A fuller manifestation of multi-party democracy is finally coming to Great Britain. Their electorate suffers from the absence of proportional representation (PR) just as we do in the United States—so, for many years, voters there had the idea of “only two significant choices” (Labour and Tories) as voters do here (Democrats and Republicans). But in England the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have recently started to break through toward opening up the system. Canada also lacks PR, but the New Democratic Party is fully competitive there with the Conservatives and Liberals. Our country seems to be the last to endure an ongoing duopolistic domination.
Last May saw the Green Party of England and Wales achieve a record result in local elections, doubling their number of city councilors to 481 and securing a Green city council majority for the first time in the UK. Moreover, the Greens’ high-profile victories in historically Conservative-voting areas show a new electoral potential for a party that—like every corner of British politics—has experienced a turbulent decade.
The highlights for the party—winning 6 percent of seats available all over the country and taking full control of Mid Suffolk District Council—are unambiguously positive. Even more so given, first, the majoritarian electoral system used in English local elections that disproportionately benefits larger parties as votes are converted to seats and, second, that the party only stood in 41 percent of all municipalities, considerably lower than the Conservatives (93 percent), Labour (77 percent), and the Liberal Democrats (60 percent). The Greens actually won around 12 percent of the vote on average in the races in which they stood candidates—around the same as their impressive 2019 European election performance.
The broader electoral context sees Labour now having more city council members in Great Britain than the Conservatives for the first time since 2002, and the Liberal Democrats making significant progress in a similar, albeit more widely-expected, manner along with the Greens. Notably, the two biggest Green successes were in rural, previously Conservative-dominated districts in the East of England: Mid Suffolk, where the party won its historic majority, and East Hertfordshire, where they have only been represented in the council chamber since 2019. They also became the biggest party in a handful of other southern rural seats. In South Tyneside the party is now the official opposition. Even where the Green representation is small, just having two councilors in numerous localities allows the party to table bills or prevents one of the two establishment parties from having sole control.
The Greens did especially well in rural areas, reflecting a conscious internal decision to target historically strongly Conservative-voting seats in the hope of gaining 100 councilors. In the end, they gained 241! The only significant disappointment was 13 seats lost to Labour in Brighton and Hove, including those of the Greens’ local leader and deputy leader, showing that even the Greens are susceptible to anti-incumbency voting. They had run the council as a minority administration since 2020—and Brighton is included in the Westminster constituency of their only Member of Parliament (MP), Caroline Lucas. Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay—who has built an effective operation in neighboring Norfolk and will run to try to become an MP next year—said that the victory in Mid Suffolk hopefully will “pave the way for electing the first Green MP in the area.” The party’s success follows 20 years of presence on the council, representing the only non-Conservative option in a third of local seats. Aside from benefiting from what the party’s other co-leader, Carla Denyer, described as “a deep dislike of the Tories and Keir Starmer’s uninspiring Labour,” the party campaigned strongly and effectively on local issues. Perhaps most encouraging are signs that the party made its strongest gains in areas where it had already done best in 2019. This suggests an ability to concentrate votes geographically—all-important in majoritarian electoral systems, and something that eluded the Greens in previous high-water marks in 1989 and 2015. The party’s clearer geographical focus mirrors the early local growth of the Liberal Democrats in the southwest.
Such local success will act as a signal to voters in those areas that the best route to removing a Conservative MP is by voting Green. Left-of-center voters seem to be rapidly re-learning what is their best tactical voting option among the three progressive parties after Britain’s political geography had been in a state of flux following the coalition government, the rise and fall of UKIP (the UK Independence Party), Corbyn’s leadership, and a much-hyped “Brexit realignment.” This will be of concern to Labour, who, under Starmer, had hoped to quietly win a parliamentary majority by being the sole claimant to the anti-Tory vote. That the Greens are now unambiguously considered one of the three progressive options reflects their established position, since the 2015 “Green Surge,” within the second tier of the British party system. They had spent the previous five years seeking to form various ill-fated “progressive alliances” with Labour and/or the Liberal Democrats, but that seems no longer necessary.
