by Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy
Britain is a profoundly unstable society. Its demographics are unstable. The economy is profoundly unstable. Its politics are profoundly unstable,” says Natalie Bennett, talking to me on the phone as she rushes out of Westminster Tube station.
The Green Party, which she used to lead and now represents in the House of Lords, is taking advantage of that. In 2001 – when I first joined the Greens – they had 45 councillors across the UK. Now, there are more than 800.
Even a decade ago, the Greens were one of a number of smaller tribes struggling to break into Britain’s fortified party system from both left and right: Respect and the National Health Action Party, UKIP and the BNP.
These days, while the rest have evaporated, the Greens have scaled the barricades. They no longer jostle in the long list of ‘others’. Now, they are the smallest of the big parties – a clear member of the second tier, alongside the SNP, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru. As Chris Williams, the Green Party of England and Wales’ election chief points out to me, voters no longer confuse them with Greenpeace. This month, in their best ever local election results, they gained 241 councillors, right across England.
To understand this remarkable growth – and the risks which come with it – we need to look at it from a number of different angles.
The most common one that new councillors and the activists pointed to when I spoke to them was Williams himself. In 2017, he was put in charge of a field team supporting election campaigns across England and Wales. He’s set up candidate training schemes, taught members how to channel their energy into election wins and ensured resources are targeted at potential victories.
If there has been a change in pace recently, Williams says, it’s partly been driven by a change in confidence. Where once the party believed it could win a couple of new seats on a council in a year, it now trusts in its capacity to succeed on multiple fronts simultaneously.
I’m sure all of that is true. But it must be about more than that. The Greens are now the biggest party on East Herts Council. Even the best organiser would have struggled to achieve that in 2011, when no one stood as a Green candidate there.
Another thing more than one of the new Green councillors pointed me to was how hard they worked – how they and their teams of activists delivered multiple rounds of leaflets and door-knocks where Labour or the Tories only managed one or two.
But it must be about more than that, too. What’s delivered this sudden spasm of motivation among Greens, this dearth of enthusiasm for Labour and Tory activists? Who are these people offering to trudge for miles round the pavements of Mid Suffolk or East Herts to deliver Green Party leaflets?
To begin to understand any of this, we need to look back a little further.
A brief history of party finances
Let’s start with money.
At the start of 2014, the total membership of the UK’s Green parties – that is, the Scottish Greens, the Green Party of England and Wales, and the Northern Irish Greens – was around 15,000. In the spring of 2015, it passed 60,000.
In 2007/8, the parties’ combined income was a bit over £600,000. In 2012/13, it was £1.1m. By 2016/17, it was £2.7m. These days, it’s approaching £4m. A large whack of this growth is membership subs, though the stable staffing and electoral success this allows has also unleashed small donor fundraising, donations from salaried Green politicians, and what is called ‘Short money’ for official opposition parties, while a handful of large donations has helped out now and then. I understand that around a million pounds a year is funnelled into Williams’ team, whose electoral ram-raids across England made headlines this month.
In 2015, I took an in-depth look at the internal changes the party had made to allow this sudden surge in membership to happen. Millennial members had reshaped internal politics, siding with the left rather than eco-liberal or deep green factions, but with ‘realos’ (realists) rather than ‘fundis’ (fundamentalists) on internal party organisation. Quacky vestiges of 1970s hippydom were out, as was individual action on climate change. This was an electoral expression of contemporary radical politics – anti-austerity as much as environmentalist – capable of attracting waves of members at key moments.
Clearly, the election of Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion in 2010 had been a breakthrough moment, but from 2005 to 2010 – and then again from 2012 to 2015 – Respect also had an MP in George Galloway. What the Greens managed to do differently was build local parties across the country. And much of that work was done by Bennett and former deputy leader Amelia Womack, who spent years of their lives on trains, travelling the country to help rally branches in echoey village halls across the land. Many of the once tiny local parties they visited over the years are now sending large delegations to their town halls.
While lots has happened since then – most notably Corbyn and Brexit – the number of signed-up Greens across the UK has remained above 45,000 since 2015. And with Labour leaning to the right again, membership is once more on the rise.
The environment is more salient
But it’s a mistake to look at Green successes merely as a product of individual organisers, or as a response to Labour’s failures.
