The Green Surge: Is the Green Party the Way Forward?

With the successes of the Green Party in the 2021 local elections and their ongoing commitment to left-wing policies, political economist and campaigner Tom Pashby explains why it's time to take the party seriously.

WORDS Tom Pashby

The Green Party of England and Wales did well in the 2021 local elections – perhaps unexpectedly – leading some to describe the results as “quietly seismic” for climate politics. While it has been suggested that the Greens gained this advantage through taking ‘Labour votes’ since the UK’s main left of centre party had alienated its left-wing members under Keir Starmer, this is not representative of the complete picture – the Green party also took seats in traditionally Conservative areas. Even though many of these wins were unexpected, this phenomenon of a ‘Green Surge’ is not new. Rather, it illustrates a welcome, renewed appetite for change and a desire to do things differently.

The Greens have historically sat well to the left of Labour, including under Corbyn, ever since Natalie Bennett’s – now Baroness Bennett – leadership made the Green party more explicitly anti-austerity and pro-investment in public services. Today, high profile Green policies include support for a Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, rent controls and paying reparations for the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Afrikans. Labour committed to a Green Industrial Revolution, which was less ambitious than the Green New Deal, but, under Keir Starmer, even that seems to have taken a back seat. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are no way near to implementing any of those policies, despite some lip service having been paid to a Green Industrial Revolution, with their commitment to net zero still lacking any decent short term investment.

The Green Surge

The last time we saw a ‘Green Surge’ was in the 2014 local and European parliamentary elections, when Bennett’s leadership – had succeeded in articulating an image of the party which stretched beyond single issue environmentalism, instead centring social justice as integral to climate justice – this led to some of the highest membership of the Green party to date. However, the 2014 successes for the Greens were tempered by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party in 2015. In fact, the Green Party’s membership figures dropped to around half of their peak during the Bennett Green Surge due to left-wing activists instead backing  Corbyn’s Labour.

This shift in support away from the Greens – of largely young, highly educated, left-wing voters – put a dent in the number of members and, therefore, of volunteers willing to go out and knock on doors; but in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, the Greens saw a 133 per cent increase in the number of MEPs (from 3 to 7). Though those European parliamentary seats were short-lived due to Brexit, these wins highlighted the ongoing and increasing popularity of the Green party.

This phenomenon of a ‘Green Surge’ is not new. Rather, it illustrates a welcome, renewed appetite for change and a desire to do things differently.

Fast forward to the present day, and we’ve just seen significant Green gains in Bristol, as well as new Green territory opening up in Sheffield and Suffolk, at the 2021 local elections. In Brighton, where the Greens are the minority administration on the city council, they also gained a seat off the Labour party at a by-election – which was surprising given that parties in power often face a drop in popularity – and represents a big boost for the largest party in the city.

Despite the apparently steadfast vote for Labour at Westminster elections, the Green party took a huge swing at the 2021 local elections in Bristol, eventually tying with the Labour party on numbers of council seats. This is likely to have been down to a combination of factors, including Keir Starmer’s disappointing offer to left wing Labour activists, a failure by the Labour mayor to properly embrace social and environmental justice issues, and a more tempting set of policies from the Green party, such as ending the dominance of cars in the city centre, rent controls, and Universal Basic Income. 

This surge in support for the Greens poses big questions for the other parties. For instance, Labour needs to decide whether it wants to exclude completely the left wing element from their party, which appears to be their strategy under Starmer. And the Conservatives need to decide whether they are serious about environmentalism – serious enough to tempt back traditional small C conservatives who are concerned about the climate and ecological emergency.

What does this mean for Labour and the Conservatives?

Since the Greens are seen today as the most left-wing of the major British parties represented in Westminster, you might be surprised to learn that the Green party was, in fact, started by a group of Conservative councillors. Arguably the Greens are still a conservative movement, insofar as the party is trying to conserve the Earth – the one planet that is accessible to all people. The party’s radicalism is based in addressing the root causes of the challenges we face today, like the neoliberal state imposing brutal borders and cuts to public services, and insatiable capitalism destroying the natural world. 

Greens often claim to be able to draw support from right across the political spectrum. Voters don’t generally fit into neat partisan boxes, which opens up the possibility of convincing a wider range of constituencies to support the Green Party. Regarding the Labour party, the Greens can present a tempting more leftwing alternative, meanwhile for the Conservatives, Greens can offer genuine opposition to environmental destruction on issues such as coal mining and HS2.

