The Green Party emerged as the largest group on Brighton and Hove council on Friday, winning ten more seats to make a total of 23, against 18 Tories and 13 Labour. With Labour support, it expects to be able to run the council. The result exceeded the wildest expectations of the local party, with the Greens winning 33 per cent of the popular vote across the city (Labour got 32 per cent and the Tories 29 per cent).
Traditionally Brighton was primarily Labour, while Hove was primarily Tory, making for an interesting split when the two merged to form a unitary council in 1997, and the new city of Brighton and Hove in 2000. The Green Party won its first seat in 1996 and its support has steadily grown outwards from the city centre, while the working class estates stayed mainly Labour and the posher suburbs solidly Tory.
That all changed in the general election. Caroline Lucas’s victory in the Brighton Pavilion seat was historic in many ways, not just the first Green MP in England, but the first in the world to be elected by first past the post. It was a landmark success locally too, as her support came from traditional Labour areas and even from some Tory areas. It dramatically demonstrated that the Greens had reached the key threshold of credibility locally as a real alternative to the traditional duopoly.
During the recent local elections, the city was covered in Green posters as people sensed the possibility of the city breaking the mould again. On the doorstep, there was widespread hostility to the both the national coalition government and the local Conservative minority council leadership for pushing through unpopular cuts, and support for the idea that the Greens and Labour should work together.
But after the celebrations, the hard work begins. The Greens will be the largest party and are likely to seek support from Labour to form an administration, but a formal coalition is now unlikely given Labour’s poor showing.
The Greens campaigned on a very radical programme: against the cuts; for a Green New Deal of creating local jobs for home insulation and renewable energy schemes; and for extending local democracy and participatory budgeting.
But the new Green council will inherit a Tory cuts budget that it voted against just a few months ago (while Labour abstained). The Greens had skilfully succeeded in amending the Tory budget before the election to remove the worst local cuts, but they have not yet been able to create sufficient popular support for confronting central government cuts and refusing to implement them.
The most likely scenario is of the Green-led council introducing democratic reforms and sustainability policies, while desperately grappling with the budget and struggling to avoid making cuts to the services of those who overwhelmingly voted for it.
Officially the local Labour Party has been fiercely anti-Green in recent years (though amusingly many members privately admit to voting for Caroline Lucas in the general election). Its election campaign was very negative and aimed squarely at rubbishing the Green Party. Its leadership sees the Greens as its main enemy and will seize any opportunity to make life difficult for them.
But there are good omens. Caroline Lucas is on the left of the Green Party and obviously has huge influence locally. Overwhelmingly the councillors and leading local party members are instinctively anti-cuts and supportive of working with the local trade unions. They are wary of sweetheart deals with Labour to stay in power at any cost. They want to be different and to stick to their radical principles.
Above all, the emergence of the Greens in Brighton and Hove is hugely significant symbolically, and potentially represents the first real popular political alternative to the mainstream since the GLC and left Labour councils of the 1980s. Such credible political alternatives are rare and need to be nurtured and supported by all progressives and radicals. Constructive criticism is necessary, but so too is solidarity and support as this new political current genuinely attempts to map out a new political alternative.
Davy Jones is a member of Brighton and Hove Green Party.