Doorstep Brighton 4: post office closures and saving the number 81 bus

Yesterday I bogged about how Labour candidates Jeane Lepper, Tom French and Melanie Davis almost had a good bit of publicity when photographed with Sally Gunnell in the Argus.

I forgot to mention a real coup by the Greens regarding the threat to close the Post Office in the London Road Co-op.  Defending post offices from closure is a big winner.  The Green councillors were pictured in the Argus last week launching their petition against the closure.  But a source tells me that, in spite of having a high profile launch, the Greens lack the presence in St Peters and North Laine to maintain a regular presence collecting signatures at the Co-op.  Surely there is an opening for Labour activists.

Labour candidates in East Brighton, Gill Mitchell, Warren Morgan, and Craig Turton are doing well in their campaign to protect the number 37 bus.  I heard a rumour that, every time he stood for election in Hanover, Labour veteran Brian Fitch would run a campaign to save the number 81, and every time he was successful.  Legend has it that the number 81 was never under threat.  I’m not sure whether the story is true.  The sad reality today is that you don’t have to make up stories of cuts.  They are all too real.

And now an unholy spat is developing between Labour candidates in Queen’s Park and their Tory and Green opponents.  Tom French is campaigning to save the …. number 81 bus!  The spirit of Brian Fitch lives on (as does Brian Fitch himself!).  Tom French has been criticised by his opponents threat.  Who knows what the truth is? 

Last night I read an interview with the entire Lib Dem group on the City Council, also known as councillor Paul Elgood.  Rumour has it that I not a great fan of the Lib Dems.  Truth be told, I like the Lib Dems a little less than root canal treatment.  This interview, which you can read in the Brighton Free Press, must be one of the shallowest interviews I have ever read.  It reminded me of the questioning by the BBC of the Prime Minister in the 1950’s which had questions like “Sir, would you like to share with the viewers some more of your successes at the conference?”.  Come on, Brighton Free Press, you can do better than that.

Doorstep Brighton 3: Is the Tory vote collapsing in Rottingdean Coastal?

Almost a good item in today’s Argus for three Labour candidates in three key marginal seats.  Pictured handing over a petition on school sports to Sally Gunnell are candidates councillor Jeane Lepper (Hollingdean and Stanmer), Tom French (Queen’s Park) and councillor Melanie Davis (Goldsmid).  Melanie gets a good quote but Jeane and Tom are not mentioned.  That’s why it was almost a good story.

Feisty Rachel Bates, the Sarah Palin of Brighton and Hove politics, says that I am wrong to suggest that she is merely a paper candidate. She writes: “It is true that I work for Mike Weatherley, MP for Hove and Portslade, but this certainly does not mean that I will be in any way neglecting Hollingdean & Stanmer. I have been putting all of my effort in to becoming a councillor in that ward.  I am extremely dedicated to fighting for what I believe is right for the people of Hollingdean & Stanmer. Myself and my fellow Conservative candidates are 100% dedicated to the ward. I have been actively campaigning there long before I was selected as a candidate.  The campaign has been going fantastically, and I certainly do believe that the Conservative message is hitting home in H&S. I for one believe that it is not a lost cause for the Conservatives and look forward to seeing three Conservative councillors in H&S on 5th May.”

Come on, Rachel, get serious.  There is as much chance of a Tory winning H&S as there is of the Tories losing Rottingdean Coastal.  And while on the subject of Rottingdean Central, Christopher Hawtree says that the Tory vote in Ovingdean “has collapsed” with an influx of residents from the Five Ways area of Brighton.  Even if 200 households have moved, and each has 2 voters, and even if all of them vote Green, and if each one has replaced a Tory, the the Tory majority is likely to drop from 2,200 to a mere 2,000.  There’s everything to play for in Rottingdean Central!

Luke Walter seems to have taken exception to me describing himself as the Labour candidate in Hollingdean and Stanmer.  Apologies, he is one of the Green candidates.

But the big news, and probably the most significant of the week so far, is the decision of councillor David Watkins in Brunswick and Adelaide to leave the Lib Dem group and to sit as an independent.  Councillor Paul Elgood, leader of the Lib Dem group on the Council, should experience little opposition from within his group since he is now the only member of his Lib Dem group. Having lost 50% of their members in one go, will the other 50% be lost at th elections? One can but live in hope.

