I can scarcely believe it. Early indications on Thursday night looked positive enough for us to hope we’d held firm and made advances in new areas. Even so, the scale of success for the Greens in the Brighton & Hove Council elections yesterday was shocking, even for those of us who had followed and worked on the campaign.
The results were:
Greens 23 (up 10 seats)
Conservatives 18 (down 8)
Labour 13 (no change)
Liberal Democrats 0 (down 2)
For me, this was definitely an election where local factors were as important as the national trends. Building upon the incremental progress over previous elections and the return of Caroline Lucas as the MP for Brighton Pavilion, our campaign has been characterised by good central organisation and tight devolved ward teams working closely in communities around the city.
As a campaign, the Greens remained wedded to our core principles and didn’t feel the need to be opportunistic or use underhand tactics. In a generally clean campaign, this wasn’t always the case with our competitors, who occasionally painted apocalyptic images of the city under Greens or tried to muddy our image amongst the LGBT community. In spite of this, our main message shone through: we remained steadfast against cuts aimed at front-line services. This continuity of purpose helped convince people that we deserved a chance to try something different.
However, in spite of the elation we feel today, unprecedented challenges already circle us. Of our new Councillors, the vast majority are newcomers to elected office and will have little time to make the leap from activism and electioneering to the realities of public administration. Greens don’t agree with the UK Government’s decision to cut the deficit so quickly. But now, as the largest party in the Council, we are responsible for dealing with unavoidable cuts to our settlement from central government and making sure the city continues to provide the services and support that our citizens depend upon. We must acknowledge that we will have to take decisions outside of our comfort zone.
How do we make this work? The enormity of this challenge means we have to look both outwards and inwards. After a relatively strained campaign with Labour, we need to mend fences quickly, identify the areas where our values mesh well and make common cause. At stake is the formation of an alternative to the ‘small state’ abandonment of those on low incomes. More than ever, we need to get serious about engaging business leaders about how we can marry green policies with an economic growth agenda.
Looking inwards, as a local party it would be easy to ignore the risks we confront as we bask in the warmth of this result. The rigours of this campaign have stretched our organisation beyond capacity. We need to ensure that we take the next few months to refashion our working methods in a way that strengthens the party’s ability to support our elected officers and hold them accountable internally. We need to invest in inspiring a new generation of party activists to replace those now charged with responsibilities to their constituents. This means a Party Executive that has the time and space to reflect upon the strategic horizon and lead, rather than acting as party administrators.
Most importantly, we need to realise that decision making amongst our Green Group of Councillors needs to be done more collectively. Coming to a consensus amongst 23 people will not always be possible. We should learn lessons from the Liberal Democrats and spend time together identifying our red line policies and principles where we vote as a bloc - whilst providing space for individual Councillors to vote according to their judgement on other issues.
Already, our opponents and the national media are looking to see how we function in office when given the chance to prove ourselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the reputation of the Greens nationally as a force depends on us here on the south-east coast getting this right.