Labour lacks what it takes to win again in Brighton and Hove and needs someone like Steve Bassam to lead its recovery

One key factor in this May’s local elections is how well Labour in Brighton and Hove has recovered from last year’s general election defeats. Sadly, the same central Party organisation remains in place, and there is a lack of purpose permeating throughout the Party with a few notable exceptions.

In East Brighton, Hanover and Elm Grove, Queens Park, and in Hangleton and Knoll, there are reasonable campaigns being run. The team in East Brighton have, in my estimation, the best campaign. In Hanover and Elm Grove, led by Tracey Hill, consistent campaigning is being undertaken, but the challenge facing the Labour team here is too great and the Green campaign will, ultimately, produce a substantial Green victory.

Queens Park remains the seat where Labour migh justbtake a seat from the Greens is characterised by the exhaustive campaigning by Tom French. But round the clock campaigning in the six weeks leading up to polling day will not counter four years consistent service by Green councillors.

Hangleton and Knoll has a massive factor that is absent from all other campaigns being run by Labour. That is the Fitch Factor (Brian, that is. Harris, you don’t have it …yet).

In some seats in the heart of Hove, the candidates are out and about. Celia Barlow and Simon Battle are seasoned campaigners, and will do well on a personal level. There is a sense of impending defeat in Hollingdean and Stanmer, but the Lepper Machine (along with the machine is East Brighton) can be relied on to fight to the last moment. Whether it can save more than Jeane Lepper is something I doubt.

In other areas, such as Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, St Peters and North Laine, Regency, and Brunswick and Adelaide, the campaigns are struggling. Out of these, the campaign in Regency is the strongest, not least because of the candidates James Asser and Dan Wilson, both excellent candidates who should be offered more winnable seats in the future. Apart from the determined Anne Freeman, there is little evidence of a campaign team. In St Peters and North Laine, the lack of organisation is disguised by the energy and profile of the youngest candidate, Clare Calder. In Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, and in Brunswick and Adelaide, the Labour campaigns can be characterised by ….. well nothing, really.

The real problem for Labour is the absence of an inspirational leader and of some fire in the belly of the local organisation. The one thing that you can rely on to get Labour activists going is to mention Caroline Lucas. What is needed is someone who can articulate a vision (and it isn’t coming from Ed Milliband). Why should people join Labour locally, and why should they become active. The Greens articulate a vision, are active and offer what feels like an alternative.

Warren Morgan, Craig Turton, Tracey Hills, Simon Battle, Brian Fitch, Clare Calder, James Asser, Dan Wilson and Celia Barlow, to name a few, are assets for Labour, but Labour needs two or three hundred activists thing, and thirty or forty candidates who are well known and energetic. Instead, the same old faces dominate, and nothing new is heard from them. Gill Mitchell is more than able, but is yet to reach beyond party and Council structures and become recognised by ordinary people in the way that someone like Steve Bassam was. Steve knew how to organise and to mobilise, and someone like Steve is just what Labour needs if it is to recover in the face of the spreading Green tide.

Argus falls for April Fools story that is “tiresomely obvious and lacking in imagination”

The Argus, the dear old Argus, runs a story today about the ‘rumours’ that Lord Steve Bassam was to be a shock candidate in May’s local elections. Lord Bassam has denied the claim adding that he is happy as a member of the shadow.

However, he did concede that he had given the move some thought earlier in the year.

And who first broke this story? It was of course this blog in what was described at the time as an April Fool’s joke that was “tiresomely obvious and lacking in imagination”. Such high praise.

I will treasure that comment along with other favourites such as “Your writing is not very original. Your blog is not kept up-to-date. It is pretty dull to the average person. In fact it is just not very good” and “You really are a bit odd and this blog is not really very good; come on do some real blogging for a change”.

Steve Bassam to stand for City Council in Hanover and Elm Grove

Labour Peer, Lord Steve Bassam is to announce later this morning that he is to stand for election to Brighton and Hove City Council in Hanover and Elm Grove. I understand that candidate Tracy Hill will be standing down to make way for Lord Bassam.

Nominations for the elction close a 12 noon on Monday. There is a rumour that Labour Leader Ed Milliband will accompany Lord Bassam to Brighton Town Hall in a high profile move aimed to signal Labour’s intention to challenge strongly to take control of the City Concil after 4 years of Tory rule.

Bassam used to represent part of the ward when he was councillor for the old Tenantry Ward. It is being suggested that he is deliberately targeting the seat of Green leader, sorry ‘Convenor’, Bill Randall.

I understand from one of my most reliable ‘spies’ that this is meant to have been kept really secret. Labour supporters from around Sussex are expected to gather in Brighton over the weekend for the first of an ‘April Action’ weekends, led by Lord Bassam.

Steve Bassam, who I have known for many years and is clearly one of the most able campaigners in recent generation, is a controversial character. Like Marmite, you either love him or loathe him. I cannot deny that he is a formidable politician who could make a huge difference across Brighton, although less so in Hove. (Update: this was first posted at 7.15am on 1st April).

