Brighton Pavilion’s dilemma – Britain’s first Green MP?

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Britain, the left

This blog does not usually deal with local politics, but I happen to live in the Brighton Pavilion parliamentary constituency, widely hyped as likely to elect Britain’s first Green Party Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, at the General Election due to be held by June this year. In an election dominated by the uninspiring choice between Gordon Brown’s tired Labour Government and David Cameron’s not-very-reformed Conservatives, the Brighton Greens’ aspirations are at least an interesting sideshow. In the long, mostly unsuccessful struggle to establish a parliamentary presence to the left of the Labour Party, a Green victory could be a significant breakthrough – or another false dawn.

Brighton Pavilion is currently held by Labour, which had a comfortable 5,000 majority (on somewhat different boundaries) at the 2005 election, although the third-placed Greens, on 22%, got by far their best result of any seat in the UK. However since then Labour has lost control of Brighton and Hove city council to the Tories, with the Greens increasing their presence on the Council to almost the same as Labour’s. In the Pavilion constituency, one third of Brighton and Hove, Greens had more votes than either of the major parties in local and European elections (the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, don’t really count here). Pavilion is now one of 3 constituencies in the country where the Greens think they have a chance of electoral success (under the UK’s anachronistic ‘first past the post’ system), and realistically it’s by far their best hope of their first MP.

The Greens are understandably pulling out the stops to win. Their latest publicity material brandishes the results of a December poll by ICM, a reputable polling organisation, showing the Greens locally on 35% (+14% compared to the notional 2005 result in the same area), Conservatives 27% (+4), Labour 25% (-13), and the Lib Dems 11% (-5). Caroline Lucas also tells us: ‘It’s encouraging that nearly two thirds of Labour and Lib Dem voters would support me to stop the Conservatives.’

In a policy-lite leaflet (although I learnt that radical Caroline is a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the Greens omitted to tell us four important facts about the ICM poll:

  1. the sample of only 533 was smaller than usual, increasing the scope for sampling errors
  2. the poll was actually commissioned by the Green Party
  3. the poll, unlike most national political opinion polls, prompted voters that the Greens, as well as the major parties, were standing in the election, and
  4. probably most crucial, the poll had been timed just a few days after the Greens had mailed all the voters in the constituency, which is likely to have skewed it in their favour.

Moreover the poll result can easily be interpreted differently from the Green account:

  • The 3 main contenders (Greeens, Tories, Labour) are close, the differences being almost within the margin of polling error on this small sample, and certainly within the range that could be altered in an election campaign.
  • However the Tory score of 27%, at a time when nationally they were polling around 40%, does not suggest that they have a strong chance of winning the seat.
  • This poll, 6 months or so before the election, doesn’t take account of the likely effects of the election campaign, during which normally the governing party recovers ground from the opposition, and the Lib Dems benefit from massive media exposure. Any Labour resurgence would probably close the gap with the Greens, and the Lib Dems could also take votes from them, making the Pavilion race very tight.

Taking these points into account, I think the poll suggests that the Tories have only an outside chance, and the real competition is between the Greens and Labour. It seems that Labour still has a reasonable chance of retaining the seat and thwarting the Green onslaught.

What does this mean for left-wing, or anti-Tory voters, in this constituency? Cards on the table – I write as a Labour Party member, but pretty disillusioned. I voted Green in a recent council byelection, tactically so as to stop the Tories from getting an overall majority on the council. So I am not blindly opposed to either the Greens or tactical voting.

However in relation to the General Election in Brighton Pavilion, the evidence of the Greens’ own poll suggests that the argument that Labour and Lib Dem voters should vote ‘tactically’ to stop the Tories is pretty weak. In any case, with a modest Labour pick-up in the election campaign, the argument could easily work the other way.

No – the argument should not be a tactical one, but one of principle. Which candidate, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas or Labour’s Nancy Platts, would make the best MP?  Will Caroline, standing for ‘fairness’ and public service jobs, and likely to be a lone Green voice in a hung or nearly-hung parliament, be a better bet than Nancy, whose promised critical voice might influence as well as sustain a minority Labour government? Do the Greens, unfairly deprived of parliamentary representation on a national scale, deserve their voice from this one constituency? If they do, it should be with better arguments than their current attempt to bamboozle Labour voters into phoney ‘tactical’ voting.

