Labour needs to do more than find a new leader: it must again become a movement. by Andy Winter

A concept I used to refer to regularly in the earlier incarnation of this blog was borrowed from the West Wing, the Big Mo – Momentum. Political parties in the ascendency enjoy momentum, and with it can come political success. Up to the 2011 council elections the Green Party locally had the Big Mo. Labour enjoyed the Big Mo in 1997.

In 2015, the old Big Mo, as in momentum, has given way to a new Big Mo – Movement. A political movement transcends party politics, it is a positive force routed in aspiration for change. Such aspiration should not be confused with the shallow use of the word when applied to ‘hard working families’ or ‘strivers’. 

The independence referendum in Scotland, although unsuccessful, unleashed something that proved to be the death knell of the major parties in Scotland on 7th May.  The support the SNP enjoyed came from across the political spectrum. People were not necessarily voting for the SNP as a party, but for what the SNP symbolised. There was a sense amongst the people that things could be different, could be better. It overcame the politics of austerity of the Conservatives and austerity-lite of Labour. And with it Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were all but wiped out north of the border.

Across the UK, the debate about the new leader of the Labour Party is focused on the ‘presidential’ characteristics of some rather bland individuals who appear to be more concerned about not offending anyone than putting forward a message of hope. Austerity-lite is neither one thing or another. The revolutionary slogans of the 1970s and ’80s have given way to ones mumbled by those unwilling or incapable of arguing an alternative economic plan:

“What do we want?”

“Cuts!”

“When do we want them?”

“Not as quickly as you!”

The debate demonstrates that Labour activists and commentators have learned nothing from the movement in Scotland that has thrust the SNP into the forefront of British politics. They have not grasped that the people of Scotland didn’t just vote for a party, they voted for a movement.

By comparison, Nichola Sturgeon embodies the hopes and aspirations of the majority, yes the majority, of voters in Scotland.  The Sturgeon / SNP Phenomenon has reached far beyond Scotland. I can’t remember how many times during the elections people in Brighton said to me:  “I wish I could vote for Nichola Sturgeon”.

But it wasn’t that Sturgeon presented herself in a presidential manner. The debate between the seven party leaders was a watershed in British politics, with three women party leaders showing that they offered more than four rather grey stale males. They spoke to ordinary people and, in particular, to ordinary women. They spoke ‘human’. Isabel Hardman from the Spectator said that if she had had a bad day, got caught in a down pour, and had lost her keys, she would want to pop in for a cup of tea with Lianne Wood. Lianne Wood is the next door neighbour we all wish we had.

I imagine many Labour activists and supporters regard Nichola Sturgeon as the leader they wished they had. 

But that is where they would be going wrong. A party is more than its leader. Electoral success has become much more than just the Big Mo.

On Mary Mears: a shrewd operator you underestimate at your peril

There seems to be a lot of dissention over my appraisal of Mary Mears.  I have said on several occasions that Labour and Green activists underestimate her at their peril.  How she may relate to opposition councillors is one thing, how she relates to the general public is another.  She is one smart cookie (if you forgive the expression).

Mary has gone out of her way over several years to win support and gain respect.  To have become the leader of the Conservative Group in the first place was no mean feat, especially given she was up against establishment figures such as Geoffrey Theobald.  Various people have dismissed my description of an ‘invisible’ split in the local Tory Party.  “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” asks one.  “ Theobald and Mears openly loathe each other.  GT is open about his ambitions”.  However, in my humble opinion, it will take a Tory meltdown to see Mary replaced by Geoffrey.  The working class Tories are a determined bunch.

Under her leadership, the Tories are in much better shape in Brighton and Hove than I understand them to be elsewhere.  Unlike the predicted meltdown of the Lib Dems here, there and everywhere in Brighton and Hove, the Tories will retain a respectable number of seats, enough to deny the Greens overall control.  I suspect that the Tories will even win all three seats in the Labour heartland of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean.