Jeane Lepper and Dawn Barnett, two councillors who will stick in there like chewing gum on you shoe

Councillor Sven Rufus is normally a wise owl. As a seasoned campaigner he downplays the prospects of his party, the Greens, doing particularly well in Hollingdean and Stanmer where he is a candidate. But he just doesn’t get the Jeane Effect!  He writes: “I’m ever grateful for your certainty it will be a good result for the Greens – but I do disagree with you about why we won’t/can’t take the third seat. You constantly tell us that there is a strong personal vote for Jeane Lepper, and that will carry her across the line. I wonder what you base that on?”  The Ghost of Nobby Clarke plays down the importance of a personal vote: “Personal votes didn’t help Messrs Bodfish & Burgess 4 years ago did it in Queens Park?”.

Tonight I will explore the concept of a personal vote.  Where you have a councillor who is diligent in their case work, and who has been around for many years, as in the case of Jeane Lepper, constituents will vote for the person rather than the party.  Jeane will have helped many hundreds of residents of Hollingdean and Stanmer with what some activists might dismiss as pavement politics. Where there has been a noisy neighbour, Jeane will have intervened.  When someone’s son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, has not got into the school of their choice, Jeane will have written a letter, even represented them at an appeal. She will have lobbied on planning applications, helped with housing applications, even raised issues about dog shit and bent lamp posts.  For individual residents, these issues matter, and as an effective councillor (as opposed to high profile) she will have made a difference to the lives on several hundred individual households. 

It is that history and record, to answer the Wise Owl’s question, is what I base my forecast on. The Lepper name, too, will help enormously, since David Lepper was an exceptionally diligent constituency MP.  He may not have set Westminster alight, unlike his successor, Caroline Lucas, but he was (is) well known and highly respected by ordinary constituents.

So what about Queens Park? Why did the personal vote not save Ken Bodfish and Simon Burgess.  The answer is simple.  They represented an administration that had become arrogant and detached from the lives of ordinary people.  They were seen to have been associated with, even responsible for, many ill-fated initiatives from the mayoral campaign, schools admissions, and the Council house debacle. Their prominence as the successive leaders of the Council over-shadowed anything they may have done as ward councillors.  Other leading politicians have not neglected their own constituents (I don’t think Simon did).  Other good examples are Mary Mears, Maria Caulfield and Bill Randall who work conscientiously on case work and who come across with humility and not the arrogance that characterised (perhaps unfairly some might say) the Queens Park Mafia.

Steve Bassam was another who knew where his base lay.  An exceptional case worker, he may have become a very divisive figure in the town and within Labour, but he never came anywhere near losing his power base in Tenantry Ward even though it was, I understand, the heartland of Militant.  If  Hangleton and Knoll returns to Labour, it won’t be a clean sweep.  Dawn Barnett, who knows every household down to the name of their late and much missed pet dog, will stick in there like chewing gum on your shoe.  Labour will just not be able to get rid of her, and the Greens will not be able to get rid of Jeane Lepper.

Who else, current or former councillors, would you say is/was a great ward councillor whose personal votes would see them through, thick or thin?

Who said what about Mary Mears? She’s certainly not gutless or clueless.

A right unholy spat took place at the meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council on Thursday night, and it is being suggested that legal action might be taken by two party leaders.

Before proceding any further, can I make it 100% clear, Council leader Mary Mears has no family connection whatsoever to Mears Maintenance Group which has a £200 million contract to provide property maintenance for all City Council housing properties.

Regular readers may have noticed that I am not a Tory but I respect politicians of that party who are competent.  Labour and Green activists are known to rubbish, even mock, Mary Mears. More fools are they.  In all my time of observing Brighton politics (back to the heady days of Steve Bassam’s leadership of the Council), there have been fewer politicians as able as Mary Mears. Energetic, focused and ruthless, Mary’s leadership will mean that Tory losses in May will not be as extreme as they might have been.

So what happened at the Council meeting?  Mary alleged that opposition councillors had been spreading a falsehood that she was connected to the property maintnance company.  When pressed, she is said to have named Labour leader Gill Mitchell but later withdrew this counter allegation.

Both are considering legal action, but a more likely outcome will be reference to the standards committee.  False allegations about contracts and family connections are serious and potentially very damaging, but you makes them at your peril.  Naming a political opponent for spreading falsehoods is not at all attractive, but it isn’t in the same class as alleging corruption.  Name calling is an ugly part of the cut and thrust of sectarian discours and Gill Mitchell should treat it as water off a duck’s back.

Regarding name calling, it was a lively Council meeting, as is usual in the run-up to a local election.  There were a couple of lovely soundbites, as reported in today’s Argus.  Green convenor, councillor Bill Randall (one of the Council’s few heavy weights, politically of course) said: “I do not believe that the Tories are evil but they are happy to do the devil’s work”.  In response, Conservative councillor Tony Janio (who is another reason why the Tories will defend key seats in May) described the Green Party as “nuttier than a nutty fruit cake”. And finally, Tory Ayas Fallon-Khan described the Labour Group as “gutless” and “clueless”.

