openDemocracyUK: Opinion

From stagnation to transformation: Where next for the Green Party?

Remco van der Stoep
22 January 2020
Caroline Lucas at an anti-Trump demonstration in June 2018
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Green Party of England and Wales

Would Caroline Lucas, or indeed anyone in the Green Party, have guessed back in 2010, when Lucas won the Brighton Pavilion seat and became the UK’s first Green MP, that three general elections on, she would still be the party’s sole representative in the House of Commons?

It was widely believed that once the party had made its initial breakthrough under first-past-the-post, the road to a steadily growing Westminster representation would be open. Now, three fruitless attempts on, it’s time for a rethink.

The situation is one of great irony. The Greens’ policies and priorities have been consistent over the past decade – much more so than those of other progressive parties – and they are being vindicated in many ways, not least by seeing much of their 2015 manifesto transposed into subsequent Labour Party manifestos, with the notable exception of the Greens’ commitment to electoral reform.

Environmental concerns are becoming a priority for the electorate, reflected in a campaign which saw Channel 4 host a dedicated climate debate and other parties attempting to out-green the Greens. The website Vote for Policies consistently finds that the Green Party’s policies are among the most popular, with one in five people seeking voting advice there receiving a recommendation to vote Green. The Green Party’s aims and work are getting increasing recognition from civil society organisations and public figures. Clearly, it is doing something right. But being a political party, the only real currency is that of votes, and however much vindication and sympathy it receives, it won’t feel like accomplishment until it translates into more Green MPs.

Of course, Westminster elections aren’t the only measure of electoral success and the Green Party has seen some decent results over recent years. The party doubled its number of councillors in the past year and now has more local representation than ever before, and the 2019 European election saw the Greens take 12 percent of the vote nationally, giving the party seven MEPs. There’s also the success of the Scottish Greens, a separate party, whose six MSPs currently hold the balance of power in Holyrood, holding a minority SNP government to account, and two Green Assembly members now lead the opposition against the cross-community government in Northern Ireland’s newly reconvened Assembly. But in the public eye – partly due to chronic underrepresentation in mainstream media coverage – the Green Party remains to a large extent a fringe movement, not a political force to be reckoned with. It’s hard to see how that will change if not through general election success.

Learning and adapting in a tight space

To some commentators, the absence of further general election success stories – aside from the ever-growing majority Caroline Lucas enjoys in her Brighton Pavilion constituency – is down to a failure of strategy, leadership, or both, at the heart of the Green Party. Such criticisms are overly harsh, as well as lazy. They fail to recognise that within the limited breathing space available to the party, it has done reasonably well to learn and adapt, general election after general election.

Between 2010 and 2015 the party built its local presence across England and Wales and carved out a space to the left of the Labour party, which, helped by a favourable public mood, culminated in the ‘Green surge’ – a mass flock of new members to the party and, eventually, its best ever general election result in terms of national vote share – 3.8 percent.

What the Green surge didn’t produce was additional Green Party MPs. Incidentally, it also boosted the number of progressive tragedy constituencies – seats where a Tory MP got elected only because the split of the progressive vote. So, in 2017, as Labour under Corbyn had moved considerably in the Green direction, and the Tories had become populist hard-Brexit advocates, the Green Party embraced the Progressive Alliance – to stop a Tory landslide and, just as much, to demonstrate the power and potential of collaboration in politics. It was hoped that by doing the right thing, hearts and minds within Labour and beyond would be won over, with electoral reform as the prize.

Despite the considerable impact of the Progressive Alliance, it was not to be. The Green Party’s own vote share collapsed, and Labour’s tribal instincts told it to aim for the remaining Green votes, rather than acknowledging the virtue and the potential of progressive cross-party collaboration. A bruising experience for the party and many of its supporters, but one that allowed it to find new strength, as the seed of the Progressive Alliance was not going to un-sow itself. It was, in fact, germinating in various places and in various ways.

Come 2019 the Greens found themselves bolstered by a ‘European Green Wave’, and its bold stance on Brexit and climate breakdown contributed to unprecedented electoral success in local and European elections that year - possibly boosted in part by voters who opted to reward the Green Party for its constructive attitude to the Progressive Alliance in 2017. And indeed, local progressive alliances with Liberal Democrats and others had something to do with the many gains made in the local elections. This in turn paved the way for what was eventually known as ‘Unite to Remain’ – a bold electoral pact that the Green Party agreed with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, involving 60 constituencies across England and Wales.

