Green borders

Steve BassamSteve Bassam on the Green Party's real political agenda

The election this week of Natalie Bennett as the Green Party’s new leader is a development that may have some impact on the outcome of the next general election. Bennett has warned us that as they seek to add to the one seat they currently hold (Brighton Pavilion), the Greens are after both Labour and LibDem votes.

For Labour to ensure a single term Tory-led government we need to mobilise a broad coalition of voters around our policy themes and campaigns. That has to include those who see environmental policies as a primary motivator to where their vote goes. And while the Greens won’t be taking seats directly away from us, they could be a dead weight on our ability to form a majority.

There are parts of the country where this already happens in council elections, and in places like Bristol, Cambridge, Lancaster, Norwich, Reading and Stroud, as well as parts of London, they could hold us back. A Green candidate taking perhaps 1500 votes, where the margin of victory is a few hundred votes might make all the difference.

I know that when I tweet about the threat posed by the Greens, some of my colleagues are – at best – bemused. But then again some friends in Brighton felt that way when I said the Greens could win their first parliamentary seat or run the city council. Those same friends don’t think that now.

The Greens are often seen as a Party that Labour could and should do business with. The view is that they are very similar to us, of the centre-left and will therefore work with us. I see no evidence of this. Brighton and Hove Labour Party undertook research looking locally at Green Party attack lines. Basically 80% of their output attacks Labour with a mere 18% geared towards the Tories. This from a Party who asked for our support for their local budget!

Of their 23 councillors, 19 sit in wards that were previously Labour while the rest returned councillors for us in the past. Green supporters are predominantly ex-Labour. They just don’t attract Tories at all.

Interestingly the Greens attract very little support from working class voters who find them impractical. This is partly explained by what The Guardian describes as a Party coming from a ‘different, more middle class tradition’. Indeed, in power in Brighton and Hove the Greens are obsessed by middle class obsessions. Not always a bad thing, but it is to the exclusion of a proper concern about running services efficiently and the waste of scarce resources.

More damagingly they have cut services on which poorer communities depend, including Sure Start, adult social care, the homeless budget, and (initially at least) bus services to council estates and hospitals. Having told voters in 2011 that they would ‘resist cuts to the utmost’, a few days after taking control they launched a spinning exercise to justify slashing 40% from the budget over 3 years. Then this week they have announced plans to reduce pay by a £1000 a year for lower paid security staff while spending £30,000 advertising for a new chief executive.

Nor have they done much on the environmental front in what is their policy laboratory. I don’t wish to be flippant about this point but to date, all I have seen locally is scruffier streets, lower recycling levels, unfulfilled promises of a food waste collection scheme, a bid for biosphere status and assertions about ‘One Planet Living’. Careful stewardship of the environment is too important for the Greens to have a monopoly over the politics of the change needed, especially as they clearly can’t deliver.

So excuse me if I find Natalie Bennett’s pitch to Labour voters dishonest and disingenuous. The Greens are very like the LibDems, saying whatever it takes to get elected but unlikely to stick to their promises.

If we were to lose the next election and they cost us seats by misleading people into thinking they are a progressive Party in word and deed they would not care at all. It would suit their long term strategy of supplanting the Labour Party.

Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords and former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council

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