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:
- the sample of only 533 was smaller than usual, increasing the scope for sampling errors
- the poll was actually commissioned by the Green Party
- 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
- 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.
Research Professor of International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex, Brighton