“The number of people saying the environment is the most important issue affecting their country – the general trajectory is upward,” says James Dennison, a researcher at the University of East Anglia and expert on the Green Party. In 2021, the Office for National Statistics reported that 75% of British adults were concerned about climate change, up from 57% in 2015.
To some extent, this directly affects how people vote, but in reality, issues like health and the economy still come ahead of the environment in salience polling. What seems more significant is that those who care about climate change and biodiversity loss often care very deeply about it, to the extent that they are motivated to take action. And often, the organisation with a local branch near to them, and clear things you can do to help, is the Green Party.
“I’ve had people bang on my door saying: ‘I need to do something – the world’s going to hell in a handcart,’” says Andrew Stringer, who was re-elected to Mid Suffolk council this month. Stringer first won his ward 20 years ago, and had played a key role in growing his party to the point that it is now the first ever majority Green council.
Often, he has taken people who have had what he calls “their Attenborough moment, their Greta moment,” and channelled that energy into election campaigning.
This element of Green electoral success is, then, produced by two things. The first – familiar across the world – is growing concern about environmental issues, from climate change to biodiversity loss. The second, subtler one, is that environmental issues increasingly seem to be seen as existing in the realm of politics. Where once, people who wanted to act would do so individually or through NGOs and charities, more and more people are doing things – from direct action with Extinction Rebellion to electoral campaigning with the Greens – that imply they perceive these issues as in some way relating to a confrontation with power, a contestation to be played out in the streets and at the ballot box.
As Chris Shaw, head of research at the climate communications think tank Climate Outreach put it, it’s not only that people are increasingly concerned – it’s that they increasingly “want government and business to act”. Where once there was a tendency to think of climate change as an identity issue for “hippies and treehuggers,” and that people who didn’t live low-carbon lifestyles couldn’t demand political action on climate change because it would make them hypocrites, now “climate change has become more mainstream – there’s less of an identity barrier in the way” of demanding the powerful take action.
This isn’t to say that the new members don’t have broader politics. Doug Rouxell, a newly elected councillor in Stafford, tells me that most of his local campaigners would call themselves socialists. But it does speak to how concern about environmental collapse has pushed these people from political observers to political actors.
This phenomenon has happened across the country. In big cities, those Green activists have often met bigger Labour or Lib Dem machines. But elsewhere, sometimes, they’ve faced less opposition.
Sense that Westminster is failing
The UK has deep distrust for its politicians and political institutions. Only 20% of British people say they trust political parties, and trust in the government is well below the average for the wealthy world. Some 63% of people see politicians as “merely out for themselves”. As recently as 2014, that number was 48%. In 1944, it was 35%.
Every successful insurgency in modern British politics has in some way been about this growing alienation from our political system. UKIP and Brexit pinned blame on the EU and immigrants. The SNP and Sinn Féin point at the British state. A large part of Corbyn’s popularity in 2017 was based on the perception of integrity. People think most politicians will say anything to get elected. He won support by appearing to have consistent beliefs.
“Greens are different – we don’t whip, we don’t have narrow party lines… Greens deliver democracy”
Looking at local leaflets and speaking to elected councillors, much of the Green pitch has been about fairly banal notions of representation. As Bennett puts it, one of the key messages was that “Greens are different – we don’t whip, we don’t have narrow party lines… Greens deliver democracy”.
As a voter, I hate this. I want to know that if I back a party, the candidate I help elect will vote for that party’s positions. Politics is a collective endeavour. But I’m in a minority.
Speaking to Green councillors and activists who spent the last month on the doorstep, here’s my best attempt to make sense of this phenomenon. Increasingly, people feel like the main Westminster parties represent the British state (and the elite interests it serves) rather than representing them. Politics is a thing that’s done to us by the powerful, and the main parties are just a part of that system. Social attitudes across the country are generally to the left of the Westminster consensus, but people are endlessly told by the media that they are weird for being vaguely progressive. Green council candidates knocking on doors and listening to people’s concerns about this or that is therapeutic. It’s not surprising that it attracts support. And it’s preferable to UKIP or the BNP showing up and blaming the EU or immigrants for people’s sense of alienation from the system.
