The Green Party is on course to make a historic electoral breakthrough by winning the Labour-held seat of Brighton Pavilion at the forthcoming general election.
A poll of voting intentions carried out by ICM Research shows that the Greens, who had their best-ever result in the constituency in 2005, hold an eight-point lead over their nearest rivals, the Conservatives, with the Greens on 35 per cent, the Tories on 27, Labour on 25 and the Liberal Democrats on 11 per cent.
If repeated at the general election, the result would see the Greens snatch the seat from Labour with a majority of 3,500 over the Conservatives. The Green candidate, Caroline Lucas, the party leader who is already an MEP, would take her seat at Westminster in a key political advance for the British environmental movement. The UK remains the only major European country which has never had Greens in its national legislature.
Several developments boost the chance of Britain's first Green MP. The first is that Brighton Pavilion's incumbent Labour member, David Lepper, is standing down. Mr Lepper is a popular local figure. A key factor in his holding on to the seat last time around was that he had voted against the Iraq war.
The Greens' 2005 candidate there, Keith Taylor, scooped 22 per cent of the vote, beating the Liberal Democrats for third place and coming within 1,000 votes of pipping the Tories to second. That was the party's best general election performance.
Another is that dissatisfaction with the Government of Gordon Brown does not, in radical Brighton – perhaps Britain's most "alternative" city – translate into automatic support for the Conservatives. If Ms Lucas is seen as a credible "keep the Tories out" candidate, she will likely attract considerable support.
But the most significant development is the candidature of Caroline Lucas herself, Britain's most accomplished Green politician. Articulate, passionate, radical without seeming threatening, the former Oxfam adviser has been MEP for South-east England for 10 years, and is a world away from the old image of the Green party activist as someone who lived in a tepee eating brown rice.
She presides over a party which has shifted from its purely ecological roots to an identity which might be described as radical social democrat; although still with the most demanding agenda for fighting climate change, and resolutely anti-nuclear, the Greens are now equally concerned with job creation in the recession and defending the NHS.
Besides a solid record of high-profile activism in the European Parliament, Ms Lucas's achievement has been the modernising of her party, by getting it to elect a single leader. For 20 years grassroots Green activists rejected the "cult of leadership", condemning the party to have several figures speaking for it at once, which meant that the focus was hopelessly split and the Greens were consigned to the political wilderness.
The Greens now have their best and highest-profile politician standing, with no diversions of focus, for their most winnable parliamentary seat.
The party has 126 councillors in 43 local authorities across Britain as well as two MEPs, Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert. It intends to field a "half slate" of just under 300 candidates in the forthcoming election, likely to be held in May.
But in what some may see as another sign of its political coming of age, it is concentrating its efforts in just three target seats: Brighton Pavilion, Lewisham Deptford and Norwich South.
In Norwich South, the party's deputy leader, Adrian Ramsay, is standing against the former Labour cabinet minister (and leading critic of Gordon Brown) Charles Clarke. The Greens have 13 councillors in Norwich, making them the official opposition, and came first in the city in last year's Euro elections.
In Lewisham Deptford they will field Darren Johnson, local councillor and chair of the London Assembly, against Joan Ruddock, the minister for Energy and Climate Change; they have six Green councillors in Lewisham and in the most recent local elections polled 27 per cent. But Brighton Pavilion represents their best chance of all, where Ms Lucas may be part of the first all-woman slate in a British general election.
Her Labour opponent is Nancy Platts, a former policy adviser and campaigner in the trade union movement and the voluntary sector; their Tory rival is Charlotte Vere, a businesswoman who is chief executive of an online support network for the emotionally troubled, Big White Wall. The Liberal Democrats have yet to adopt a candidate.
The Greens' hope is that in Brighton Pavilion, they, and not the Tories, will benefit from Labour voters' disenchantment. The ICM poll – at present – bears this out. For not only do the Greens have the greatest support, with 35 per cent; what excites the party campaigners is the large number of centre-left voters, Labour and Liberal Democrats, likely to switch their vote to Green if the party is best placed to stop a Tory win.
Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters polled indicated they would switch, with 37 per cent saying they were "very likely" and 26 per cent saying they were "quite likely" to switch in that situation.
Although the headline on the website of the Labour candidate, Nancy Platts, asserts that "Voting Green Will Mean A Tory MP For Brighton" – by splitting the Labour vote – it is clear that some Brighton Pavilion electors take the opposite view, and consider that voting Green may keep the Conservatives out – with historic consequences.