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Brighton & Hove City Council – return of the Mods

Brighton & Hove Local Elections 2023
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While this year’s election is generally better ground for the Conservatives – with many rural unitary and district councils up – Brighton & Hove City stands out as an urban unitary council in which all seats are up for election in a historically competitive area which has changed hands several times.
Elections since 2003 have produced No Overall Control results, with minority administrations of various hues relying on temporary cooperation on individual council votes during that time. The city was Conservative-led between 2007-11 and the Greens from 2011-15, then Labour-led for five years until the Greens were unexpectedly put back in control between elections in 2020. The reality has been even messier than that travelogue suggests.
Having gained control by building on Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary victory, the Greens’ first period in office was not wholly happy – bin strikes among other major issues ensured it was only one term. By now that feels like ancient history. The Corbyn years were a time of immense upheaval in the local Labour Party. Rejecting the more moderate administration of figures like Warren Morgan, prominent councillors were deselected and replaced by a more “left-wing” cohort. Labour just about hung on as the largest party in 2019 but following expulsions and discipline-influenced resignations (eventually a total of six), the administration fell and the Greens were back in power. This recent history is essential to understanding local politics here.
Labour enters this election after two by-election victories in Conservative seats in the last year. The Wish ward by-election in December 2022 introduced Bella Sankey, a former charity director, who has determinedly stepped into a leadership opportunity that opened once several senior Labour councillors announced they were stepping down.
The size of the Labour victory in Wish was massive – in the words of one campaigner we spoke to “a cakewalk”. It represents a swing that would wipe out the Conservatives on the council. But for us, the most substantial result pointing to a Labour victory was the very low Green vote. At just 190 (7%) this was far below competitive, and several times below the Green total there in 2019. This suggests that Labour is the beneficiary of the Conservatives' national polling woes in Brighton and Hove.
With all the party resignations in the last four years, the current seat totals skew things slightly. It suggests Labour need to gain 12 seats for an overall majority. In fact, the 2019 result is the corrector comparator. Labour only needs eight seats – or three wards’ worth – to gain a majority.

This time round, the Regional Labour Party took control of candidate selection to avoid the upheaval of 2019. As we predicted last year, some moderate councillors from the 2015-19 period have returned to fight for Labour: Warren Morgan, Julie Cattell, and Emma Daniel are all on the ballot again. Experienced members have high hopes for the energetic young members that are standing, too. With the damaging disunity and toxicity of the Corbyn years behind them, Labour candidates are quietly confident.
While Labour may look to mop up some split wards (Goldsmid, Hollingdean and Fiveways, Queen’s Park, Rottingdean Coastal), we expect no Green capitulation. The party should be safe in its town centre strongholds (Brunswick and Adelaide, Preston Park, Regency, St Peter's and North Laine) and may even maintain its 20 seats (19 elected in 2019). But a high turnover of councillors won’t help this defence, and it’s hard to see where Green gains would come from. By our reckoning, Labour was a competitive second place in a good deal more seats than the Greens were, including being second in all but one Conservative seat. Put simply, quite apart from the commanding national poll lead and re-energised local party, it’s easier for Labour to make up the ground.
The Greens have suffered recently over the overdue council loans to the i360 attraction of the seafront, first begun under the 2011-15 Green administration. Leader Phélim Mac Cafferty came in for public criticism in 2021 when he travelled by plane to the COP26 event in Glasgow. This year he admitted his administration’s budget was “not a good budget”.
Labour has also been able to claim victory to point to several U-turns forced on the Green administration. Partially this is a function of the difficulty of the administration needing the support of either the Conservatives or Labour to make policies, and the election campaign so far is primarily defending the record on environmental policy and telling the voter “we could do so much more with a working majority”. Caroline Lucas has featured as much if not more in campaign material than Mac Cafferty.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are in freefall. The local party, in power not so long ago, is on the wrong side of demographic and social changes in the city in the last ten years, and the polling since Partygate. Several prominent councillors have stood down rather than face the music, and the party has failed to run a full slate in the city (fighting all wards, but only 51 of 54 seats). Don’t be surprised if there are zero, or something like three, Conservatives still standing after the counting on 5 May.
Although there are new ward boundaries this year, they are not significant enough to play a deciding factor in Brighton & Hove. Labour’s polling tells us it is doing especially well in liberal urban areas, and Brighton & Hove is certainly that. A newly professional and united party should see them over the 28 seats threshold for a majority. 59 years after the Battle of Brighton Beach, the Mods are back in town.