Where will Lib Dem votes go in Brighton and Hove?

As the Lib Dems drop into single figures in more and more opinion polls, the big question is “Where will Lib Dem votes go in Brighton and Hove?”.  It is true to say that there are not that many in the first place, but their distribution could make all the difference in certain key seats.  Experience on the doorstep throughout the city, reported by Green and Labour activists alike, is that former Lib Dem voters are not keen to be reminded of their Lib Dem past.

Nationally, it is said that Nick Clegg is giving the veil of respectability to David Cameron, and Simon Hughes continues to give the veil of respectability to Nick Clegg.  No such problem locally.  There may, ironically, be a chance that the Lib Dem vote won’t drop too badly throughout the City, not because the vote is holding firm, but it could become the ‘conscience’ vote for Tories who know that a Lib Dem vote will not hurt their first choice, the Tories, as much as a vote for Labour or Green. 

But traditional Lib Dem voters continue to desert that party in droves.  In a comment in response to an earlier post on this blog, ‘Clive’ says: “My membership card went into the shredder several months ago and I will not be voting for the party”.  He warns activists not to underestimate the Liberal tradition: “The Welfare State and old age pensions were essentially Liberal creations for a start. More recently the Liberals/Lib Dems has promoted advanced positions – way ahead of public opinion – on matters such as gay rights and abortion”.  One challenge for Labour and the Greens is to articulate a vision equal to that of the Welfare State for the 21st century.

I suspect that Labour will not benefit as much as the Greens from former Lib Dem votes this time round since Labour comes across locally as still being bitter about their humiliations at the last general and local elections.  The Greens, on the other hand, come across as positive and bright.  That perception is not altogether fair.  Labour has a number of bright and enthusiastic young activists and candidates, not least Tom French, standing in Queen’s Park, and Dan Wilson in Regency.

I expect the Tory vote to slump in Brunswick and Adelaide, with Tories shifting their support (as the did in Oldham and Saddleworth) to the Lib Dems.  Paul Elgood is active and has a personal vote.  That may yet save him, but at least one seat will go to the Greens.  Labour doesn’t stand a chance in Brunswick and Adelaide.  To change that position the Party has to select candidates, not just in B&A but, so I am advised, in three other Hove seats.  Doesn’t that say it all about the state of Labour?

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.

Political Awards 2010: New-Comer of the Year

In a year dominated by the general election, it is quite hard for a new-comer to make his or her mark.  There have been very few individuals who, newly arrived on the Brighton and Hove political scene,  have made their mark. In fact, there is just one nominee for this category, and therefore is the winner.

As a result of the election of Caroline Lucas to Westminster, her European seat became vacant and was duly filled by the second person on the Green Party list from the last European elections, Keith Taylor.  Keith had been a long-standing, if uninspiring councillor for St Peter’s and North Laine.  Keith resigned from the City Council to take up the European seat.  The by-election was keenly fought by Labour and the Greens.  While the seat was won by the Green’s Lizzie Deane (who has disappeared without trace since her election), it was Tom French, the Labour candidate, who stood out as the outstanding candidate.

Tom was hard-working, charming, energetic, and won plaudits from all parties.  At a time where charismatic individuals are largely absent from the ranks of Labour, Tom was a breath of fresh air.  He is my New-Comer of the Year.  Labour needs to find another dozen or so candidates with similar qualities if it is to avoid a heavy defeat in May, although it is probably too late.

Just one word of warning to Tom.  Being the latest ‘bright young thing’ is great while it lasts.  But no matter how well you perform, time will mean that you will not always be young, and you rapidly lose the image of being the new kid on the block.  My advice is to remember your roots, the people who supported you when you set out on your exciting journey. Neglect your core base at your peril.  For the local elections, you have chosen to abandon (as some see it) St Peter’s and North Laine, as well as Hanover and Elm Grove,  in favour of Queen’s Park .   Take some time to mend fences.  You will never be bigger than the Party.  The Labour Party needs you to succeed and I wish you well.

