Brighton Pavilion: As Starmer visits, can Labour win the Greens’ one seat?

Daniel Green
Keir Starmer visited Brighton Pavilion and Labour’s candidate Tom Gray yesterday (photo: @Keir_Starmer)

Brighton by its very nature is one of Britain’s more quirky cities.

Home to one of the UK’s biggest Pride festivals and attracting generations of visitors as the original destination for a dirty weekend away, Brighton has for more than a decade rejected the political mainstream by being the seat of the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

However, Lucas – who increased her majority at every election since 2010 – is standing down at this general election, leaving the field open for Labour to potentially win back the seat they held in the New Labour era.

LabourList took the pulse in the city on the south coast, speaking to the party’s candidate, the new Labour council leader and local campaigners about what to expect on July 4.

The party has picked a candidate befitting Brighton’s musical heritage, having hosted Eurovision for ABBA’s win. Gomez musician and activist Tom Gray is hoping to paint the city red come election day.

Labour leader Keir Starmer stopped by on Sunday to meet Gray on the campaign trail, in a sign of how seriously the party is trying to take back the seat.

Labour hopes former Green rule dulls their shine

Labour’s tails are certainly up in Brighton Pavilion. Not only is the long-standing Green MP standing down, but Labour swept the Green Party from control of the city council last year, amid anger at the administration not getting the basics right.

With Brighton bustling as the city’s fringe festival gets underway, LabourList caught up with Tom Gray in a busy coffee shop in the city centre.

Gray said: “The city’s experience of a Green minority council has not been good – they’ve got to deal with that record. You knock on doors and people genuinely go ‘I can’t believe I’ve lived in a city that has had Green councillors where recycling is worse than where I moved from’. You hear that all the time.”

He said that Labour has been offering a positive message to voters in the constituency, with one core message: “You’ve got a candidate who’s lived here for 25 years, loves and believes in the city and has a vision for what we can do here.

‘We united the left and defeated the right’

LabourList also caught up with council leader Bella Sankey, who presides over the city’s first majority-controlled administration in two decades.

Reflecting on the “seismic” election result last year, she said: “It was an incredibly important moment in Brighton and Hove for the Labour Party to take overall control. I think there were many things that contributed to our win.

“We spent a lot of time meaningfully and genuinely listening to residents and the concerns being raised right across the city about a whole range of issues, from the Tory cost of living crisis to what people viewed as Green incompetence.

READ MORE: Watch Keir Starmer’s Monday speech in south-east England, targeting undecided voters

“We were then able to lead a campaign across the city which responded to those concerns. “Peter Kyle (Shadow Science Minister and MP for neighbouring Hove and Portslade) put it really well when he said we united the left and defeated the right.

“We took wards from the Green Party who had a lot of seats in central Brighton, including ones which were not necessarily targets for us as they had been Green held for so long, as well as taking Tory seats, which tend to be on the outskirts of the city.”

The Greens ‘did not live up to their values’

Sankey credits a number of factors for why so many Green voters switched to Labour at the local elections, but in particular suggested the party had not lived up to its more progressive values when in administration.

She said: “In my view, the Greens in the city have been quite clever at presenting themselves as on the left and very liberal, but in reality the Greens in control of the council showed themselves to be not really as liberal and as left as their rhetoric would have you believe.

“There are so many ways where they managed the council that did not live up to their values – and I think voters were increasingly able to see that.

“An inability to get the basics right was something that frequently came up on the doorstep – we would hear about the state of our rubbish and recycling collections and how there had been long-standing strikes on their watch.”

She added later: “I think the Green vote in the city is pretty soft.”

‘People want to play their part in electing a Labour government’

Another sore spot for many voters, Sankey explained, is the i360, the city’s controversial viewing tower on the seafront. The attraction received millions in public funds after Green and Conservative councillors backed a £36.2m loan from the Public Works Board to fund the project.

However, eight years on from its opening, the tower has struggled to attract the number of visitors it had hoped for, with bosses defaulting on loan repayments.

“That came up a lot on the doorsteps and still does, actually. This was a Green vanity project passed by the first Green administration, between 2011 and 2015. We are now paying millions and millions of taxpayers money every year to service this loan.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that, as a direct result of that folly, the council is now without millions of pounds every year that we would instead be spending on our most vulnerable residents and those in need.”

Photo: Pandora Pictures/Shutterstock


Although the council, like many others across the country, has struggled financially, Brighton and Hove’s Labour administration has achieved a great deal in just over a year, including a pioneering pilot project to provide counselling to Year 9 students in the city’s secondary schools. It is this work that Sankey hopes can be built upon with a Labour government in Westminster.

“I’m getting very positive feedback about the changes that the Labour council has brought in. What I am hearing from residents is we need to get the Conservatives out, we need a Labour government and people want to play their part in electing that Labour government.”

‘The Greens don’t have a birthright to Brighton Pavilion’

The Green Party’s candidate, Sian Berry, has also faced criticism for being parachuted into the constituency ahead of the election. Local Labour activists were eager to highlight that, when she stood for election to the London Assembly earlier this month, her address was listed in Camden, not Brighton.

After being elected as a list candidate, Berry quit just three days later.

Luca Stingone, a local Labour activist, said: “When I’ve been on the doorstep, one of the biggest things I found was people saying ‘Isn’t she standing in London?’. When we would explain, people were really confused by it.”

Some activists on the left questioned why Labour has listed Brighton Pavilion as a target seat for its election campaign, however, calling on the party to de-prioritise the constituency or even stand aside.

Stingone was very critical of such arguments, adding: “The Greens don’t have a birthright to Brighton Pavilion. I think they’re track record for delivering for Brighton should make that point clear.”

‘The question I ask is ‘do you want a Labour government”

Despite the positive reception Labour has been receiving on the doorstep, there remains a contingent of voters who express a desire to keep a Green voice in Parliament.

Gray said he takes residents with such views on a journey towards backing Labour at the general election, focusing on the core issues that matter most to voters and how a Labour government would address them in office.

He said: “This is why I don’t talk about the Greens – there’s no need, it’s about what this community needs. The question I ask a lot is ‘do you want a Labour government’, and they say ‘yes’. You ask, ‘do you think we need five years or ten years of Labour to fix the country in the state that it is in now’, and people always say ‘ten years’. 

“Then you say, ‘you realise that means we need a massive majority’, and they say ‘yes’ – and then you ask ‘would you like to help create that majority that gives us ten years of Labour that fixes this country’. The answer is invariably ‘yes’.”

‘Anti-incumbent mood is high across the country’

Although most MRP models suggest the Greens will hold Brighton Pavilion, albeit with a significantly reduced majority, Ed Hodgson, research manager for More in Common, said: “National polling, even when modelled onto specific seats, doesn’t capture local stories.

“Anti-incumbent mood is high across the country, and it’s very possible that Brighton voters switch their votes to Labour in protest at this election.”

When delving deeper into some of the local election results, Hodgson said that while the Greens did better in wards in Brighton Pavilion, Labour was still comfortably ahead of them in terms of vote share last May.

However, the outcome in the constituency could be shifted by a number of factors, Hodgson said, in particular the prospect of progressive voters moving to the Greens over Labour’s move to the centre.

‘It’s going to be a tough battle’

So, could Labour actually win the only Green constituency in the country? “Absolutely,” said Stingone. “It’s going to be a tough battle, but I think we’re absolutely going to get it.”

While most of the country’s attention will, for good reason, be focused on blue-red marginals, it will certainly be worth sparing a thought to see whether Labour can make history in Brighton too in just under six weeks’ time.

Read more of our 2024 general election coverage here.

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