Subtitle: In Praise of Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett
Caroline Lucas gained nearly 42% of the vote in Brighton Pavilion, up over 10% on 2010. Massively up on the mid-term polls in 2012 and 2013 that suggest Caroline would lose her seat.
At the beginning of that year I found out that Caroline was stepping down as leader to focus on her constituency. She knew what it would take to hold the seat as the Labour Party was going to throw everything they could at it. I urged her to continue as leader, so did other people. She was right and we were wrong. That is leadership.
Her decision to do that, for the last Parliament, was the right one. Going right back to the day after Caroline’s victory in 2010, we knew the success of our 2015 General Election campaign was always going to be about that one result. Despite our detractors in Brighton, we also recorded small increases in our shares of the vote in both Hove and Brighton Kemptown. At a council level, we’ve paid the price for some of the problems of the last four years, some of which were self-inflicted. Some hard working and very talented councillors lost their seats yesterday. There will be lessons to be learned for the whole party from Brighton, but we must note the positives as well from the time in office.
Natalie Bennett has led the party through a period of phenomenal membership growth. She has been incredibly hard-working and has supported local parties everywhere. Her work around the country has played a major role in our success.
She has had a tough election. The detractors have been out in force and yesterday’s piece in the Guardian questions whether Natalie should step down because the Greens failed to capture Bristol West, and whether that constitutes a failure or end of the Green surge. That is absurd. Our vote went from under 4% to nearly 27% - an unprecedented leap. The fact that we could even talk about winning Bristol West was exceptional.
The strategy of having regional target seats also deserves applause. Our 2nd place finishes in Liverpool Riverside (more on this soon), Manchester Gorton and Sheffield Central and that 23% gain in Bristol West mean that we can credibly target to win these seats going forward. There are also some high percentages of the votes in other seats, albeit where we are finishing 3rd or even 4th. Thanks to this strategy we are now able to compete at First Past the Post, and as we have seen, we can use our resources far more effectively than UKIP to achieve electoral success.
So Natalie deserves plaudits for her performance over this crucial bit of the electoral cycle. We’ve gained a Euro MP, made advances in the General Election and seen a massive surge in grassroots support, membership and activity. That is leadership. I hope we see Natalie lead us into the London Assembly and Local Elections next year, and we should make gains in both. It will not be a surprise if Natalie does get elected to the London Assembly in 2016, that she may then choose to step down to focus on that vital role, but that for now is speculation. The debate about who should lead us in the next big cycle of Euro 2019 and GE 2020 is not one we need to have now.
Nick Clegg has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Remaining Liberal Democrat members will probably reflect back and realise he should have done this last year after the European Elections. It would have saved some additional Lib Dem seats with a new leader in charge who had been able to criticise the party’s broken promises on tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have their reward for playing their set of cards very poorly in coalition.
The Liberal Democrats have always stood for electoral reform. What have they got to show for it after 5 years in coalition. Nothing. They talk about having moderated the excesses of the Tories, but we’ve had unprecedented austerity. They talk about governing in the national interest but we’ve been left with the legacy of five years of majority Conservative government even though 63% of the population didn’t vote for that party. Frankly, they blew their one chance to effect real change at a national level. I see no way back for them, particularly given the decimation of their parliamentary ranks.
You need to read my blog posts (main and second link) last year about Ed Miliband, Liverpool Labour and The Sun newspaper. This was Labour’s last best chance to change leader before the election. It was pretty clear that Labour chose the wrong leader for the wrong election. Now they face a triple whammy of boundary changes, an EU referendum which will neutralise UKIP (and therefore help the Tories in swing seats) and their wipe out in Scotland.
Little has to be said about Nicola Sturgeon. She has had a magnificent campaign, but when 1.5 million votes deliver 56 seats for one party, in one part of the UK, yet the Greens get 1.14 million and gain just one seat, you know the system is broken. The Tories won’t be rushing to fix it and indeed the boundary reforms that should have happened in the last Parliament will now come through. That will be worth another 30 seats for the Tories and make the prospect of a non-Tory led government getting elected in 2020 much harder to envisage (once again, you have to question the Lib Dems about this failure).
Finally, I’d like to thank each and every Green Parliamentary candidate. The 136 of us who saved our deposits (which is the best ever Green result) probably felt a sense of progress. But even for those candidates who didn’t, your votes mattered. The Short money allocation for this Parliament will enable Caroline Lucas to be better resourced in terms of research support. Your contribution mattered and we are all leaders for standing in our constituencies. We have a long way to go, but we are on the way now.