Politics Magazine

The Greens Could Make Or Break the Left in 2015

Posted on the 03 August 2014 by Thepoliticalidealist @JackDarrant

The Green Party is celebrating record polling figures reported by all the major polling agencies. Ipsos MORI puts public support for the party at 7%, a joint fourth place with the increasingly unpopular Liberal Democrats. This follows a particularly strong showing in the local and European elections in May, in which the party became the official opposition on several councils. Some commentators are wondering if the Greens are about to have their ‘UKIP moment': it could become a serious challenger to the political Estabilishment like Nigel Farage’s ‘people’s army’.

When UKIP first reached 8% in several national opinion polls in spring 2012, the media went wild. The excessive media coverage awarded to Nigel Farage, then the leader of a fringe party with no MPs, allowed the party to cross a critical line which elevated it into the Premier League of British politics. UKIP has almost monopolised the ‘angry vote’, with as much as 20% of the country backing a party despite it clearly contradicting many of their views. The ability to frighten the three parties, which are all relatively unpopular, was and is too tempting for millions of us. Nobody cares if UKIP’s policies are broadly unworkable, or that until a few weeks ago they wanted to charge for GP visits, impose a flat tax, or cut faster and further than the Coalition. Backing UKIP is a gesture that politicians are attempting to interpret, and often wrongly interpreting as a right-wing shift by the electorate.

Understandably, some progressives are almost salivating at the possibilities that arise if the Green Party were to follow a similar trajectory to UKIP. If UKIP forced a debate on immigration and the EU, the Greens could shatter the supposed consensuses (yes, that’s a word) on austerity and the environment. At the same time, Labourites worry that the post-2010 reunification of the left under Labour is the only chance of removing the Tories from power this decade. And that is a real risk: for example, polls commissioned by Lord Ashcroft suggest Labour could topple Nick Clegg himself in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam- just. If the Greens were slightly more popular, Clegg and dozens like him could retain their seats. A mass defection from Labour could squander dozens of potential Tory defeats and achieve two or three Green gains: the classic dilemma affecting would-be defectors.

The Greens Could Make or Break the Left in 2015
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett

However, I would not take it as read that the Greens’ recent political fortunes are due to similar causes of the UKIP surge. I’m still not convinced the Greens have broken out of their middle class bubble. Unlike UKIP, the Greens’ new friends are ovwerwhelmingly ex-LIb Dem. The 15% of the electorate who have made the exodus from the Liberal Democrats mostly fall into two camps: well-educated left-wingers who feel betrayed by New Labour and by Nick Clegg, both having ‘sold out'; and an eclectic group of protest voters who dislike the two biggest parties for whatever reason. UKIP has almost automatically inherited the latter group, but have also drawn from non-voters and former Tories.

By contrast, the Greens have been unable to attract many former Labourites or non-voters. Any socialists who stuck with Labour through the worst excesses of Blair and Brown are unlikely to leave now. Meanwhile, the Greens tend to attract well-educated folk already comprehensively engaged in community and national politics. Greens just don’t appeal to those who don’t have a keen interest in political issues to begin with. That leaves them fighting pretty much exclusively for Lib Dem defectors: the ‘beardo’ vote as a Conservative acquaintance of mine once put it.

There isn’t room for a fifth party in English politics, unless the Greens are able to follow the strategy of ‘expanding the electorate’ which has worked for other parties, on occasion. But that would require a platform of firebrand populism that the party seems unable to provide. Look at the party’s most prominent politicians (not that most members of the public could name any Green politician): Natalie Bennett (Leader), Caroline Lucas MP, Keith Taylor MEP… All of them come across as intelligent and considerate, but somehow lack the ‘wow’ factor. The notable exception to this is Jenny Jones, and it paid visible dividends when she led the London Greens to 3rd place in the 2012 elections. Indeed London is rapidly becoming an electoral base for the party, and that’s because they have colourful local figures that appeal.

The Greens have had windows of opportunity in the past, but failed to make use of them. Britain’s discriminatory electoral system alone cannot account for the ‘minor party’ status of its Green movement compared to its continental neighbours, which often attain 10% or more of the vote in national elections.

Oh, and it might also help if the first Green council in the country didn’t indulge in Tory-style union bashing. That doesn’t do the party’s leftie credentials much good at all.

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