Queens Park: One of three key seats that will decide the Council in May 2011

Queens Park provided a complete body blow to Labour at the last local elections when three of its most senior members were beaten by the Greens.  Green Rachel Fryer topped the poll with a massive 1,826 votes, followed by Paul Steedman (1,549) and Ben Duncan (1,473).  The top Labour candidate was Delia Forrester just 15 votes behind Ben Duncan on 1,458 votes.  Former leader of the Council, Ken Bodfish was fifth (1,455) and the then Leader of the Council and Labour’s prospective candidate in Brighton Kemp Town, Simon Burgess (1,418).  The introduction of the School Place Lottery cost Labour dear.  The nice folk on East and West Drive didn’t want their darlings mixing with the ruffians from the Council estates.

This result was the low point for Labour at this election, and symbolised the unpopularity of the Labour Council.  The Greens had hoped to win one of the three seats, but won all three.  The three new councillors have worked very hard, are widely respected, and would expect to win all three again next May.  But there is a potential problem.  At one point it looked as though all three would be standing down in May, but they are reconsidering their positions.  Ben Duncan is definitely standing. He is probably the most high profile of the three, although both Rachel and Paul are highly respected within the ward and beyond.  I personally hope that at least one, if not both, will be on the ballot paper with Ben in May.

The Greens must hold all three seats in Queens Park if they are to become the largest party on the Council.  Even if Rachel and Paul don’t stand, the reputation of the Green Party in this ward should see them home.

For Labour, the three young men selected (Dan Chapman, Chris Cook and Tom French) will no doubt put in a strong performance, but their appeal will be limited. All three would hope to poll well in the gay community, but  Ben Duncan has a strong track record on campaigning on LGBT issues in the ward and beyond.  The Queens Park mafia broke the local party, and there is little enthusiasm or campaigning experience within the local Labour Party.  The unpopularity of Bodfish Forrester and Burgess might continue to be reflected in May’s poll.

Queens Park will be one of the key seats in May, and the result here will provide an indication whether Labour has turned the corner or whether its decline is still terminal.

I would like to see the Greens become the largest Party, not because I am a Green but because I think the Greens have the most energy and ideas locally.  Labour has had its opportunity and don’t deserve to get back in, not yet, anyway.

St Peters and North Laine – vote with your conscience

St Peters and North Laine was the birthplace of the Greens in Brighton and Hove when Pete West won their first-ever seat in the city.  This once Tory seat (there have been some boundary changes), became safe Labour in the 1980s and early 1990s.  But Blair’s New Labour saw to that with members of the left and right leaving in droves.

Now it is the safest Green seat.  In May 2007 Pete West, Keith Taylor and Ian Davey all polled over 2,000 votes with the best placed Labour candidate, Sarah Ogden, polling just 979 votes. 

In a recent by-election, caused by Keith Taylor succeeding to the European Parliament seat vacated by Caroline Lucas on her election to Westminster, the Green Lizzie Dean was the comfortable winner. The energetic campaign run by Labour’s Tom French, hardly dented the Green majority.

St Peters and North Laine will return 3 Green councillors in May.  It is an area where there is no danger of the Tories benefiting from a split Labour / Green vote.  Therefore, I don’t need to advocate tactical voting and suggest anti-Tory (and former Lib Dem voters) to vote according to their conscience.

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.

St Peter’s and North Laine by-election: vote for Tom French

Good luck to both Tom French and Lizzie Deane in tomorrow’s St Peter’s and North Laine by-election.  It is good that those of you with a vote in the election can expres your choice without having to consider voting tactically.  It is a two horse race, and you can express your preference without worrying about letting the Tories or their feeble baby brother, the Lib Dems, through the middle.

As I have oftn stated in this blog, I hope that the Greens win next year’s local elections in Brighton and Hove, that they will be the largest party even if they don’t achieve a majority.  Winning the by-election is important to the Greens but not essential.  Losing the seat will be a set back, but not a disaster. 

Bearing this in mind, and having considered the merits of Tom and Lizzie, I am urging that people vote for Tom French.  With dynamic candidates like Tom, and with the prospect of Labour becoming renewed, it will be an interesting time for politics in Brighton and Hove over the next 12 months for those of us who are non-aligned on the left.

My hope is that next May the Greens are the largest party, followed by Labour, with the Tories down to single figures on the Council.  As for the Lib Dems, much deserved oblivion awaits in Brighton and Hove.