Unite to Remain was in many ways a natural successor to the Progressive Alliance, but crucially for the Green Party, this alliance was more equitable, with the Greens running on behalf of the three-party alliance in ten constituencies. Faced with the familiar barrier of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system and on the back of the strong showing in the European elections, participating in Unite to Remain was clearly the right thing to do for the Green Party, offering the best available route to electoral progress.

The tragedy is that, for its main purpose, it didn’t work – none of the participating parties increased their seats tally. But to say that therefore, the pact itself was a failure, is to ignore the complex reality of the campaign and the result. The Green Party’s best results were in seats where it was backed by Unite to Remain. While in other seats its vote went up by an average of just one percent, in Unite to Remain-backed seats there was an average vote share increase of 6.9 percent. The Green Party came second in two constituencies; both of these were Unite to Remain seats. Crumbs, perhaps, but a clear indication that the pact enhanced the realm of what was – or would have been – electorally possible.

The depressing bottom line, however, is that the prospect of further Green Party MPs entering the House of Commons under the current electoral system remains remote. There have been Green surges and waves, progressive and Remain alliances – their impact has been felt and lasts to this day – but being a Green MP in Westminster remains a lonely affair for Caroline Lucas. So, what should the party do now?

Three strategic choices

First of all, the Green Party needs to carry out a serious and brutally honest review of its 2019 election strategy and campaign. It should ask itself the difficult questions and ask them until there is a full and satisfactory response to each of them. Why didn’t the election give us further Green MPs? Why did the broad public support for climate action not translate in many more Green votes? How did we spend more money on lost deposits than we received in donations? What caused so many of those who voted Green in local and European elections to vote differently in the general election?

On that last question, a recent article by Emiliano Grossman in the Green European Journal makes some interesting points. He writes about the French Greens, but the picture is quite similar. Grossman believes that Greens need to make three strategic choices to persuade voters to stick with them in national elections, and the first one is about putting the environment front and centre again.

Ecological prism

His concern is that in their pursuit of recognition as a full political party in its own right, Greens have ceded ground to others on the big themes of climate and environment. This is certainly true in the UK context – even if the Greens’ policies are still the most ambitious. Now that climate and environmental issues increasingly guide people’s voting behaviour, the Green Party must be recognised and trusted as the obvious political force to address voters’ concerns. For the party, that means finding the confidence for a bold change of tone; the confidence to be its ecological self. Not by neglecting other themes, but by framing them, as Grossman puts it, “through an ecological prism”. To that I would add that this prism should work both ways, and that the power of our green narrative depends on its ability to encompass equality, social and racial justice, and democracy.

An outward-looking party

The second strategic choice Grossman identifies is about becoming more open and outward-looking, especially vis-à-vis younger generations. The Greens often say that they are, or want to be, the political wing of the climate movement, and their politicians certainly put in the extra mile to support activists from Extinction Rebellion, the youth climate strike movement, and the wider environmentalist movement. Nevertheless, that seemingly small and logical step from supporting climate activism to voting Green – not to mention joining the Green Party – isn’t yet commonplace. And while there are many factors at work here, some of it may well be down to the party itself.

Green Party activism could be much more rooted in communities and civil society, and a good deal more accommodating to people with diverse backgrounds and interests than it has been in recent years. In my view, the culprit is the party hierarchy’s obsession with a reasonably effective method for winning seats in local elections, dubbed ‘target to win’. Somehow, over time this has evolved from a method to a philosophy, and the first thing a new activist will be briefed about as they come along to their first local party gathering. Enter the Green Party and you enter a tunnel at the end of which there is an extra Green councillor at the next local election.

It’s easy to see how – while the prospect may be an attractive one to some – this can be a turn-off for those whose activism is driven by deep concerns about the impending climate catastrophe. It’s a disconnect that grates – to paraphrase Stephen Clark: “are we trying to have 10 Green MPs by the end of the century, or are we saving the planet?”. The Green Party will only ever become the political wing of the climate movement if its culture and its own activism become more accommodating to its allies in the broader movement. It needn’t be a sacrifice: if the party successfully transforms itself into a relevant political home for all environmentally-minded activists, it will be far better placed to achieve those electoral gains that it’s tirelessly targeting.

