openDemocracyUK: Analysis

‘It’s time for change’: Green seeds are ready to sprout in local elections

As the rest of the opposition crumbles, the party traditionally on the fringe has become a viable alternative that serves post-pandemic needs

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
1 May 2021, 12.01am
The Green Party has doubled its running candidates since 2019
John Blower, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“In a lot of ways, this is like coming out of a war,” Andrew Cooper, the Green Party candidate for mayor of West Yorkshire, said when I asked him how canvassing was going.

“People are looking around for change. Business as usual would be a failure, and a lot of people recognise that.”

For many years, Cooper was one of a small number of Green Party councillors in the north of England, a small group across the country, in fact. But in the UK’s local elections next week, he’s aiming to help his party win local authority seats in every council area in South Yorkshire, including Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham, as well as expanding on its already respectable haul in Sheffield.

If they succeed, he predicted: “A certain amount of the ‘red wall’ will become a ‘green wall’.” It’s plausible.

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In May 2019, the Green Party doubled its vote to come second across Burnley, an area that got a lot of media attention in the mid-2000s because of its support for the BNP. That year – the last round of local elections in the UK because 2020’s were delayed to 2021 by lockdown – the party took 265 seats in England, 194 more than the previous election in the same cycle: a 273% increase.

A total of 2,700 people are running as Green Party of England and Wales candidates in this year’s local elections, which makes up 59% of the 5,000 seats up for grabs compared with only 29% in 2019 – and ten times more than the next biggest party, the rebranded front for Faragism, ReformUK.

Perhaps more starkly, 2,700 is about the same number of Green members as there were in the UK when I joined the Scottish Greens in 2001. And Green activists from Merseyside to South Tyneside tell me that they are feeling cheerful, as Keir Starmer silences Labour, the Lib Dems disappear, and a generation politicised by austerity, Brexit and climate change hunt for someone to cheer.

For years, the Greens were one of a number of smaller parties, a pebble in a fast-flowing stream of ‘others’. This year, the party is no longer the steadiest of the small parties. It’s the smallest of the big parties.

The navigator

I first met Chris Williams on a bright spring morning outside a cafe in Barcelona in 2005. I had just arrived from Edinburgh as the Scottish representative to the Federation of Young European Greens. He – smiley, gentle, lanky – turned out to be my English counterpart.

For the next decade and a half, when I ran into him, he would usually be studying a street map or a spreadsheet, or weighing out leaflets, or giving a PowerPoint presentation in some dusty church hall: learning, and then teaching fellow activists, how a small party can win elections with almost no media coverage because of, rather than despite, its radical principles. By understanding, rather than exploiting, the alienation gnawing at British politics.

These days, he is the national election co-ordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, the calm hand guiding the national effort.

“We’re finding the Labour vote very, very brittle,” he told me. Winning votes from Starmer’s party, he said, is “like putting a knife through butter”.

“The Tory vote is firmer than in 2019,” but, “in ‘red wall’ seats, they still feel that Labour isn’t listening, that Labour don’t get them, that Labour don’t understand you.”

As well as his role in the party, Williams is a councillor in Solihull in the West Midlands, sitting on 75% of the vote in a ward made up largely of former council-owned tower blocks. “People say they are hurting,” he said, and “the main thing they say is, ‘The Labour Party doesn’t care about me’”.

He is hopeful of Green gains across Scotland and England. But most of the places he listed – Barnsley, Stockport, Rotherham, Doncaster, Knowsley – are exactly the sorts of ‘red wall’ areas that much of the media insists won’t vote Labour because the party is too ‘woke’. The areas that, were you to believe the media-pundit-complex, are inhabited solely by caricatures of some imagined ‘white working class’ who, the stereotype insists, must despise nothing more than the Green Party.

Strange then that many of these very people appear likely to vote Green next week.

Labour’s failures

“Labour’s organisation on the ground is just embarrassing,” said Williams. Giving the example of the West Midlands mayoral election, where the Labour MP Liam Byrne is standing, he described the party’s campaign materials as “shoddy, embarrassing – the kind of thing that we would all produce when we’re just learning to fight an election”.

He continued: “This stuff just seems so basic, I just don’t understand why Labour can’t get a leaflet which is something you’d want to engage with,” adding: if you “can’t even produce a leaflet that is semi-legible”, then you aren’t going to win.

Speaking to both Labour and Green members across the country, this is a remarkably consistent theme: Labour has dulled the energy of Corbynism, but failed to bring back the slickness of Blairism. And so instead, the practical job of running local campaigns is, in many places, left to greying councillors with few ideas and no sense of how to communicate them.

