Vitriol among the voters raises Green hopes of making history

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Indy Politics

It would be a famous victory. It would be a turning point, a historic moment, the event for which the 2005 election, likely to be eminently forgettable in most aspects, would be long remembered by many people.

It would be a famous victory. It would be a turning point, a historic moment, the event for which the 2005 election, likely to be eminently forgettable in most aspects, would be long remembered by many people.

Think about it. Britain's first Green MP ...

That such a political animal does not yet exist at Westminster is a measure of how little we have taken environment-flavoured politics seriously over the past quarter of a century. Contrast us with continental Europe. European legislatures are now stuffed with Green MPs, European governments have had numerous Green cabinet ministers and, look, there's Joschka Fischer, the Green Foreign Minister of Germany, bestriding the continent as one of its most powerful figures.

So, here's a Green candidate, Keith Taylor, bestriding the doorstep of a terraced house, seeking to change all that by persuading the non car-owning householder of the merits of the Greens' public transport policy.

"You want to renationalise the railways," says the householder.

"That's right, it's a key measure," says Mr Taylor.

When a woman walking past spots his big lime-coloured lapel rosette and, without breaking stride, shouts: "I'll be voting Green!" We all turn.

I call out: "Why?" and catch up with her. She gives her name as Liz Smith, she's 45, works in broadcasting and has been a life-long Labour voter. She says, rapidly and with real vitriol: "I'm switching because I'm sick of Labour. I hate what they're doing in Iraq and I'm absolutely sick to death of the spin. I don't believe a word Tony Blair says any more." Then she hurries off.

And there, in the angry words of that brief outburst, you have one half of the reason why Keith Taylor may have a decent chance of breaking his party's Westminster duck and becoming the first Green MP to sit in the mother of parliaments. The other half of the reason is simply the location of Ms Smith's angry outburst. It is in central Brighton. Put anger with Tony Blair together with Brighton and you have a potent mix.

It is a commonplace of this election that people all over the country are intensely resentful of Mr Blair for leading Britain into the Iraq war but it's a pound to a pinch of snuff that nowhere are Labour voters' frustration, dissatisfaction and sense of betrayal simmering in quite such a powerful brew as they are down in that city of elegant Regency squares and terraces on the East Sussex coast.

For Brighton is much more than a seaside resort. It is the capital of alternative Britain. It is one of the very few cities outside London with a noticeable personality all its own. Just as Liverpool is strikingly, defiantly working-class, Brighton is strikingly and defiantly radical, in tone as well as in substance. It's where old hippies go to die.

It was always a resort with a racy feel (Graham Greene's dark romancing of its underworld, Brighton Rock, was published as long ago as 1938) and it always housed a few luvvies (Laurence Olivier set up home here after the war). But in the past couple of decades its raffish, agit-prop character has come to predominate.

It now has a hugely disproportionate number of single households for its size, a huge student population, a big gay and lesbian community, a significant presence of peace and animal rights campaigners and, increasingly, a cohort of big names from showbusiness, music and the media, who have been drawn down from London by the combination of the glamorous and the seedy that gives the city its edge (they will quote back to you approvingly Keith Waterhouse's unforgettable remark that Brighton looks like a town that is helping the police with their inquiries.)

The point about all these people is that they tend to be resolutely anti-establishment, with the older ones having their political roots deep in the student rebellions of the Sixties. ("Old lefties, old hippies, old grungies, old dossers," one local observer said to me, not unaffectionately.) They have not imbibed the realist and compromise spirit of New Labour; they remain firmly ideological. They make up the most fertile possible ground for the seeds of anti-Blair dissent. And they might just take the revolutionary option in the polling booth - in sufficient numbers. "Yes, Brighton's quite a special place," says Keith Taylor, cheerfully munching a breakfast croissant in the Greens' HQ in the Brighton Eco-Centre (next door to the alternative funerals shop, which displays a splendid maroon cardboard coffin in its window.) "We're a radical lot down here."

He is the Green Party candidate for Labour-held Brighton Pavilion, the constituency at the heart of the city, and the one which his party thinks is winnable more than any other in the country. He is 51, divorced with two grown children, a former small businessman who retired after a car accident and got into Green politics through community action: he joined a campaign against a new supermarket and realised there were many other issues he cared about.

He has been a Green Party local councillor in Brighton for six years (one of six) and is now, with the Green MEP Caroline Lucas, one of the national Green party's two "principal speakers" - in effect, co-leader.

He looks rather like a nightclub bouncer in his photos: chunky as a buffalo, with stubbly chin and short haircut. But from even the briefest conversation he emerges as the friendly face of radicalism, with a natural amiability which makes the programme he is putting forward sound reasonable rather than extreme.

He doesn't think Greens need to be saints, he says; he's not a vegetarian. He enjoys a pint. He owns a bike and a bus pass instead of a car but he says the Greens aren't anti-car as such. "Cars have a place in the transport hierarchy. But they need to be a lot less polluting, and we don't need them in city centres."

