After Brighton Pavilion – Nine Thoughts
Adam McGibbon, Caroline Lucas’ Campaign Manager, gives Bright Green some brief thoughts after Thursday’s General Election campaign in Brighton Pavilion.
I’m sitting in the now-silent, messy remains of our campaign office, beginning to write the Brighton Pavilion post-campaign report.
I’ve written on Bright Green before about against-the-odds victories. I’m happy to be on the right side of one, yet again.
A two-year campaign is difficult to sum up in a short article. There are huge lessons for Greens – much of which is better discussed internally. But here are some brief thoughts.
1. The Difficult Second Album: By all accounts, the fight to hold Brighton Pavilion was much harder than the fight to gain it in the first place, with many, many complicating factors. This is a victory for the hundreds of volunteers who put in incredible amounts of hours to re-elect Caroline. Thank you so much to each and every one of you for everything you did.
2. A Campaign Of The Community: We deliberately reached far beyond the local Green Party to build our campaign, and insisted that Green Party membership would not be a barrier for participation. Our campaign was a coalition of Greens, local activists of every shade, people who would never join a political party, trade unionists, BME groups, people of faith and so much more. Although Caroline’s mass appeal helped us make those connections and build those bridges, if done in the right way, Greens can build these mass campaigns everywhere.
3. Caroline Vs Goliath: Caroline’s high placement on Labour’s national target list (No.19, with the two neighbouring Tory seats at Nos.25 and 28) meant the full weight of the national Labour Party was thrown at us. Endless mailshots, scores of activists bussed in, a steady stream of shadow cabinet ministers, fancy offices, and a huge national infrastructure backing their local operation. In the end, while Labour threw the kitchen sink at Brighton Pavilion, they lost neighbouring Brighton Kemptown by 690 votes. With turnout in Kemptown 5% lower than Hove and Pavilion, there is so much more Labour could have done to elect Nancy Platts, their excellent, positive, left-wing Kemptown candidate. Not going hell-for-leather to unseat Caroline Lucas, and talking more about the Greens than about the Tories, would have been one thing that would have helped.
After the election, Caroline spoke about the need for electoral pacts, with the Kemptown result in mind – this is something we should seriously look at.
4. Hard Labour: Labour ran one of the most negative campaigns I’ve ever seen in all my electoral experience – and I’m from Northern Ireland(!). One of the central planks of the Labour candidate’s platform was essentially that a lone Green Party MP could ‘do nothing’ – a charge that could easily have been thrown at Keir Hardie and the first Labour MPs, and ignores the vast good an MP can do for their constituents, the benefit of Parliamentary expression for wider social movements, and many other factors beyond narrow Parliamentary arithmetic.
At one stage of the campaign, I measured that Caroline was getting over sixty negative tweets a day from Brighton Labour members – some deeply personal. Other tools in their armoury included completely false allegations about Greens shouting at Labour activists in the street, as well as malicious complaints to the Electoral Commission – complaints that were proven to be false. On election day, a female Green candidate, telling outside a polling station, ended up having to call the police because of the abusive behaviour of a Labour teller at the same station. Their claim after the election to have run a positive campaign was staggering in its hypocrisy. Staying positive, talking about Caroline’s values, the Greens’ issues and ignoring the vast torrents of abuse helped us flourish.
5. Student Votes: Individual Electoral Registration was another huge complication – along with University of Sussex students being on holiday on May 7th. In early October 2014, the number of students registered to vote at the University of Sussex halls was in tiny double figures. Our student wing, Students For Caroline, registered countless students to vote, and campaigned successfully for a huge Green student vote, with thousands of student voters on the rolls by the time the election came.
Working with students’ unions and other organisations, it’s possible to largely mitigate the barriers of the new registration system. Universities such as the University of Sheffield have managed to come up with innovative ways to combat this problem, and these are worth Greens and progressives pushing for everywhere, before local and regional elections in 2016.
6. Municipal Difficulties: There is much to be said about the Green administration in Brighton & Hove Council, for which elections took place the same day – a huge complicating factor. Far too much to say here. But it’s fair to say that faced with controlling a minority administration at a time of austerity, with Labour and the Tories joining forces to push them into impossible positions, and facing a legacy of bad decisions by previous administrations, that there was always going to be mistakes. But there were many successes too.
There are huge issues for party democracy, the role of rank-and-file members in these processes and how the wider party supports councillors in administration. But the coverage and narrative of a ‘disaster’ Council has been grossly unfair, and orchestrated mostly by Labour. This is because Brighton is the only city in England where Labour have been successfully challenged from the left, and they are desperate to stop it.
However difficult the Greens’ time in administration was in Brighton, they never threatened to sack ALL their staff unless they agreed to longer hours and a pay cut, or attempted to criminalise rough sleeping, or use anti-union laws to take striking workers to court – all actions various Labour councils have taken. For every criticism that Labour have levelled at the Green Council, there is usually an example of a Labour Council doing something objectively worse.
The Green ‘disaster’ narrative needs to be challenged when it is propagated by Labour – who have been briefed to deliver such lines. Labour Conferences now run regular fringes called ‘How To Beat The Greens,’ and misinformation about Brighton now forms a part of that.
7. A Safe Seat? In my thank you speech to our amazing activists at the victory party, I said they’d helped create the UK’s first safe Green seat. I’m probably stretching the definition of ‘safe,’ but Brighton Pavilion is certainly no longer marginal, with an enormously popular MP who will have a 10-year track record by the next General Election. This is a huge achievement and strategically important for the party. Obviously we’ll put in huge amounts of effort to further consolidate Pavilion (I’m working on that now), but it means we can expend more resources to take other seats in future.
8. Campaign Laboratory: This has ended up being a campaign where we have tried many new systems, new ideas, new methods of organising Green campaigns. Not all of them have worked, but very many of them have. There’s a huge amount of organisational lessons to be learnt. We’re not very good at sharing our skills as a party, and this has to change – and fast.
There’s definitely enough for a whole Conference fringe worth of discussion… watch this space.
9. The Work Has Only Started: With all being said about this being a great victory for the Greens, the day after the election, I walked past a man sleeping in the covered doorway of a house on Brighton’s Albion Street. I’d never seen him there before. It was a stark reminder of the national picture. There is very little help coming for him. There’s a long five years coming. Caroline is set to play a huge role as a Parliamentary focal point for the Green and progressive movements – her victory last Thursday, as we erupted in celebration at our vastly-increased majority, was one shining star on what was a very dark night.