However, Labour’s failures are more than cosmetic, said Andy Fewings, a Green councillor for the Trinity ward in central Burnley, which he describes as “one of the most deprived wards in the country. The average reading age is low and the unemployment rate is around 50%.” He said he was “quietly confident” that the Greens could pick up the larger county council division, which includes this ward, in this year’s Lancashire County Council elections.

Much of his party’s success, he said, has been the result of Labour’s failure to do the hard work of listening to and representing working-class people. “We challenge the council to perform the services they are meant to be performing,” he told me. And by listening, he said he has heard how people in his ward feel “taken for granted” by the party they traditionally voted for.

But he also believes that Labour’s failure to listen to voters in places like Burnley means that they have failed to understand the roles played by nationalism and racism in their politics.

Rather than listening to working class communities, Labour took advantage for too long

Racism is, of course, present throughout British society. But Fewings doesn’t think it’s more common in the community he represents than in other parts of the country. “There are racists in every town,” he said, “but their views were and remain in the minority.”

However, he said the BNP “went to people who really are poor and said ‘this isn’t your fault’,” while pointing the blame for their poverty at the local British-Asian community. And at the height of British neoliberalism, when much of public discourse individualised blame and responsibility, and told people who were struggling that it was because of their own failures, “it was probably quite nice for them to have someone come and knock on their door and tell them that ‘this isn’t your fault’.”

And when they did vote for the BNP, “the people of this town, who are generally ignored, got a lot of attention, and got told they are racist, and many responded by saying, ‘Fine, I’m racist’.”

He added: “Frankly, people aren’t responsible for their poverty.” But rather than representing these communities, listening to them, and demanding the changes they needed, Labour “took advantage” for too long.

“Appeasing the minority’s racism” would have been a mistake, he said. However, “Labour simply had no new answers, so in the end they just offered voters silence after the BNP had spread their divisive message”.

And he said that in recent months, the Labour Party has been too quick to listen to the right-wing media’s account of what was going on, rather than doing the hard work of knocking on doors and finding out.

Alienation is rife

Kai Taylor, a Green councillor in Knowsley, Merseyside, makes a similar argument. He said that when refugees were placed in the working-class areas he represents that are overwhelmingly white, on the whole, the reception was warm: “White working-class people have more in common with refugees than we do with the political elite in Westminster.

“Working-class people, in general, are very understanding of the hardships other people face. I don’t think they’re the ones who are typically racist.”

He said that Labour’s problem in working-class areas like the one he represents isn’t its failure to wave the union flag with sufficient vigour, but much more fundamental. “The writing’s been on that red wall for a while now.”

In part, he blames Labour councils. In Merseyside, the corruption scandals around Boris Johnson intertwine with those involving the Labour-run Liverpool city council to create a sense that both major Westminster parties are at it. And even without corruption, he described many Labour councils across the north as “alienating”. And partly, the party is too obsessed with itself: “One Labour member said, ‘We’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves to worry about you’.”

There is a sense felt across the UK that Britain’s political system is deeply corrupt. And while many manifestations of this belief are nonsense, the reason the narrative persists is that, ultimately, it is true. And politicians who have succeeded in the past decade are those whose strategy has started by acknowledging that basic fact.

Labour’s promise to deliver benefits to voters frays as soon as people stop trusting your pledges

The Scottish National Party (SNP), the most electorally successful party in modern Britain, has a simple solution: independence from the British state. UKIP blamed the EU. Johnson encouraged people to vote politics away, to “get Brexit done”, and leave the market and the old ruling class to get on with it.

However, none of this works for Labour, which, over the past century has become deeply embedded in the leather benches of the Palace of Westminster and is really rooted in working-class communities only in the sense that it sucks the energy out of them – as the people of central Burnley attest.

While the Tories can rely on the power and mythology of the ruling class, Labour depends on its promise to use its mastery of the British state to deliver material benefits to its voters. And that strategy frays as soon as people stop trusting your pledges: using politics to improve lives doesn’t attract support if people have lost faith in the political system.

In a patchwork of places across the country, the Greens have been able to show up, fresh-faced and recently re-energised by the collapse of Corbynism, Brexit and the school climate strikes, and step from outside that system and into this void. Just as the SNP found when it started seriously campaigning in Labour’s former Scottish heartlands 20 years ago, there are communities waiting to be organised.

But there is a risk in all of this.

While radical changes to the power structures that dominate the country may benefit most people, it’s important to understand that there are also conflicts between people’s interests. Those enriched by the current economic system need to be made to pay more tax. Oil executives need to have their businesses shut down. Male power and white privilege need to be challenged, and you can’t break up a heteronormative world without upsetting those who snuggle comfortably under its assumptions.