But this electoral approach also comes with major risks. The obvious one dresses in orange and calls itself “the Lib Dems”, who worked hard to represent very different voters in very different parts of the UK up until 2010, when they got into government and had to reconcile the opposing interests of those different people whose doors they had knocked on. Williams would argue his system is different – don’t water down the party’s radical policies, he tells candidates, just listen to what voters’ concerns are, and talk about the policies to address those. But this does run into difficult turf, particularly in places where there are major so-called NIMBY campaigns on everything from housing developments to solar farms.
Ultimately, the reason people feel like Britain’s political system is broken is that it is. You can get elected to the council by listening to voters more actively than your opponents. Maybe you can even get to be an MP. But once you run the council, after years of brutal cuts to local government budgets, you’ll quickly find that listening isn’t enough.
As one former senior Green staffer put it to me: “The party has no real vision for what to do in local government. How are they going to make people’s lives better? I’m not sure they can tell you.” Despite the positive results, the party also lost seats it had held for more than 20 years in both Brighton and York, after being in the administration in both cities. The party “desperately needs a local government unit,” they say, to support new Green administrations running local authorities for the first time.
More broadly, as Green thinker and former councillor Sam Coates puts it, “if we’re not critiquing the system that people are getting elected under, if we’re just representing people to the system, where does the transformation come from? In what terms are people in the party engaging with these positions taking them up? Do they just think they are nicer people, or do they understand this is a hostile system? Rather than just managing things better, we need to use whatever levers we can to bring fundamental change to the system. Or else, can we actually deliver the radical change we promise voters, and that the world needs?”
“We should see success of the Greens as part of general disillusion with the Westminster system. If people were happy with the system as it was, we wouldn’t see these upsurges. Greens should resist the temptation to be just another part of the broken party system. The party needs to become a vehicle for the fundamental disillusionment with the way things are.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about this year’s Green gains is its geography. It’s not surprising to see the party thrive in the centres of university cities like Bristol or Norwich. It wasn’t even very surprising when Greens started winning some of the most impoverished wards in the country, off the back of traditional left-wing messaging and organising. But I don’t think anyone five years ago would have predicted that they would be the biggest group on East Herts Council, or have taken control of large swathes of rural Suffolk.
To understand this phenomenon, we have to look at how Britain is changing. Everywhere I spoke to people involved in Green successes, I asked them about new housing in their wards since the last election. And all of them confirmed new estates had been built, and that their canvass data and sampling from ballot boxes at the counts showed much of their vote had come from the people – often young families moving out of cities – who had moved into them.
“I had fairly detailed sampling data from the count on a box-by-box basis,” says Doug Rouxel, a UCU and Green Party activist who took a longstanding Tory ward in Stafford this year, “so I know that the two [new] estates voted fairly heavily for me, and the gated private estate voted fairly heavily for the Conservative candidate.”
If the Green Party really gained national attention in 2010 when Caroline Lucas was elected, it’s people who were then in their 20s who are now most likely to treat it as a normal part of the political landscape, and a serious option.
These people – millennials – are also the generation who were hit hardest by the great recession, and tend to have politics a long way to the left of their parents. Thirteen years since Lucas’s breakthrough, they are in their 30s or early 40s, often starting families and moving out of the big cities – pushed out by price and in search of space, taking their politics with them. Between 2011 and 2021, the population of East Herts – where Greens now lead the council – grew by 9%. The eastern region, where the Greens particularly thrived in these elections, was the fastest growing area of England over the last decade.
Just as parts of the north of England went blue in 2019 partly because most of the young people had left, so parts of the south are going red, yellow or green partly because that’s where they’ve headed.
While this process is nothing new, it was accelerated by the ‘race for space’ during the pandemic, and the rise of working from home. Among previous generations, this habit of people moving out of city centres as they get older has been accompanied by a rightward drift in their politics. Millennials, on the whole, have broken that rule. Anecdotally, many of the Green activists who have helped get new councillors elected in surprising places are 30-somethings who’ve moved from big cities in the last few years.
“Looking at the data after the election, I realised we hadn’t really converted Tories. We just turned out everyone else – including lots of new residents,” says Rouxel.
“Had Labour been on their doorstep, they would have voted for them.”
