The by-election result contains two important messages. First, the Greens are the party with momentum. With ten months to go, the Greens need to decide just what its ambitions are. Does the party wish to take control of the City Council next May?
An overall majority will be a poison chalice given that the worst of the cuts will be implemented in the three years from April 2011, and the Greens will have little room for manoeuvre unless its councillors are willing to be the local authority that defies the Coalition Government. The price to be paid by individual councillors might be enormous. But given the momentum of the Greens, any ambition short of overall control will not look good and will portray the Greens as a party purely for opposition.
If the Greens are the largest party but fall short of a majority, there will be an expectation that they try to form a coalition of its own, probably with the rump of Labour councillors who survive the cull next May. A minority administration is probably the best option for the Greens since they will be able to oppose the cuts only to be voted down time and again by the Conservatives and Labour.
It is exciting times to be a Green, but the prospects of power are not that attractive. It will require the Greens to be disciplined, and they may have to adapt their cultural stance regarding a single leader and group discipline – they will need both!
What of Labour? Labour needs the tide to turn, but in Brighton and Hove the tide is flowing with the Greens and the unpopularity of the Coalition Government will benefit them rather than Labour.
What Labour needs is two things: a break-through candidate and a break-through issue. In Caroline Lucas the Greens had a break-through candidate. Without Lucas, the Greens may not have achieved its historic win in Brighton Pavilion. While Labour has some first-rate candidates, Tom French being one, there is no sign of any break-through candidates for the Council election or next general election. It needs to be someone truly outstanding.
There is also no obvious break-through issue. Opposing the cuts will be popular, but the Greens, again, will likely reap the benefit given the high profile enjoyed by Caroline Lucas and her sheer competence.
Labour’s best bet is Caroline Lucas standing down after one term (unthinkable) and the Greens forming the administration on the City Council and then doing a Steve Bassam by implementing the cuts programme as Lord Bassam did by implementing the Poll Tax. This scenario is equally unthinkable.
Labour can expect to lose heavily to the Greens next May, and the Greens should now be looking to take seats from the Tories. The Greens will retain its dominant position in the following local elections (2014?) before Caroline Lucas massively increases her majority in May 2015. Labour could win Brighton Kemptown in 2015, though it is unlikely to unseat Mike Weatherly. If Labour forms the government in 2015, it will not recover to do well in the 2017 locals.
So Labour cannot expect to recover its position on Brighton and Hove City Council until at least 2020. This is not an encouraging outlook for the likes of Tom French and the other young, enthusiastic activists. By 2020 they will not be as young and one has to question whether they will retain their enthusiasm.