Can the Greens retain their first and sole Westminster seat?
With May 2015 just over a year away, battle lines are beginning to be drawn between political parties in marginal seats around the country and many seats are likely to swap hands. One such seat is Brighton Pavilion where Labour is hoping to win back the seat gained by Parliament’s sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
Many constituencies across the UK are losing their ‘safe’ status and becoming far more marginal, and those that have long been considered marginal are now split among several parties. The result is that small parties have a far better chance of gaining seats in Westminster than they did do fifty years ago. As the share of the vote for Labour and the Conservatives continues to decline, parties like the Green Party, UKIP and local Independent candidates can begin to feel more of a chance of their victory.
However, a small party with little experience in a position of authority is incredibly likely to come across difficult hurdles when trying to enact their political agenda for the first time. This is something we have seen in Brighton and Hove Council, made worse by the fact that the Greens, although the largest political group, do not have overall control. Hence, the Conservatives and Labour have bargaining power and they have both made sure to use it. Having coincided with the necessity to respond to Government cuts, this has left the Greens in an extraordinarily unpleasant situation: to be forced by Westminster to make unpopular cuts but to also build a popular reputation for a party that has just gained its first position of authority.
The political situation in Brighton has undoubtedly left its electorate confused. They have a council where an unlikely coalition of Labour and Conservative representatives has co-conspired to defeat Green bills. They have a council where the Greens are being forced to do exactly the opposite of what they stand for – make cuts. They have a council dominated by a party that has an MP of the same party protesting against it. Each of these is noticeable to the electorate and, in politics, it is the decisions that you see that matter. When rubbish collected on the streets and pickets of refuse workers formed, the electorate noticed and vowed never to forget, forming a negative image of the Green council from then onwards.
Competition for the Westminster seat, therefore, is going to be heavily fought. A three-way marginal between the Conservatives, Labour and the Greens in 2010, it is likely that at the next general election it will be a contest solely between Labour and the Greens. And, dishearteningly, it is looking like it will be a tight win for the Greens at best. With the Conservatives suffering massively in the polls and Labour retaining a strong lead, the national swing plus general dissatisfaction with the local authority will likely lead to a strong surge in Labour support in the area. A swing of only 1.2% is needed for Labour to regain the seat and, thus, it is featured on their list of target seats.
So, if Caroline Lucas is to remain an MP, the Greens have a lot of work to do. Somehow, the party must simultaneously defend the city council’s record whilst also explaining why Caroline joined the picket against her own party. She will undoubtedly be put under immense scrutiny and pressure by the electorate as soon as campaigning gets underway. She must also respond to Labour’s increasing presence in the area and fight against the replication of the national swing. She must find a way to work with the party’s local councillors that show that internal factions do not adversely affect the party and demonstrate that the visibility of these factions can only be good for a democracy.
Running such a campaign would also likely use up the majority of Green resources for the election, negatively affecting the efforts of other candidates. For example, in 2010, the candidate for Norwich South doubled the number of votes from 7.4% to 14.9%. If such an increase were to be repeated in 2015, the seat would be considered a four-way marginal with the Green Party in the running for a second MP by 2020. Pouring a considerable amount of resources into this secondary constituency could make this far more successful.
Before any decisions can be made, a number of questions need to be answered. How successful will the Green Party be in the European elections this year and will such a success reinspire some confidence in the party? Will the referendum on council tax prove beneficial for the Green Party’s image? Will Caroline’s popularity as an MP trump over the negative perception of the council that has grown? Will the national swing to Labour feature heavily in Brighton? We have just 16 months until the election and, as we know, in the political sphere, anything can happen.