Aim for power

Grossman’s third strategic choice is about power. He urges the French Greens to make “the necessary sacrifices” by putting everything “at the service of taking power”. This too, seems highly relevant for the Green Party of England and Wales. In fact, the party’s strategy is already moving in that direction. Not only through its willingness to enter into electoral pacts with other progressive parties, but also, admirably, through the Ten Bills pledge in its 2019 general election manifesto – a clear statement of intent that tells voters that, yes, a Green Party majority government is not on the cards, but here’s how the Green MPs that you help elect will make a difference regardless, immediately.

It’s in that vein that the Greens can grow their political influence and what it implicitly acknowledges is that this means working with other parties. In the Westminster context, this especially means coming to an understanding with the Labour party. Much will depend on who Labour chooses to be its next leader: the prospects of fruitful collaboration would have been greatest with a Clive Lewis-led party – for whose daring and visionary leadership fellow Labour MPs weren’t ready – but Greens must be prepared to deal with any new leader of the opposition. The concept of a ‘Green New Deal’ appears a potent vehicle for some strategic alignment between progressive opposition parties, and the overall ordeal of a Johnson majority government inflicting Brexit on the country ought to provide a further impetus for pragmatic collaboration.

This will leave some in the Green Party rightly concerned about the party’s electoral prospects. Its political profile and relevance will take a substantial hit on the 31st of January, when with the withdrawal of all of the UK’s MEPs seven of the ten highest-profile Green Party elected representatives will no longer be elected representatives. With the obvious need for progressive collaboration in Westminster, the party will need to find ways to retain its own voice and to demonstrate its influence. Its electoral strategy must acknowledge and address this challenge – while also embracing the reality that Green influence, power, is found in the party’s ability to influence and work with its fellow progressive parties.

Get the green transformation done

This leaves the Green Party with a big and urgent open question on how it will fight the next general election. Urgent, not because an election is imminent, but because a radical change of course would need to be initiated as soon as possible, for it to have enough of an impact. We’re not in a position yet to be able to say in which way the Greens’ electoral strategy should change, but to say that it should change is nothing more than stating the obvious. The party must be brave and thorough, and invite a wide range of ideas and suggestions, all of which should be given serious consideration.

Perhaps the Green Party should push to form a united opposition with the other progressive parties and to participate in the next general election as such, provided that electoral reform is in the joint manifesto – see here. Perhaps it should show other progressives the way by inviting them to run joint candidate selection processes – see here. Perhaps, in the event of an unlearning tribal Labour party, the Greens have no choice but to target marginal seats and hurt Labour’s prospects there – see Molly Scott Cato’s article here: “We must act with the wisdom to make strategic decisions in the interests of the politics that we represent and no longer allow a failed Labour Party to set the terms of our electoral strategy or ambition”.

Perhaps the Green Party should stick with a ‘coalition of the willing’, take Unite to Remain to the next level, and put the climate at the centre of it; ‘Unite to Remain Alive’, anyone? Perhaps the party should accept that its general election campaigns under FPTP are – aside from a handful of constituencies – a wasted effort, and adopt an approach like that of the Women’s Equality Party, explicitly seeking to win the arguments rather than the seats.

There will be other options – some more and some less radical than those described here. The point is this: none of them should be rejected out of hand. With a decade of general election stagnation under our belt, despite our collective efforts, we’re not in a position to be either cautious or complacent – especially in light of the climate emergency that now requires the exact opposite of a decade of stagnation.

So, let’s have the conversations. Let’s get to the bottom of the question what it means to be the political wing of the climate movement, and let’s bring its activists to the table too. Let’s start from the question what our living world needs from our politics and follow that up with the question what our politics then need from the Green Party. Let’s not shy away from congratulating ourselves on what we have achieved, but let’s also be honest and humble and admit that it’s far from enough. Let’s get the green transformation done.

Compass Greens, a loose collective of Green Party members and supporters within Compass, is starting the conversation now, with the aim to develop a set of radical strategy options that can inspire discussion at the Greens’ spring conference and beyond. Please write to [email protected] if you want to participate.

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