Martin Shaw

Research Professor of International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex, Brighton

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Comments
  1. [...] the rest here:  Brighton Pavilion's dilemma – Britain's first Green MP? « theory … var addthis_pub="welcome2green"; Posted under Green Politics Comments [...]

  2. Luke Walter says:

    Hi,

    I disagree with much of this, so I will go through point by point, including correcting some inaccuracies.

    1. You say “the Greens increasing their presence on the Council to almost the same as Labour’s.” I should inform you that the Green representation on Brighton and Hove city council is exactly the same as Labour’s. Both have 13 councillors a piece.

    2. In the Brighton Pavilion constituency itself the Greens have 9 councillors compared to the Tories 6 and Labour’s 5. The Lib Dems have no representation in the Brighton Pavilion constituency.

    3. You say “the Greens omitted to tell us four important facts…unlike most national political opinion polls, prompted voters that the Greens.” Given that the Greens have more councillors in the constituency than any other party and have been out-polling the other parties in the constituency for atleast two years, the poll would have been been unrepresentative of the political make-up in the seat if there wasn’t a prompt for the Greens.

    4. You say “I voted Green in a recent council byelection, tactically so as to stop the Tories from getting an overall majority on the council. So I am not blindly opposed to either the Greens or to tactical voting.” I assume you are making reference to the Goldsmid by-election. The Goldsmid ward is in the Hove constituency, you say this despite your introduction telling us you “happen to live in the Brighton Pavilion parliamentary constituency.” Please accept my apologies if you’ve recently moved to another part of the city inside the Brighton Pavilion constituency.

    Finally, how can you say that Labour is likely to pick up votes? They have been hemorrhaging votes in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for years. All recent polling, including the 2007 city council elections and the 2009 Euro elections, have Greens coming out on top, ahead of Labour, in the constituency.

    Also, one final point, the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party is weak, very weak. Out of 356 Labour MPs, only 40 of them signed the pledge calling for radical campaign policies, you can view that list at http://bit.ly/cilUCl.

    The Labour left is weak, few would dispute this. Caroline has a huge profile. As a Green MP for Brighton Pavilion she is likely to garner more national exposure for Brighton. The only reason why the national press have any interest in the seat is because of Caroline Lucas and the Greens. In the event of a hung Parliament, a Green MP (or maybe two, if the party is lucky) could have a big influence. In Scotland, the Scottish Greens have stuck to the New Zealand model of ‘confidence and supply’ only supporting those policies and proposals that reflect the party’s values and principles. This is how Greens can influence Government.

    Many thanks,

    Luke

  3. theorypolitics says:

    Martin Shaw comments: I was referring to the December 2007 byelection in Regency Ward, where I live. I don’t dispute most of what Luke says about local trends(and am corrected on the current balance on the Council: I was referring to the last general council election in May 2007 when Labour had 13 seats to the Greens’ 12 and the Tories’ 26). However my point was that this is a general election and national trends are likely to even up the local trend of the last few years. It would be surprising if the election campaign doesn’t squeeze minor parties and if Labour doesn’t regain some ground from the Tories. Both of these trends may offset the Greens’ lead in this constituency, although clearly Lucas’s national exposure may be a plus point for her side.

    • Luke Walter says:

      Hi Martin,

      Thank you for your response, I appreciate it.

      Certainly national trends will play a part however, Brighton Pavilion, along with both Buckingham (where UKIP’s Nigel Farage is challenging Speaker Bercow) and Barking (where ‘Nasty’ Nick Griffin is challenging Labour’s Margaret Hodge), will be exceptionalised by the press, much in a similar vein to George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.

      Whilst this insulation is by no means certain, it is very likely that this will happen. With the press taking Brighton Pavilion out of the national picture, it changes the rules of the game. The Greens will certainly have more activists out campaigning in Pavilion than the other two parties, this will allow them to cover much more of the constituency, much quicker than the other parties.

      It is also uncertain whether the polls will actually narrow and whether or not the MPs expenses issue is likely to explode once again, causing a spike in support for the ‘other’ parties. If this is the case, then we’re likely see a much lower turn out, especially from those likely to vote for the main parties, and we’ll see the ‘committed’ voter go to the polls, this trend will benefit the Greens rather than the Tories or Labour.

      Best,

      Luke

  4. ICM, a nationally respected pollster, wouldn’t have risked their reputation on this poll (which in overall terms was small beer for them compared to newspaper polls etc) if they didn’t think they could deliver something that was methodologically sound.