It is unsurprising that the Establishment parties have tended to adopt the Green’s party’s more popular policies.

However, despite the broad reach of the party, most of the support for the Greens does still come from the left of the political divide, particularly from younger university-educated people in urban centres – this was especially the case when Baroness Bennett was leading the party. With this voter-base being an attractive demographic to garner support from due to their relatively large population, and the alignment of their values with the Green party’s political philosophy, it is unsurprising that the Establishment parties have tended to adopt the Green’s party’s more popular policies. For example, Labour are regularly accused of copying Green policies within political circles – just with a lag of a few years – on everything from a Green New Deal and abolishing tuition fees, to renationalising the railways.

Conservatives have also attempted to shun the climate science denialism that their party flirted within the 2010s in the run-up to the UK’s presidency of the international climate summit due to be held in Glasgow in November this year. If there wasn’t a real threat of the Green party taking votes from Labour and the Conservatives, one can imagine that the Establishment parties would have been happy to be far more complacent with their policies on environmentalism.

Learning and changing

While the Green party has clearly established a seat at the table, what remains to be seen is whether Greens can make inroads outside of well-established demographics of support into, for instance, communities of colour and working class voters. There is a significant lack of support from working class people for the Green party according to a 2019 poll by YouGov, and public- facing Greens are seen as, and often are, overwhelmingly white and middle class.

Recent local election wins saw an increase in diversity across the intersections of gender, age, class, and ethnicity of Green party councillors.

However, the party is taking action to bridge this gap in their supporter base. Recent local election wins saw an increase in diversity across the intersections of gender, age, class, and ethnicity of Green party councillors, with Bristol electing an 18-year-old Green councillor, who is also the co-chair of the youth and student wing of the party, and a 49-year-old former -Labour-supporting Somali migrant. The party has recently made progress in work behind the scenes to better represent working class Greens. Moreover, in 2017, the Green Party of England and Wales and the liberation group Greens of Colour launched the Deyika Fund in memory of Green activist and Manchester mayoral candidate Deyika Nzeribe. The fund raised over £20,000 soon after its launch in 2017, and will be used to support the election of members of the Green party who are people of colour to public office. This would build on a number of successful recent election campaigns by Greens of Colour, including Magid Magid who was Lord Mayor of Sheffield and an MEP, as well as Cleo Lake who was the Lord Mayor of Bristol.

Support from LGBTQIA+ people also dipped when Greens became embroiled in anti-trans activism from 2016 onwards, where a small but vocal minority of supposedly Green supporters started campaigning against the party’s policies on trans rights. While the current co-leader Sian Berry AM, who recently ran for Mayor of London, vocally supported trans rights during her election campaign, the party still has further work to do to rebuild trust.

However, despite the damaging public controversy, Greens still hold a commanding position on LGBTQIA+ rights compared to the other parties. A case study analysis published at the end of 2020 found that support for the Greens from LGB people is significantly higher than from heterosexuals. The study also found that in terms of policies, at the 2019 General Election, Greens had the most liberal (as opposed to conservative) policies in terms of “social lifestyle”.

A way forward?

A phrase which the Green party’s leadership has used on numerous occasions over the past few years has been that “one Green in the room can change everything.” The party now has a substantially larger number of councils with one, two, or more Greens with seats, thanks to the ‘Green Surge’ in 2021. Those Greens will be holding Lib Dems, Labour, and Conservative feet to the fire on climate and social justice.

Rather than making endless promises with no follow-through, the party uses its political power to influence other parties and to put its radical policy platform directly into practice.

Greens put forward a positive vision for a society which treats everyone equitably. Through conversation with the local people on their concerns, the Green party is able to highlight political decisions which benefit a tiny minority to the detriment of everyone else. Rather than making endless promises with no follow-through, the party uses its political power to influence other parties and to put its radical policy platform directly into practice. With the Greens averaging around 8 per cent in the polls at the moment, presenting a real challenge to the Liberal Democrats as the third main party in England, perhaps it’s time for more people, particularly for those on the left, to consider voting Green at the next election. For years, a Green vote has been viewed as a wasted vote, but with the climate emergency becoming more of a pressing issue with each passing day and inequality still expanding, the party’s commitment to climate and social justice deserves serious consideration. 

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