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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Can the Greens retain their first and sole Westminster seat?

Photo © 2011 Patrick Duce

With May 2015 just over a year away, battle lines are beginning to be drawn between political parties in marginal seats around the country and many seats are likely to swap hands. One such seat is Brighton Pavilion where Labour is hoping to win back the seat gained by Parliament’s sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Many constituencies across the UK are losing their ‘safe’ status and becoming far more marginal, and those that have long been considered marginal are now split among several parties. The result is that small parties have a far better chance of gaining seats in Westminster than they did do fifty years ago. As the share of the vote for Labour and the Conservatives continues to decline, parties like the Green Party, UKIP and local Independent candidates can begin to feel more of a chance of their victory.

However, a small party with little experience in a position of authority is incredibly likely to come across difficult hurdles when trying to enact their political agenda for the first time. This is something we have seen in Brighton and Hove Council, made worse by the fact that the Greens, although the largest political group, do not have overall control. Hence, the Conservatives and Labour have bargaining power and they have both made sure to use it. Having coincided with the necessity to respond to Government cuts, this has left the Greens in an extraordinarily unpleasant situation: to be forced by Westminster to make unpopular cuts but to also build a popular reputation for a party that has just gained its first position of authority.

The political situation in Brighton has undoubtedly left its electorate confused. They have a council where an unlikely coalition of Labour and Conservative representatives has co-conspired to defeat Green bills. They have a council where the Greens are being forced to do exactly the opposite of what they stand for – make cuts. They have a council dominated by a party that has an MP of the same party protesting against it. Each of these is noticeable to the electorate and, in politics, it is the decisions that you see that matter. When rubbish collected on the streets and pickets of refuse workers formed, the electorate noticed and vowed never to forget, forming a negative image of the Green council from then onwards.

Competition for the Westminster seat, therefore, is going to be heavily fought. A three-way marginal between the Conservatives, Labour and the Greens in 2010, it is likely that at the next general election it will be a contest solely between Labour and the Greens. And, dishearteningly, it is looking like it will be a tight win for the Greens at best. With the Conservatives suffering massively in the polls and Labour retaining a strong lead, the national swing plus general dissatisfaction with the local authority will likely lead to a strong surge in Labour support in the area. A swing of only 1.2% is needed for Labour to regain the seat and, thus, it is featured on their list of target seats.

So, if Caroline Lucas is to remain an MP, the Greens have a lot of work to do. Somehow, the party must simultaneously defend the city council’s record whilst also explaining why Caroline joined the picket against her own party. She will undoubtedly be put under immense scrutiny and pressure by the electorate as soon as campaigning gets underway. She must also respond to Labour’s increasing presence in the area and fight against the replication of the national swing. She must find a way to work with the party’s local councillors that show that internal factions do not adversely affect the party and demonstrate that the visibility of these factions can only be good for a democracy.

Running such a campaign would also likely use up the majority of Green resources for the election, negatively affecting the efforts of other candidates. For example, in 2010, the candidate for Norwich South doubled the number of votes from 7.4% to 14.9%. If such an increase were to be repeated in 2015, the seat would be considered a four-way marginal with the Green Party in the running for a second MP by 2020. Pouring a considerable amount of resources into this secondary constituency could make this far more successful.

Before any decisions can be made, a number of questions need to be answered. How successful will the Green Party be in the European elections this year and will such a success reinspire some confidence in the party? Will the referendum on council tax prove beneficial for the Green Party’s image? Will Caroline’s popularity as an MP trump over the negative perception of the council that has grown? Will the national swing to Labour feature heavily in Brighton? We have just 16 months until the election and, as we know, in the political sphere, anything can happen.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

This “Friendly Conversation” is an Indication of Bridges Being Repaired

Photo © 2012 Dave Radcliffe

Recent conversations between the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg and the Labour Party’s Ed Balls, alongside a very strange two-worded tweet by the Deputy Prime Minister, have led to increased speculation by the media of a coalition pact between the two parties. But with Labour seemingly set to easily achieve a majority in the House of Commons in 2015, is this a meaningless conversation?

The “friendly conversation” between the two senior politicians is causing a strange ripple of excitement across the political sphere yet it seems a strange conversation to have taken place. Reminiscent of the conversations that took place between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown in the run-up to the 1997 election, such a Lib-Lab pact seems unlikely to occur in the near future. With most polls predicting a comfortable majority for the official opposition, Miliband and Balls need not look to the Liberal Democrats to ensure that they are in Government from May 2015. Considering current predictions that the Liberal Democrats will struggle to achieve much more than 20 seats, having such a pact seems completely worthless and would not add much.

It would seem to suggest that Ed Balls is worried that the party might not achieve a majority or that internal factions within the Labour Party threaten their prospective Government’s power over Parliament. It would not be the first time, after all, that a Labour government has been defeated in Parliament due to differences within its own party – remember how Tony Blair lost the vote that would enable the detention of terror suspects for 90 days. With the recent return to the left of the political spectrum, some of the decisions Miliband’s government may wish to enact may not sit well with his own party, but may do so with a left-leaning Liberal Democrat party.

