You wouldn’t have predicted it. Just five years after the EU referendum, voters in Leave strongholds from Hastings to Sunderland deserted Labour in favour of the anti-Brexit Greens. As the Conservatives’ triumph in the Hartlepool by-election dominated the headlines, the environmentalist party was also celebrating. It was the quiet victor of this month’s local elections, gaining representation on 18 councils and coming third in the London mayoral election.
Previously denigrated as the party of fringe concerns, the Greens are now in contention to be the UK’s third largest party, the majority of their support being in urban areas with a high proportion of young people and graduates. In Bristol, whose Black Lives Matter movement made headlines last summer, they’re the largest party in local government, and candidate Sian Berry forced the Labour mayor into a run-off election. Given its urban and often youthful base, Green voters have been sneeringly dismissed as extremists by right wing pundits keen on stoking the culture war between left and right. Their message is that Greens are the ultra-woke of British politics – the party average voters avoid.
The latest local election results throw that narrative into question. While many Green gains occurred in areas with a high concentration of young people, they have also unexpectedly took seats in leafy Conservative market towns in the south of England, such as Beccles in Suffolk, as well as working class red wall regions with high levels of social deprivation such as South Tyneside.
In Sunderland, the Green vote surged to 16.3% in the ward of Washington South, losing the Labour incumbent their seat. Sunderland’s Labour Party is suffering from problems locally but this alone does not explain the shift from Labour to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in a previously Leave region.
What do these results mean for other parties? It is impossible to understate how much the Green Party’s success is tied to the current woes of Labour, its mainstream rival on the left. Labour is blighted by apparently bland leadership, and disillusionment among those who previously championed Jeremy Corbyn and who feel uneasy about the party’s shift to the centre ground.
It’s easy to see why the Greens might appeal to left wing voters when Labour’s current offering wouldn’t: the Green Party’s agenda is positive and easy to envision, while Labour has failed to produce any policies under its new leader.
Part of this is attributable to the pandemic. But Labour’s campaigning since Starmer entered office has mostly been in the negative: drawing attention to Conservative sleaze without putting forward a positive alternative. And for voters seeking a firm commitment to green issues, the Labour Party appears lacklustre.
Some will contrast Labour’s current leadership with the policy agenda pushed when it was under Corbyn and be left underwhelmed: the latter was committed to the Green New Deal, an American-inspired policy of direct state investment in green infrastructure and technology designed to bolster economic growth and employment. Starmer’s Labour currently lacks such a vision.
Perhaps the Green Party is following the trajectory of its sister on the continent, Die Grünen in Germany, albeit several decades later. Die Grünen held power in the German Bundestag as part of a coalition government between 1998 and 2005 after spending decades on the fringes.
It will be a challenge for the UK to emulate this achievement, because the Greens in Germany benefit from a proportional electoral system that bolsters representation of small and outsider parties. First past the post favours large, established parties and reduces the frequency of power-sharing coalitions. Still, the Greens have achieved electoral success in parliament, in Brighton Pavilion with their firebrand Caroline Lucas.
The party is eyeing up two other seats for future general elections following Green majorities achieved in those areas during the local elections: Bristol West and Sheffield Central. But it will be a tough mountain to climb. In Bristol West, Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire enjoys a 28,000 majority; in Sheffield Central Labour holds a similar majority of 27,000.
Complicating the picture is the Greens’ performance in the devolved nations. The party has traditionally struggled to make inroads in Wales, and this trend continued in these latest elections. In Scotland, however, the battleground looks slightly different: the question over independence has pushed some voters in the direction of the Greens, who provide a more radical left wing alternative to the SNP for supporters of separatism. Their future success will depend partly on whether the UK central government grants Scotland a second independence referendum.
One way mainstream parties can buck the Green surge is to go green themselves. One of the Greens’ main challenges over the coming years will be to distinguish itself from the Lib Dems, traditionally the third party of choice for many left-leaning voters.
The Greens’ co-chair Jonathan Bartley has already ruled out an electoral pact with them. The Lib Dems have risen to the threat by being early supporters of green legislation: Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney has been a vocal proponent of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, a Private Member’s Bill proposed by Caroline Lucas that seeks to hold future governments to account if they fail to meet the UK’s international obligations on climate change.
The spotlight will likely turn to the bill as the UK heads into the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in early November. A smattering of Labour MPs have already committed to supporting it: but whether the rest of the party will seek to ride the green wave by following them remains to be seen. It might be one route left for the mainstream to neuter the accelerating Green vote.
For now, it looks like the Greens are here to stay, and their recent gains make them strong contenders to be the UK’s third largest party. But the Greens’ weakness is much the same as the Labour Party’s: their supporter bases remain predominantly left-leaning, socially liberal, higher-educated and youthful.
In this early stage of the Greens’ success, this may not matter: they can focus on winning seats in middle class strongholds in urban areas. But if it is to break into the mainstream in future decades it needs to win with more socially conservative leftists in the north and elsewhere.
Doing so will prove difficult: the Conservative Party’s apparent commitment to law and order appeals to them, while the sometimes illegal protests of fringe environmentalist groups such as Extinction Rebellion will leave a sour taste in their mouths. But whether the Greens are an electoral challenge to other left wing parties is only one half of the argument: their gains in these recent elections give them the soft power to transform future left wing legislation.
So whatever their electoral future, their power will lie in their ability to change the trajectory of left wing politics across the UK. How they decide to harness that power will shape the British left for years to come.
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