-making holding the city back. Voters responded positively to this clear message because they could see and feel services visibly falling apart.

What we need to do now nationally is show electors what a failing council looks like and why it happens. Voting Green might sound nice, it might seem like you care about the most precious of things – our environment and our natural resources.

The reality is somewhat different, because despite all the Green rhetoric about environmental action, 20 years of Green councillors and a Green council in Brighton and Hove shows the reality. An ideologically driven council, riven by factions that, despite warm words, wastes public money and fails to deliver essential frontline basic services.

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