SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

Green surge stalled

Anticipation and optimism will have filled many Green activists as they approached May’s elections. This was the party’s opportunity to translate the much-discussed ‘Green surge’ into concrete electoral success. Opinion polls consistently placed the party on a fairly steady 4-6%. Natalie Bennett was given the opportunity to participate in two televised leaders’ debates, and Green hopes had been raised that a hung parliament might give a small group of their (potential) MPs influence in deciding the make-up of the government. But the Green Party has greeted its results with a tone of celebration and frustration combined.

It did achieve its largest general election vote by a significant margin. Its final tally was 1.157 million votes, outstripping its 2010 result by more than a factor of four. In spite of this, the Greens were unable to increase their representation in parliament, only holding on to their single existing MP, Caroline Lucas. She was returned to her seat in Brighton Pavilion with an increased majority of just under 8,000. Here, as nationally, the party benefited from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. Lucas enjoyed a 10.1% swing in her favour, while the Lib Dems were reduced to 1,525 votes, an 11% swing against.

In the council elections, the Greens had a net gain of four council seats nationally. But this was eclipsed by the crushing defeat they suffered in Brighton, where the party was relegated to third place in what had been the first and only Green-controlled city council. Nine Green councillors, including their hugely unpopular council leader, Jason Kitkat, lost their seats, leaving them with eleven councillors to Labour’s 23.

This defeat is an indication of the problems and contradictions inherent in the party’s politics. In Brighton, the Greens were faced with the test of power. They have failed spectacularly. On 7 May, Brighton’s Green council was punished for acting indistinguishably to cuts-making local authorities everywhere else. Clearly, the heavyhearted hand wringing of ‘anti-austerity’ Green councillors meant little to those suffering under the blows of the more than £73 million-worth of Tory cuts they had dutifully passed on.

Nevertheless, looking at the election results as a whole, there has been a significant increase in support for the Green Party, particularly over the course of the last year. The increase in people voting for the party has been combined with very large growth in membership, which the Greens claim now stands at 62,000.

The Green Party has benefitted from the deepening fragmentation of electoral politics in Britain and the widespread search for an alternative to the politics of cuts and crisis. The overwhelming majority of the party’s support comes from people who oppose austerity. In a post-election poll commissioned by the Tory peer, Lord Ashcroft, 81% of those who had voted Green said they opposed a further five years of cuts. Perhaps even more significantly, 55% of Green voters also agreed with the statement ‘cuts in public spending were never necessary in the first place’ – evidence of a clear ideological opposition to austerity among a majority of their voters.

The Green Party has established a reasonably large national media profile, one that has increased substantially over the last five years. This has helped the party to become a pole of attraction for a layer of people looking for an alternative at the ballot box. In this election campaign, for the first time, the Greens were treated as a ‘mainstream’ party in much of the media.

Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, appeared in both the seven-party leaders’ debate and the five-way ‘challengers’ debate’, which had an audience of more than seven million people. Green Party representatives were involved in leaders’ debates in Scotland and Wales and in the BBC regional debates. This stands in contrast to the virtual blackout suffered by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which, despite having the sixth-largest electoral challenge, received only the statutory minimum coverage.

Overall, the Green Party achieved a 3.8% share of the vote nationally – slightly less than polls had suggested. Here, like other smaller forces including TUSC, the Greens suffered a certain squeeze from so-called ‘lesser evilism’, with many voters backing a party they perceived as offering a governmental alternative. Unlike in Scotland, where the SNP is now seen by many as the most effective electoral vehicle for expressing fierce anger at austerity, the Greens have not convinced a substantial section of the working class that a vote for them is the best way to ‘send a message’ to the establishment or stop the cuts.

Indeed, the Greens have not yet been able to break out significantly from the relatively narrow sections of society in which they have previously enjoyed support. The party’s voter base remains skewed heavily in favour of younger and more affluent voters. Students make up a substantial section of its electoral support. As well as Brighton Pavilion, the four constituencies in which the Green Party came second – Bristol West, Sheffield Central, Manchester Gorton and Liverpool Riverside – all have a student population of more than 20%. Sheffield Central has the highest density of student voters in the country.

A significant factor in the rise of the Greens has been the demise of the Liberal Democrats who, until their participation in the coalition government, were seen by a section of young people as a progressive alternative, particularly with their (broken) tuition fee pledge. Lord Ashcroft’s poll confirms this. His data shows that a massive 50% of Green voters in 2015 had supported the Lib Dems in 2010, compared to 18% who had voted Labour.

The prospects for further electoral growth remain. Certainly, the substantial disillusionment with the establishment parties, fierce anger at the cuts onslaught, and the increasingly ineffectual opposition from the Labour Party make fertile ground for the growth of parties that are seen to be offering an alternative. The Greens have emphasised the unfairness of the electoral system following the election result.

They are right to point out the need for change on this score, but the potential for the Greens to win mass support particularly among working-class people, is still limited by their approach to politics. The Green Party is not, and does not even profess to be, a party of and for the working class. The Greens’ policies on the economy and the environment do not go beyond the limits of capitalism.

It is telling that, in the leaders’ debates, Bennett failed to mention the trade unions – the mass, democratic organisations of the working class – a single time. Indeed, as the Labour leadership has moved against the unions, removing the last vestiges of democracy and trade union influence within the party, the Greens have reiterated calls for the state funding of political parties. They draw equivalence between unelected, unaccountable multimillionaire party funders and democratic organisations made up of millions of workers.

It speaks volumes that Jenny Jones, a Green Party Greater London Assembly Member and previous candidate for mayor, indicated that she would support a second-preference vote for the Tory MP, Zac Goldsmith, on account of his ‘environmental credentials’, should he stand for mayor next year. Evidently, Goldsmith’s ‘credentials’ as a representative of a party engaged in some of the most savage attacks on working-class people for generations are not considered to be of fundamental importance to Jones.

The example of Brighton shows clearly what could happen to the Green Party on an even larger scale if it were to face the prospect of power. It is therefore vital that we build a genuine, working-class alternative to the parties of the one percent. TUSC has laid an important foundation to build on. For workers and young people who want to fight austerity at the ballot box, building this genuine alternative should be a priority as we resist the savage onslaught of the Tories over the course of the next government.

Claire Laker-Mansfield

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