However, Nick Clegg has denied the relevance of this conversation, stating that it was just two parliamentary colleagues conversing amicably. Although his strange tweet of “Ed Balls”, confirmed genuine by his press office, and the reply by the Labour shadow minister seems to suggest more. Perhaps it is out of worry that a deeper rift may form between the two current coalition partners. However, with the Liberal Democrats suffering a massive reduction in membership, with left-leaning members leaving the party to join Labour or the Greens, and right-leaning members leaving to join UKIP, this could be an underhand attempt by the party leader to realign the party with a more socially focused Labour Party. With the Liberal Democrats looking to survive their first term in Parliament since almost a century ago, their need to be on friendly terms with Governmental parties is crucial.

Perhaps it is simply a friendly attempt to redefine the relationship between the two parties. With Labour constantly attacking the Liberal Democrats’ role within the coalition, this is understandable. In the unlikely situation that the Labour party do not return a majority in 2015, a good relationship with the Liberal Democrats is beneficial (although far from essential, as this coalition seems to show). Additionally, if the Labour Party do secure a majority, this may not be repeated at the 2020 election and a coalition with the Liberal Democrats may be necessary then.

What is blindingly obvious now, however, is the Labour Party’s willingness to accept the likelihood of coalitions in the future. With the power and support of the two main parties diminishing, it is increasingly possible that the Liberal Democrats will be a party of Government. Despite their poor reputation for their activity within the current coalition, their twenty or so MPs may be the MPs that allow for a majority Government. Furthermore, if the increased membership of UKIP does indeed translate into representation within the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats will almost definitely be invited into coalitions in order to keep the far-right party away from governance, as the share of the vote is stolen from Labour and the Conservatives. This conversation between Nick Clegg and Ed Balls is an obvious indication that a relationship between the two parties is on the horizon, even if it is not necessary in 2015.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Farage May Be Tokenistic, But We Should Listen (This Time)

Photo © European Union 2013 - European Parliament

An unprecedented situation arose today: when The Telegraph published that Nigel Farage believes the UK should welcome refugees from the Syrian conflict, a moment arose where the Green Party, the left, and UKIP, the right, were in agreement.

Almost three years since the beginning of the Syrian crisis and a large proportion of the Syrian population are either dead, militarised or displaced by the civil war. Yet, despite this, the British government and their official opposition remain adamant that the UK should not accept any refugees from the battle-torn state. Ignoring the massive demand placed on the neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, and that the Syrian population must either leave their home and country or face their imminent death, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems are refusing to help those in dire need of aid.

Hence, it does come as a real surprise when the leader of the UK Independence Party, renowned for his intolerance of migration and non-nationals, is the most high-profile figure calling for the UK to be more accepting. Despite the Green Party having called for this kind of action on Syria since the vote in Parliament, UKIP are being granted the real voice, due to their increasing success in the polls. Having caught on to this, Nigel Farage is making the most of it and he and his party are beginning to act as more of a pressure on the Government.

Attempting to find reconciliation for this confusion, however, can inevitably lead to some cynicism. Is it just a ploy by the UKIP leader to find some a policy that is popular with the British electorate? Perhaps it is just a way to soften the hardened perception of the party that they are nationalistic and racist. It is possible to find this as an answer: In the same article, the party leader maintained the position that we should limit the number of Eastern Europeans becoming resident in the UK. Trying to differentiate become immigrants and refugees, Farage implied that we have a duty to help those displaced by war and other humanitarian crises, which is entirely right, but that those immigrating for other reasons are undeserving of any support, regardless of the wider contexts of their lives.

And, again, I find myself in complete shock as I find myself in agreement with Tory politician, Andrew Brigden, who said “it’s purely political tokenism and it’s a policy put forward by…a tokenist politician.” Nigel Farage is simply doing this to strengthen his party’s image where the other parties look weak, and with the European elections on the horizon. He’s also chosen the Christmas period, when the other parties are fairly quiet (with the exception of Cameron who is busy being criticised in flood-stricken Yalding) to make this bold announcement. It’s all part of his recipe to gain a positive perception of his party. With people becoming tired of the three governmental parties, they are looking for alternatives and with UKIP tapping into their fears on immigration, distrust of Europe and now some compassionate ground for Syrian refugees, there is a potential for a far more popular UKIP here.

However, even if we are to be cynical of Farage’s motives, his is a policy we must also support. There has been a distinct lack of support for Syrian civilians throughout the conflict from the UK. We have shouted at Assad and threatened terrorist organisations who have used the conflict to their advantage. We have offered non-lethal support and humanitarian aid. But the conflict continues and people continue to lose their homes and their lives. If we really want to help the Syrian people, we need to help end the conflict and help every civilian return to a normal peaceful life.