Brighton & Hove Greens – not an overnight success

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David BlaikieIn May 2010 the Green Party of England and Wales celebrated the election of its first Member of Parliament when its leader, Caroline Lucas, was elected in the Brighton Pavilion constituency. A year later, Brighton was the scene of another historic victory as the Greens jumped from 13 to 23 seats in the Brighton & Hove council, making them the largest group. This is the first time they have achieved this status in all of the United Kingdom and will result in the Brighton & Hove Council, with a population of 250,000, being run by a Green administration. This means that Green councillors will play a crucial role in the provision of local services such as planning, urban development, transport and housing.

This is not an example of an overnight success. Rather than the success being the result of a sudden wave of support, it was an example of slow and steady work over many years. It was also an example of how one success can lead to another, and how crucial that first breakthrough can be in establishing credibility and profile.

The Greens won their first seat on Brighton & Hove council in 1996, increased this to 3 in 2000, from 3 to 6 in 2004, from 6 to 13 and then finally this year from 13 to 23. This meant it was a long but steady campaign by the local Green organisation to build up electoral credibility, establish links with the community and develop campaign experience.

The preparation for this year’s election began well in advance, and was built about the experience that the group had developed over the years. Candidates were selected last September, with an open contest among members for candidate selection. Many of these were contested, and there was a vigorous and open debate in the party over who should be selected. There was a mix of candidates selected. Some were long terms members, and so had a strong knowledge of Green politics and issues, others were new faces who joined the Party more recently.

Local elections in England, like in some other parts of Europe, are on a constituency basis (as opposed to a single list system). In drafting their election strategy, the party opted for one broad theme (opposing the consensus on public spending cuts that the three major parties support) but they also identified individual themes and issues in each ward, oftentimes extremely local issues and topics. Local campaigns were then tailored to each ward, allowing the Party and candidate to build up a strong profile in that particular area.

In extending the Green vote beyond the more ‘traditional’ Green demographic, it was important for the Party to build alliances with different actors in the city. The business community is extremely important in Brighton and Hove, which is a tourist city with many small and family owned businesses. The Greens spent many years building relations with this community, by sitting on council boards and partnership organisation, by campaigning on issues important to the business community and by producing policy which was supportive of the local business community, such as tourism.

The local media was also a focus for the Party in developing its profile. While the local paper remained somewhat ‘unfriendly’ to the Greens, the Party managed to develop good relations with individual journalists, and as a result, there were no attack stories on the Green Party during the campaign.

Targeting of candidates was a crucial part of the campaign. Of the 21 wards, the Greens targeted 11 for gains. This meant that from January 2011 onwards, the Greens focused canvassing and leafleting on these wards. They also had ‘action days’ were members from other local branches (especially London) came to Brighton and Hove to help with the campaign. This meant that the Green Party were able to compete resource wise with the other parties, though a lot of the work in terms of organising still rested with the individual candidates.

Targeting of voters was also an important part of the Greens’ campaign. As the Greens were now seen as a credible political force in Brighton, they were able to target both Labour and Conservative voters. Both of these parties are supportive of unpopular cuts to the public services budget, and so the Greens were able to take voters who were disillusioned with these parties.

What underpinned all of this (the bridge building, the targeting, the candidate selection) was that the process was deeply premeditated and took place over a long period of time. There was a lot of maths and planning behind the process, and every aspect of the campaign was well thought out. For example, the campaign factored in the increase in turnout that would occur due to the voting system referendum that was taking place on the same day.

The success of the Brighton & Hove Greens underlines that it is not enough just to run on strong vision and policy. It is necessary to lay the groundwork well in advance and invest time and energy in developing the skills and experience necessary to compete with other parties.

This article was written following an interview with Alex Philipps, Green Party Councillor and campaign director in Brighton & Hove.

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