STEADY LOCAL GROWTH
Over the past two decades the Greens have seen a steady increase in their local election performances, marked by occasional but increasingly regular episodes of rapid growth and visibility. Prior to this, and despite having a shared origin in Europe’s oldest Green Party, founded 50 years ago, the British Greens fared poorer in the late twentieth century than their sister parties in continental Europe. Compared to elsewhere in Europe, they faced structural challenges such as a less favorable electoral system and a lack of state funding.
Following their shock 1989 European Parliament election success, in which the Greens won 14.5 percent of the vote, all three progressive parties (Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats) began competing on environmentalist and left-liberal ground. Green Party local growth culminated in the 2010 election to parliament of party leader Caroline Lucas, who had led internal reforms that increased the party’s exposure by underlining its anti-establishment, social justice credentials. These changes proved effective in attracting a younger generation of anti-capitalist members and signaled that voting Green need not be a wasted vote.
Soon after, the entry of the Liberal Democrats into an austerity-dominated coalition, the rise of UKIP, and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum all triggered increased demand for the kind of party that the Greens were already becoming. These factors manifested in a 2015 polling bounce and a revenue-generating membership boost of mainly young, urban university graduates united by outrage at the rightward drift of British politics. This “Green Surge” largely foretold the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. The latter event negatively impacted the Greens when some shifted into the Labour camp temporarily. But the initial success of Corbyn’s ambivalent position on Brexit ultimately proved untenable … while the Greens’ “Yes to Europe, No to Climate Chaos” line was successful both at the 2019 European and general elections, and their social basis expanded.
The current national parliament—dominated by Brexit, leadership changes for the Conservative Party, and the troubles of the Scottish National Party (the Scottish Greens have shared power with the SNP since the 2021 Scottish election)—has seen further opportunities for the Greens to broaden their electoral coalition. The transformed party system is settling into a new political dynamic whereby the Liberal Democrats chip away at the Conservatives’ wealthier seats and Labour fights to retake its former post-industrial strongholds.
This increasingly geographic focus of the other parties leaves plenty of space for the Greens across England, particularly in seats in which they have already built up a presence, dissuading competition from the other two progressive parties. Moreover, serious issues of sewage and water pollution, a cost-of-living crisis, underfunded public services, an electorate plainly cognizant of climate change, and echoes of 2015 in terms of both immigration politics and Labour’s ambiguous opposition—not to mention the long shadow of Brexit—all are grist for the Green electoral mill, boosting their relevance to voters.
Whereas older voters are still more likely to be tied to the big two parties, the pandemic, working from home, and the soaring cost of living in urban centers have all contributed to pushing young Green-sympathetic families into the very areas where the Greens had already planted their flag. Following the recent local elections, the Greens will be able to make use of their larger local machinery and visibility to attract such voters, while the national relevance and revenues of the party are underscored by established and increasing membership numbers.
POLICIES UNDER SCRUTINY
At the next national election, likely in late 2024, the party will face far greater scrutiny over its policies than it has at recent European or local elections. An over-idealistic list of policies, incrementally added to over decades via successive party conferences, proved detrimental prior to the 2015 election as journalists took aim at plainly unfeasible spending pledges and utopian declarations. Although the party’s platform is more streamlined and realistic now, the success of the Greens at the national level next year will likely hinge on how close the race between the two main parties becomes. Should Labour maintain the large lead that current polling indicates, the Greens might pick up seats as a socially and politically diverse set of voters feel free to express their Green sympathies and misgivings towards the direction of Labour. Should the race tighten, however, as it has slowly done since Rishi Sunak took over as Conservative Prime Minister, the inescapable logic of first-past-the-post could push more progressive voters toward Labour and away from the Greens yet again.
