Labour’s stunning success in this year’s local election has taken some people by surprise. The party’s landslide win – 38 out of 54 seats – is on a par with the first election for the new Brighton and Hove Council back in 1996 when Labour took 54 of 78 seats.
The Green Party seemed to be totally surprised by what hit them. Labour activists much less so, largely because for months they had been picking up on voters’ frustration with local Green Party policies and practices. The Tories seemed resigned to their fate.
To understand the scale of the Greens’ defeat, it is worth looking at the numbers involved. Back in 2019, they topped the poll across the city, securing 35.4 per cent of the vote with Labour on 34.9 per cent and the Tories 22.5 per cent.
The changes in 2023 are big. Labour secured a 12.4 percentage point increase – up to 47.3 per cent – with the Greens down to 24.5 per cent. The Tories dropped to just 16.9 per cent of votes cast.
In the Brighton Pavilion constituency, where the Green vote was strongest, the slump in the party’s fortunes is even more pronounced. Worrying for the current MP Caroline Lucas?
Labour in these elections was able to take votes from both the Greens and the Tories, though most came from the Green Party and they were the biggest losers in terms of seats lost.
They now have just seven councillors, down from 20, while the Tories lost five and have just six councillors left.
The big question behind this switch is why, particularly at a time when the Green Party nationally increased its number of seats with a strong showing? It even took majority control of its first local authority in Mid Suffolk.
It is clear that voters nationally still register concern about climate change – and in Brighton and Hove, arguably more so.
The environment for local voters is a major concern, whether its recycling, refuse collection, pollution, traffic management or the look of the city’s street scene. People are passionate about these problems.
Labour’s success this time round is rooted in these issues. The city now has a large “progressive” majority. In these elections more than 75 per cent voted for what could reasonably be described at progressive centre-left candidates.
In other words, Labour persuaded more electors that it could be trusted with radical solutions to the city’s big issues – it created and attracted an electoral coalition of votes that led to a clear outcome.
It was able to do that because it demonstrated to voters that the cause of the city’s problems was a gridlocked council, hamstrung by being hung and with “no overall control” for 20 years.
At the core of Labours pitch was a pledge to tackle the basic everyday services that we all rely on.
The Greens’ failure was to indulge in vanity projects like the i360 (which owes £48 million to the council) and the Velo Café (£1 million) and projects like the Low-Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) which were clearly a solution in search of a problem.
One refrain that kept being played back to canvassers was this: “If a Green council can’t sort out and improve recycling, they aren’t worth voting for.” It’s an entirely fair point!
The Labour campaign offered a positive vision of a fairer city where the basics get sorted and there is a drive to secure a better future for all.
Brighton and Hove is a special place, rich in culture and rich in opportunity. The Greens have failed for years to harness that and opted instead to play ideological games with public services. This speaks to the lack of vision they had for a more inclusive city.
Labour’s opportunity now is to demonstrate that it can harness the unifying cause of improving local services while having a bigger vision for the future of our city.
As well as Labour’s positive vision, part of what won voters over was the party’s sharp focus on the Greens’ failings.
We now need to turn that focus on to delivering the basics and holding close to our broader vision for a city of limitless possibilities, fairness and opportunities for all of our citizens.
Steve Bassam is a Labour peer, the Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport and former leader of Brighton and Hove Council.