He thinks it's crazy that the centre of Brighton has perhaps 100 parking spaces for bikes, and thousands of spaces for cars.

He's worked out a joined-up view of life for himself, which he characterises as "making the connections between how we live, what we choose to do, and the effects of that on the environment". And this, together with a commitment to social justice, lets the Green manifesto trip naturally from his tongue: more action on climate change, more public transport, an end to private finance initiatives, scrapping nuclear power, no GM crops, raising taxes for people earning more than £50,000 a year.

Funny, though. When we go out into the streets, people aren't talking so much about these things. Here we are in Sydney Street in North Laine, the very heart of bohemian Brighton - Anita Roddick started the Body Shop right round the corner - and what people are talking about when they talk about Mr Taylor and the possibility of voting for him, is Tony Blair. And giving Mr Blair a bloody nose over Iraq.

"I'm one of the Labour confused," says Sharon Thomas, who runs the Offbeat Coffee Bar ,a shrine to 50s and 60s rock 'n' roll. "I've always been a Labour voter. But I'm thinking of voting Green because I can't stomach the whole war thing. I've had my doubts about whether I should vote anything other than Labour because I don't want to let the Tories in. But Keith Taylor is a strong candidate and I think we should give him a chance."

People up and down the area say the same. But this is the Greens' boho Brighton heartland - they hold all three council seats in the ward. What about further out in the more affluent residential areas?

I talked to Heather Schiller, who works in publishing, is married with a 13-year-old daughter, and is another of Brighton's life-long Labour supporters. "I'm a disaffected Labour voter but I can't quite bring myself not to vote," she said. "I came home last night and thought I might vote for Keith Taylor. It might be quite fun to have a Green MP." Why? "Because the old socialist in me doesn't see any ideological divide between the main parties any more. It's all, 'we will provide cleaner hospitals than you', 'my dad's bigger than your dad'. But when we were young there were real issues between the parties, like nuclear disarmament, and that's what attracts me to the Greens, in a way."

Labour disaffection is hardly the basis of a proper political platform and Keith Taylor is not counting on it to win the Brighton Pavilion constituency.

He wants people to vote for him because of his party's local record and national programme.

But he does point out - at every turn - that the fact that he is thought to be in with a chance means a Green vote is less likely to be a wasted vote.

To a man who asked him directly: "Why should I vote for you?" he replied instantly: "Because you can make history by sending the first Green MP to Westminster."

Can he? On the positive side, the Greens claim they had the highest share of the vote of any of the parties in Brighton Pavilion in the 2003 European elections. (It cannot be stated exactly because of the way the European constituencies are organised.) On the negative side, the man Mr Taylor will have to topple is the sitting Labour MP, David Lepper, and that will be something of a mountain to climb.

Mr Lepper is a local man with a big support base who is popular and widely regarded as a good constituency MP. More importantly - and perhaps crucially - he voted against the war.

Mr Taylor is not at all daunted. He wants to win the seat on the power of his policies. "Anyone would think there's no votes in the environment!" he says.

We'll soon find out.

Brighton Pavilion

* INCUMBENT

David Lepper

Labour/Co-operative

(majority 9,643)

* ELECTION RESULT 2001

Labour 19,846 (48.7%)

Conservative 10,203 (25.1%)

Lib Dem 5,348 (13.1%)

Green 3,806 (9.3%)

* European Election 1999

Labour 32.4%

Conservative 29.2%

Lib Dem 8.9%

* HISTORY

Once firmly Conservative, the Tory vote in Brighton Pavilion has dropped at every election since 1983, and it has been moving to the left for 20 years. A 1995 boundary change helped and in 1997 former teacher and councillor David Lepper won the seat for Labour with a 16 per cent swing, well above the national average. The Greens made a good showing in 2001 and hold four seats on the council. Labour considers it a safe seat.

* SOCIAL PROFILE

Brighton Pavilion's constituents are younger and more affluent than their Brighton Kemptown neighbours. A small number of pensioners and large numbers of students and young professionals mean that 40 per cent of households are single occupancy. Half the population earns over £20,000 a year. The area is a focus for financial services, new media and business conferences, while tourism and leisure remains key to the local economy. The NHS trust employs 5,500 staff and more than 60 per cent of local jobs are skilled non-manual, managerial or technical. The majority of schools are average performing and improving. Castledean Special Primary School came eighth in the national table of schools.

* ISSUES

Health, housing and crime are the three key issues. Healthcare has been a major concern since the Brighton Health Care NHS Trust was awarded no stars in 2001 and a plan was released to move breast cancer services to Haywards Heath. The trust has since been awarded two stars and the cancer unit will stay in Brighton. Housing is expensive due to the town's image as "London by the sea", popular with mobile young professionals. But Brighton and Hove is suffering one of the worst housing shortages in the South-east, with thousands waiting for council properties. House burglary risk is relatively high and a violent crime task force has been set up. Street drinking was banned in 2003 in an effort to reduce anti-social behaviour.

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