Can the Green Party build on their recent local election success?


Raphael Henry analyses the Green Party's chances and speaks to Councillor Gottlieb

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Image by Jon Craig @Joncraig_Photos 07778606070

By Raphael Henry

Despite succeeding in the recent local elections, the Green Party still has a long way to go if it’s to stand a chance in the next general election. It should look to its global counterparts for guidance.

Over the last few years, Europe has been experiencing a “green renaissance”, with countries such as Germany, France and Ireland electing more and more green MPs and MEPs. Germany’s federal election last September, for instance, saw the ‘Alliance 90/Greens’ party take home almost 15 percent of the vote, making it the third most popular party in the country and handing it a place in government. Further afield, the Australian Greens last week recorded their best ever election result, in what the party leader Adam Bandt described as a “greenslide.”

In stark contrast, the Green Party of England and Wales received only 2.7 percent of the vote in the 2019 General Election, and are represented by just one MP. Many were left wondering why the UK was not feeling the effects of the so-called “green wave” that had hit mainland Europe.

According to Anand Menon, a professor of European politics, the key issue facing the Green Party is in fact the UK’s electoral system itself. In much of Europe, elections are decided through ‘proportional representation’, which means that parties obtain seats in parliament based on the overall percentage of the vote won, so that a quarter of the vote equals a quarter of the seats and so on. The UK instead operates according to a ‘first past the post’ system, in which the candidate who receives the most votes in each constituency is elected. Any votes for the unsuccessful candidates in each constituency are discarded, and have no effect on a national level.

For a smaller party like the Greens, this makes it almost impossible to win seats in Parliament. With the same 2.7 percent of the vote as the Green Party won in 2019, a proportional representation system would yield 17 MPs – a huge increase on the one currently elected Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Yet this is still substantially lower than the results seen in Germany, where the Greens won five times more votes than their UK equivalent. Once again, this difference can be explained by the electoral system: since every vote for the German Greens counts towards their parliamentary presence, there is less of a need to think tactically when casting one’s vote. Even as a smaller party, the German Greens are able to greatly influence German politics by entering into government coalitions with larger parties - as they have done in both 2021 and 1998.

Given the enormous advantage afforded to larger parties in British elections, it becomes much more important to vote ‘tactically’. This means voting for the largest party with which you can identify, in the hopes of guaranteeing at least some level of representation. For example, a possible Green voter might decide to vote for Labour instead, in order to prevent the Conservatives from taking the seat. This mindset is especially prevalent currently, given many voters’ anti-Conservative sentiments: it seems likely that many will be voting tactically in order to oust the Conservatives, rather than voting to elect their preferred candidate.

This is exactly why Blossom Gottlieb, the first Green District Councillor to be elected in East Hampshire, wants her party to concentrate more on electoral reform. “I would rather [the Green Party] focused on system change overall,” she says, discussing the party’s recent concentration on local government. The Green Party’s recent gains at the community level have nevertheless been impressive: as of the most recent local elections in May (in which 116 Green councillors were elected), the Greens have 477 councillors on 141 councils across the UK. In context, this means that there is Green Party representation in almost half of all local councils in England and Wales.

Despite wanting a more national focus from her party, Councillor Gottlieb nonetheless believes these local wins are still important within the current system. “It’s like focusing on a change we can make – it is far easier to plant trees as a councillor than it is to change climate policy as an MP.” A wide range of climate action can indeed take place on a local level: operations to reduce food waste, encourage recycling, and develop sustainable housing can all be organised locally. “Retrofitting [insulation] is a huge part of local councillors’ work,” but “that will mean nothing if we can’t eventually hold companies and billionaires to account.” Work on the local level also allows the Green Party to satisfy some of its commitments to equality, such as improving accessibility in public spaces for people with disabilities. In many ways, the Green Party truly shines on this local level - but this still won’t guarantee election victory.

With a recent leadership change, climate change headlining the political agenda, and Labour shedding its Corbyn-era left-wing position in favour of a more central take, the Greens are hoping that they are primed for a successful general election in the next few years. In order to seize this opportunity, the new Green leadership are busily trying to redefine the party in voters’ eyes as a valid option, just as other European green parties have done. There is a worry, however, that the Green Party might lose its edge in such a transition: the new leadership have recently attempted to distance themselves from the eco-protest groups Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, claiming to approve of the groups’ messages, whilst not necessarily agreeing with their methods.

Councillor Gottlieb sees this distancing as necessary for the party to gain political credibility, but stresses that it does not mean that the Green Party is against action and protest: they consider the conversations started by Extinction Rebellion to be “desperately needed,” even if the Green Party itself must remain distinct from these more visibly disruptive elements of environmentalism.

When asked whether this highlights that the party is becoming more detached from its own roots as a protest movement, Councillor Gottlieb responded: “The Green Party is the only party interested in protesting 'politics as usual' and challenging the status quo…advocating for universal basic income, reduced voting age, proportional representation and system change [is] just as radical as more 'stereotypical' protests.”

Climate change is quickly becoming a defining feature of present-day politics and voting intention, placing the Green Party in a strong position to gain new voters. There is good evidence that a shift in approach is taking place under the party’s new leadership, which could be hugely beneficial to the green movement overall - but that should not prohibit consideration of what stands to be lost in the process.

The Green Party’s chances of success are much more dependent, however, on the state of the UK’s electoral system: without substantial reform, there will be almost no opportunity for the Green Party to leave the sidelines, as other European green parties have, and finally gain political traction in any meaningful sense.