What these people have discovered is a much older phenomenon. For decades, Labour has written off the English countryside as inherently Tory, as though its market towns and mill towns don’t have working class people in them, as though everyone is a landlord yet no one a tenant. In Scotland, the SNP got its foothold in seats like the one where I grew up, in rural Perthshire, by winning over these working class voters Labour had always forgotten. In England, there are some deep cultural reasons why rural areas vote Tory. But there are also just long held assumptions in party HQs which they never bother to question. “People think we’re all middle class out here,” says Stringer. “We’re not.”
The New Statesman has shown that, in seats the Greens took in the recent election, turnout increased by an average 5%. Sometimes, particularly in a local election where turnout is low, particularly when Tory voters aren’t motivated to show up, rallying the anti-Tory opposition, even in deepest blue Suffolk, can get you close to beating them.
And once the party starts to get momentum in these areas, it does seem like it is managing to win over a few former Tory votes too.
Natalie Bennett describes canvassing in Leigh-on-Sea in South Essex, and being invited by an 80-year-old woman into “a lovely groomed living room, overlooking the Thames. Her mother had told her to always vote Tory. But she wasn’t happy with that, and is now voting Green.”
Some people she spoke to, says Bennett, “were voting Tory [in the past] because it was left over from 20th century politics, from a sense of inertia – both class-based and culture-based, if you considered yourself to be a certain sort of person, that’s the way you voted.”
For these people, what they actually think about policies, and how the country ought to be run, is often radically different from how they vote. Forty years of economic chaos means lots of people whose parents thought of themselves as middle-class really aren’t. Often, these people don’t oppose Labour because it’s somehow too left-wing, but because their parents taught them to, like a rival football team. “It’s a culture that’s created by first past the post,” says Bennett. Because their Tory identity was rooted in their area, once lots of their neighbours are voting Green, they are happy to make the switch too.
Give left-wing policies – including policies to the left of Labour – a different name, and show up asking for votes, and it’s possible to shoogle people out of the Tory grip.
Green party challenges
But there is also a possibility people voted for the party for conservative rather than progressive reasons. If Greens have benefited from young families moving into new-builds in rural areas, it’s often also true that they got themselves into the position to do so by opposing the building of those houses in the first place.
What councillors I spoke to said is that they don’t oppose house building per se, but they do object to entire local communities being designed by vast development corporations. One said that people who live in a new housing estate in his ward call it an ‘Amazon desert’ because there are no shops, cafes or parks, just houses with Amazon packages outside.
Whatever may have motivated Green councillors to oppose development, they will likely have hoovered up votes from people who are simply against new housing. And where Greens have been put into power, they must now choose between building the social homes they say they are in favour of, at the risk of pissing off those voters, or becoming agents of regressive NIMBYism.
This speaks to another risk. Before the recent local elections, the Greens had a clear next Westminster seat: Bristol Central, where party co-leader Carla Denyer is standing. Greens hold a majority of seats across the constituency, and the most seats across the city. To win over urban voters in central Bristol, Denyer needs to project exactly the same image that Caroline Lucas does to win Brighton Pavillion.
With Greens now holding a majority on Mid Suffolk council, the corresponding constituency of Waveney Valley has become another obvious target seat, and here, the other co-leader, Adrian Ramsay (no relation) is standing.
But the demographic is very different from that in Bristol Central, and there will be an obvious temptation for the party to water down its more radical messages to try to appeal to former Tories. I understand there are some senior figures in the party pushing such a strategy. James Dennison warns against this instinct.
“Going for Tory seats is not the same as going for Tory voters,” he says. “I think there’s a risk the party is going to confuse themselves a bit now… The biggest strategic mistake that the Greens can make now is to think that they need to go all-in on a conservative message, because that’s not their voting coalition. If they do that, then they’ll just throw away all the progress they’ve made because they’ll be giving out conflicting messages. They’re not going to get many Tories over because the ideological gap is just too much. So that would be a mad move.”
If there is an opportunity for Greens, it comes in the form of Labour’s swing to the right under Starmer and the vast pool of activists and anger looking for a post-Corbyn expression. These people are only just starting to move to the Greens. If they shift in big numbers, we can expect another surge.
This article by Adam Ramsay was originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. View the original article here.