    The Green Party has been leafleting the constituency on a ongoing basis for a long time now. So there was no time in 2009 when the poll wouldn’t have been done close to a time when residents were receiving one or other of our publications. But other parties have also been putting things out too.

    I understand why the prompt for the Green Party surprises some – it isn’t standard in national polls. But I do think in Brighton & Hove it’s perfectly reasonable given our long standing strong local performance.

    Everything is still to play for but there’s plenty of electoral and polling data to show that since 2007 the Greens are best placed to win this seat. Of course it’s up to each individual to make their own mind up, but I think progressive voters are most likely to see a progressive candidate win if they support Caroline Lucas. But I would say that!

    PS. Thanks for your support in the 2007 Regency by-election!

  5. Anthony Barnett says:

    The creators of the database state, invaders of Iraq are hardly “tired”. Any genuine chance to elect a Green, increase pluralism and the range of voice in parliament and therefore the BBC, break the Lib Dem monopoly of third party voice in England, is a privilege. By all means rap them over the knuckles for behaving like New Labour, if they are, but don’t get ‘iffy’ about voting for them.

    • theorypolitics says:

      Points taken. However its not only Green electoral tactics but their bland policy-vague leaflets which remind me (actually) of the Lib Dems. I understand that in the unfair first-past-the-post system any leftish party has to target centrist Labour- and Lib Dem-oriented voters to win. But I’ve seen Green councillors prepared to compromise even on obvious environmental issues – supporting nimby opposition to communal bins, for example – in order not to offend a vocal sector of local opinion. If they’re able to be so flexible just in order to elect their first MP, one wonders how deep their radical instincts are. And badly tarnished though Labour is (‘discredited’ might have been a better adjective), there are reasons for fearing the return of the Tories. So despite your arguments I still think there’s a debate to be had in Pavilion.

  6. I always welcome debate!

    As Green group waste spokesperson, I’m curious about the communal bin issue you raise. Communal bins result in reduced recycling rates – there’s no doubt about it. So how was raising this concern compromising obvious environmental issues?

    I always made clear that I would support a different, better designed scheme that dealt with recycling at the same time. That was my key argument at the time and still is, see http://www.jasonkitcat.com/2008/09/wrong-bins-in-the-wrong-way/

    While politics is often the art of the possible meaning that sometimes compromises must be made (as when Labour, Greens and LibDems voted together on the Core Strategy) I’m not aware of any major compromises on our environmental policies.

    • theorypolitics says:

      There were two main environmental issues: the litter – especially food mess exacerbated by seagulls – on the streets which resulted from the old black bag collections; and the waste of energy involved in individual collections. Communal bins have addressed both these issues, even if as you say recycling questions remain. While your website presents a nuanced argument, Green leaflets basically aligned the party with the anti-bins campaign (which was not at all concerned with recycling). I think that was an opportunist compromise on green principles.

  7. Thanks for clarifying, that’s really helpful and much appreciated.

    From the briefings I’ve had the energy involved is probably greater with communal bins because a vehicle empties them 6 or 7 days a week. Whereas with black bag or binvelope collections there is only one vehicle visit per week. The main benefits of the current communal scheme are, as you rightly say, reduced on-street litter and (because the lorries are largely automated) a cost saving because much fewer staff need to be employed.

    So in environmental terms weighing up reduced on-street litter against more vehicle movements and reduced recycling is not easy but I felt we could have done better before rolling them out.

  8. theorypolitics says:

    Lies, damned lies and opinion polls? A new poll by Kindle Research shows Labour decisively in the lead in Pavilion with the Greens third: go to http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/2461
    This Brighton & Hove-wide poll has small samples per constituency, and also finds a large number of undecided voters, so it may not be a very reliable guide to the actual election result. Since it failed to remind voters that the Greens are standing it could well underestimate their support. However the one point on which it agrees with the Green/ICM poll is that Tory support (= 25% of those who expressed a preference, cf. 27% in the Green poll) is probably insufficient to put them in a position to win. In both polls the Labour+Green combined vote is more than double the Tory support, so whichever of Labour or Greens is in the lead should win, even if there is a theoretical possibility that the Tories could squeak through in a tight 3-way split. So my conclusion is once again that the case for anti-Tory tactical voting is weak. What non-Tory voters need to decide in Pavilion is simply whether they want a Labour or a Green MP.

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