The Labour Party has failed young people; the Greens are now failing them

Brighton has had, for several generations, a tradition of resistance.  In the 1930s, when Oswald Mosely’s Black Shirts tried to rally in Brighton, there were fierce street battles, and the fascists were prevented from meeting on The Level.  In the 1960s, with the founding of Sussex University, radical student activity abounded, with sit-ins and demonstrations. In the 1970s there were dozens of left-wing and anarchist groups operating in Brighton, based around the old Resource Centre where the Brighthelm Centre now stands.  Punk, New Wave, and Ska music vied with the politics of fascist groups. Feminist and separatist women’s politics was flourishing.

The arrival of the Thatcher government in 1979, and with it mass unemployment, saw Right to Work marches, the People’s March for Jobs, and more fascist activity.  The National Front was active locally, with many of its national leaders living locally. The Anti-Nazi League attracted lots of support from students and young activists, although not from the Militant-dominated Labour Party Young Socialists who supported the less militant Committee Against Fascism.  Militant and the LPYS didn’t support the opposition to the Falklands War, but hundreds of young people did march against the war.  This growing activism created momentum that led to Labour’s assault on the Tories 130 year control on Brighton Council.  Hundreds of young activists had joined the Party and led by David Lepper and Steve Bassam, Labour took control of the Council in 1986 for the first time ever.

The Poll Tax created further momentum and support for the Party peaked in 1990.  But within two years all was lost when the Brighton Labour Party was closed down as part of Kinnock’s witch hunt against Militant.  The Party has never properly recovered and young activists today are few and far between.  The anarchist and fringe left groups have gone.  Small, marginalised groups have emerged, but they are characterised by sectarianism and an inability to organise and mobilise.  Some young people have maintained their political awareness, but mainly in single-issue campaigning.  More often than not, they have become disillusioned and disengaged.  And who can blame them.

The Labour Party in government betrayed the heritage that brought advantage to many of its leaders by introducing tuition fees and saddling generations of graduates with years and years of debt.  Housing is a major concern and so too are job prospects.  The Greens, who should be in a position to harness the anger, aspirations and idealism of young people, are showing themselves to be poor organisers and somewhat elitist, in spite of the success of Caroline Lucas.  A question the Greens must answer is: why are talented young activists like Tom French in the Labour Party and not part of the next chapter of the Green’s march forward in Brighton?

The Labour Party has failed young people, the Greens are failing to capitalise.  What a failure by both.

Reflections on the St Peter’s and North Laine by-election

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.

Dave Hill, aka Peter Stringfellow (what?) and David Essex (huh?) is a rare character in today’s politics

The Daddy of the Left in Brighton and Hove has shown that he has lost nothing of his ability for self-promotion. If you were to ask the TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate for Brighton Kemptown, Dave Hill, whethere his campaign was about policy or personalities, he would reply “policy”.

But look at this weekend’s Argus.  Front page – Dave Hill saying that he is being confused with Peter Stringfellow.  Photos of Mr Stringfellow appear alongside Mr Hill, sorry Professor Hill.  Dave, did someone really ask if you were PS or was it an inspired way of comanding the attention of the Argus in what is otherwise a completely dull campaign in Brighton Kemptown? 

But not content with this dubious comparison, Dave Hill says that as a younger man he used to be confused with David Essex.  What?  But fair play to him, on the inside of the Argus are more photos of Dave Hill, today and as a young man.

But what I did love was how the Argus presented Dave Hill as the main candidate, mentioning as an aside that the other candidates inclue Simon Burgess, etc.

What it does sho is the lack of ‘characters’ in politics today.  In the 1980s Dave Hill was forever creating stories, controversies and campaigns.  His equal was former councillor Brian Fitch.  More measured but equally effective was the late Dennis Hobden, and younger councillors like Steve (now Lord) Bassam, Richard Stanton and Andy Winter (who co-incidentally also appeared on the front page of the Argus today in a story about debt).

Now debt is an issue that Dave Hill could campaign on.

Labour has lost the ability to campaign

There was a time, in the 1980’s, when Labour was a vibrant, campaigning, grass routes organisation. Through campaigning, led by David Lepper and Steve (Lord) Bassam, the Party won control of the local Council.

The Golsmid by-election demonstrates how the Party has lost it’s ability to campaign, even in elections. Liz Telcs has worked hard (although not as hard or effectively as Green Alex Phillips). She has struggled to get anything of a campaign going, and appeals for help have fell, largely, on deaf ears.

Alex Phillips, on the other hand, has been energetic, enthusiastic and exciting. She reminds me of Labour activists of the early/mid 1980’s. Was she active then? No, she wasn’t even born then!