‘HP’ is less charitable than me (not that I am being charitable).  He says: “A conservative majority will never occur under Mary Mears. When the Goldsmid by-election occured the Tories were on the up nationally (pre-cuts), yet she managed to throw away the tory seat, and with it their effective control of the council, at a time she should have been building the majority.”  I don’t agree.  Goldsmid had the amiable Andrew Wealls as its candidate, and in normal circumstances he would have won.  But it wasn’t the Mears Effect that lost it, it was the Lucas Effect that won it, that and a first rate candidate in Alex Phillips.  At that stage all attention was on Caroline Lucas, and the Greens locally had the Big Mo, momentum.

HP suggests that we “put to bed BPB’s myth that Mears is an intelligent and shrewd operator who is dismissed at your peril. Yes, she has a core vote among the entrepreneurial working class, but she is not a clever person. Time and again my dealings with her have disabused me of my initial notion that I shouldn’t underestimate her. There is a fundamental vacuum of strategic thinking or adequate comprehension at the top of the council while Mears is there – and most of her party group know it.”  Not so.  My dealings with her, and those around her, suggest shrewd political operators.

However, I do find HP’s observation intriguing that the “new directors (and chief exec) were not to overcome a lack of ideas (that really doesn’t bother her). They were in fact part of a decapitation strategy that is presently working fine. As much as Mary Mears dislikes the Greens and Labour, her true enemy is the officer class at the council, who she believes are a load of trots all out to stab her in the back.”   And then he concedes: “Perhaps I was wrong when I said she’s not a shrewd operator……”.

Labour is showing signs of life in Brighton but will still be the big losers in May

I have been delighted by the debate recent posts have provoked.  Clearly the local elections have begun to catch the imagination of activists.  This is understandable since interesting results are likely in individual wards and for the City Council as a whole.  But I have to say some predictions are well off the mark.

For example, Christopher Hawtree deserves an award for Hopeless Romantic of the Year in thinking he has a chance of unseating Mary Mears in Rottingdean.  Hell will freeze over before the Tories lose Rottingdean, and Mary is well respected amongst many voters.  I know that is hard for Labour and Green activists to swallow, but it is the reality.  She has not been guilty of the arrogance that epitomised the defeated Labour leaders last time out.   

Allie Cannell says that the Tories should not be complacent.  They haven’t been which is why they will do reasonably well in May.  They will lose seats and control of the Council.  While councillor Mears and her colleagues will be making some unpopular decisions in the budget, she has ensured that her core support is in place and the Tories will retain all their seats in their safe wards, and have a very good chance of beating Labour in its heartland of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean.

The keen fight between Labour and the Greens shows no sign of cooling.  I have called on both parties to focus on the Tories when they seem to regard each other as the real enemy.  However, when it comes to the election itself, I disagree with Steampunk who questions why Dan Wilson and Tom French are standing against the Greens in Regency and Queen’s Park wards respectively.  Elections are elections and each party must be free to field candidates against each other.  In spite of Dan’s regular criticism of my blog, I am an admirer of him, as well as of  Tom French.  I am sorry that they are standing in Regency and Queen’s Park, not because they are standing against the Greens, but because neither are likely to be elected.  I would have preferred to see both these very able activists to stand where they will be elected.  Both have an outside chance of being elected, but the smart money is on the Greens in both wards.

Finally, AJM predicts the Greens will lose Queen’s Park, Preston Park, Hollingdean and Stanmer, and Goldsmid. These are four of the most interesting wards, it has to be said, but to point to the Green’s performance in Oldham and Saddleworth is not relevant.  Brighton (and Hove) is not Oldham.  Caroline Lucas’s election continues the momentum, the Big Mo, for the Greens locally.  The mobilisation last weekend shows the Greens still have it.  I am still of the view that the Greens will do best in May, but will not form a majority.  Labour is showing signs of life, but the question remains whether it can mobilise sufficient numbers and offer a credible vision for the City.  They might do better than I have previously predicted, but they will still be the big losers in May.