[above excerpted from a June 8, 2023 article by James Dennison in the Green European Journal]
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50 years of UK Green Party success: Celebrating a legacy of change
By Michael Benfield
On July 16 the West Midlands Green Party commemorated its remarkable 50-year journey at a celebratory meeting held in the heart of Coventry. With great enthusiasm and heartfelt sentiment, the meeting focused on recognizing the outstanding achievements of both individuals and groups over the past 12 months (and 50 years!). It served as a testament to the unwavering dedication and tireless efforts of the Green Party’s members, supporters, and volunteers.
The awards ceremony, MC’d by Natalie Bennet, added an extra touch of prestige to the event. Lady Bennet, a prominent member of the party and a distinguished member of the House of Lords, shared her insights and experiences. She spoke of her work in the upper chamber of Parliament, championing the Green Party’s principles and advocating for sustainable policies.
In my own remarks I took the opportunity to reflect on the Party’s origins and the arduous journey it has traversed. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s timeless exhortation to “Become the change you want to create,” I expressed gratitude to the members of the West Midlands Green Party for their relentless efforts and unwavering commitment to the cause over the past 50 years. Their passion and determination have been the driving force behind our movement’s transformative impact on society, both locally and globally.
The meeting also celebrated the Green Party’s return to its original structured approach to electioneering—now promulgated as “the West Midlands Mode”—which has played a pivotal role in its current success. This renewed focus on effective campaigning strategies has been widely recognized as a significant factor behind the party’s recent achievements. By embracing this structured approach, the West Midlands Green Party has further solidified its position as a force to be reckoned with in the local political landscape.
As the meeting approached its conclusion, I noted how the progress achieved by the Green Party over the past five decades stood as a testament to our collective ability to effect meaningful change. I encouraged the assemblage to embrace this legacy and channel their energy into ensuring a greener, more just, and more sustainable future for all.
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Memo from Caroline Lucas to the Green Party of England and Wales (June 2023)
In 2010, when I first stood to be a Member of Parliament, we asked the people of Brighton Pavilion to take a risk and put their trust in a new kind of politics. And on the day of the general election, 13 years ago, 16,238 did exactly that. With the election of Britain’s first ever Green MP, together we made history.
It has been the privilege of my life to serve Brighton Pavilion ever since—and to see my majority increase at each of the subsequent three general elections. I love this city and its people. I know how incredibly blessed I’ve been to represent this community and to call it home. And I love the Green Party. I know without a doubt that this amazing opportunity to stand up in Parliament for our shared values, to hold this government to account, has only been possible because of you. You are the ones that knock on doors, debate our policies, deliver the leaflets, fund our campaigns, and keep the hope strong. You have always had my back.
But the particular responsibilities of being the Green Party’s sole MP, coupled with my commitment to doing the very best for my constituents, has impacted on my ability to focus as much as I would like on the existential challenges that drive me—the ecology and climate emergencies. And as these threats to our precious planet become ever more urgent, I now want to concentrate more fully on these accelerating crises. I have therefore decided not to stand again as an MP at the next election.
The reason I came into politics was to change things, and my determination to do that is stronger than ever, as well as my belief in the power of elected Greens. I have always been an activist as well as a politician—as those who witnessed my arrest, court case and acquittal over peaceful protest at the fracking site in Balcombe nearly ten years ago will recall. And when I think of the Green Party’s potential, and all that’s to come, I am as hopeful and positive as ever. So I look forward to having the time to explore ever more imaginative and creative ways of helping make a better future, alongside the party.
For now, though, my strongest emotion is deep gratitude … to everyone who put their faith in me, everyone who chose the politics of hope above the politics of fear. On election night 2010, I pledged that I would do my very best to make you proud. I can only hope you will judge that that’s what I have done.
With love and gratitude, Caroline Lucas
(you can follow the progress of the UK Greens by subscribing to their online newsletter, Green World, https://greenworld.org.uk/newsletter-sign)