Avoiding other parties’ pitfalls

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Liberal Democrats built up bases of support across the country, representing the beliefs and interests of an increasingly broad array of different communities. And then, in 2010, the party discovered that those communities thought radically different things, and that its members had been saying increasingly divergent things to them in order to get elected.

When these contradictions came under the pressure of decisions about real political power, it’s no surprise that the rich and powerful won out. The result was disastrous, both for the party, and the country.

For Greens to avoid this fate, the party needs to embrace these conflicts rather than hiding them away. It needs to understand that pissing off the powerful is part of its job, that there are some suburbs in the stockbroker belt that it can’t honestly represent.

And as well as being honest, embracing conflict is also politically sensible. Too often, Greens are afraid of being attacked by the right-wing press and other outriders of the status quo. But in reality, the opposite of being controversial is being ignored: a fate Greens have too often embraced, for fear of a fight.

The Green Party also needs to learn from the mistakes of Labour. It’s too easy, as a party gains power, for it to be inducted into the establishment. Ralph Miliband documented how this happened to early Labour MPs in the 1920s, as they were toured around London clubs by the cleverer members of the ruling class, allowed to represent their voters so long as they played by the rules.

We see a version of this in today’s Labour Party. As the Murdochs and Rothermeres move against Johnson, Starmer seems to think that if he quietly waits in line with a neat haircut and follows the rules, then eventually he’ll be allowed to govern. But in reality, that’s rarely how it works. In the British state, the next in line to a Tory prime minister is almost always another Tory.

For England’s Greens to have any hope of actually changing the country, the party needs to be definitive about not wanting to become part of the establishment. Instead, it needs to rip apart the unwritten rulebook whose codes, laws and lores are at the core of why people think the British state is dysfunctional and corrupt; to secure for England – and, probably independently, Wales and Scotland – more genuine democracy. As I’ve argued before, the Greens should campaign to abolish Westminster. The aim is not to become the establishment, but to disband it.

A vision for the future

For Natalie Bennett, former leader of the England and Wales Greens and one of the party’s peers, it’s also important that the party has what she calls a “coherent political philosophy”.

Once you accept the resource constraints of a limited planet, she said: “There’s two obvious ends of the political spectrum.” Either, you believe “there’s enough resources for everyone if we share them out fairly” or, you have “a far-right authoritarian government which says, ‘It’s a difficult, dangerous world and you need a strong man to protect you’”.

The former, she says, is “a vision of hope and empowerment”, the latter, “a greedy philosophy built on fear”. And because her party has what she sees as “a unified vision”, it is less at risk of falling into the same trap as the Lib Dems. She said that for this election, that vision is paramount.

“What’s really clear is that we are in the last zombie days of neoliberalism,” she said. As a result of the pandemic, “people are saying the old answers just don’t work any more… [they are] looking round for something different... for profound change. The nearest historical comparison is the 1970s.”

A Green wave?

In the past few Scottish elections, the Greens have polled relatively well early on, and then suffered from an SNP surge at the end. It’s almost a week to go until polling day, so everything could change. But, if anything, the opposite appears to be happening. As voters make up their minds, it does seem like more are walking the other way along this familiar path.

Pay homage to data wizards across the political spectrum, and they’ll whisper their predictions. And one of this year’s secrets is that the Scottish Green Party is expected to enjoy a significant increase in their tally of MSPs.

In London, polls show that the English Green’s co-leader and mayoral candidate, Siân Berry, is on course for her party’s best ever result, perhaps picking up an extra Assembly seat on the way. Meanwhile, the two polls for West Midlands mayor have put the party on 8% and 5% – hardly a revolution, but a respectable figure for a party that, a decade ago, could expect 1-2% outside a shortlist of target areas.

This summer, I’ll have been a Green member for 20 years. I’ve lived through more dashed hopes and election night tears than triumphs. And of course, this year could be another one of those. But two things are striking.

The first is that, despite all those setbacks, the steady progress led by senior members such as Chris Williams and Natalie Bennett has meant that the party is incomparably bigger and more impressive than the one that we joined in the 2000s. And the second is that many of the ideas that it promoted then, which were treated as marginal even on the Left, have become popular demands across the country.

In politics, change happens gradually, then all at once; quietly, then bang. For British political journalists obsessed with the gossip of Westminster, the local election successes of England’s fourth party are unlikely to make front-page news. But these are the sorts of quiet seeds from which great trees can sprout.

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