SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 196 March 2016

Where did the Green surge go?

In January, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, commented that "this is the year that we turn the ‘Green surge’ into Green seats". She said they are targeting increasing their representation in the Welsh assembly, the London assembly and on councils across the country in May’s elections. However, this pronouncement came just five days after Sam Armstrong, a Green councillor elected in Lancaster in May 2015, defected to the Labour group, saying: "I feel Green politics, as well as social democracy, is being achieved within the Labour Party. Labour is now the right move for me".

The 2015 general election campaign saw a transformation of the Green Party, trebling in membership from 20,000 in September 2014 to over 60,000 by the date of the election. Its share of the vote rose from 0.9% in the 2010 general election to 3.8% in 2015, winning 1.2 million votes and retaining MP Caroline Lucas.

Central to the Green surge was the redoubled emphasis on demands for decent wages and campaigning against austerity that came from the party’s September 2014 conference. This attracted a new generation. The British Election Study showed that almost 55% of Green voters were 18-35. The same study split Green voters into two categories – consistent Green voters since March 2014, and those who voted Green for the first time in May 2015. It found that while more longstanding Green voters attributed the environment as their most important issue, for the new voters the NHS, the economy and inequality were more important than environmental issues.

A survey of 2015 Green voters carried out by Tory Lord Ashcroft found that half of them had voted Liberal Democrat in the 2010 general election. The Green surge, as with the previous growth in support for the Lib Dems in 2010, represented a conscious rejection of the right-wing policies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. After the Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives led to a catastrophic collapse in support, backing the Greens represented a search for a more thoroughgoing opposition to neoliberalism and austerity as represented by the majority of big business politicians.

The Labour leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn saw this surge translated into support for a fundamentally different type of candidate from the establishment Westminster, and Labour, norm. According to YouGov data collected after Corbyn’s victory, almost one in ten voters in the Labour leadership election had voted Green in the May elections, 40,000 in total. Of those, 92% had voted for Corbyn. And this mood was also reflected among Green Party members: 214 previous Green Party candidates applied to vote in the leadership election, only to be rejected by the Labour Party bureaucracy.

Concurrent with the Labour leadership contest were the Green Party executive elections. Just 5,239 members voted, a turnout of 7.8% – a clear move away from involvement than at the height of the surge, just nine months earlier. This rapid transformation in the Greens' fortunes underlines the desperate search for political representation across society, but also the absence of a mass party that has earned loyalty through anti-austerity policies backed by action.

In an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn after the Labour leadership elections, Caroline Lucas welcomed his victory. At the Greens’ autumn conference of 2015, Natalie Bennett pointed to the similarities between Corbyn’s policies, the Scottish National Party and the Greens, and the growth of parties with anti-cuts rhetoric at the ballot box.

In the same speech, Bennett said: "I know that some commentators are asking: what’s the difference between Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and the Greens? Communities up and down this country who are dealing with Labour councils know one answer to that. They have Labour councils who aren’t listening to them, aren’t meeting their needs, are too often in the pockets of developers and big business, who believe that despite all the evidence that ‘economic development’ comes from supporting an out-of-town supermarket that destroys local independent businesses by the score".

Bennett is correct to attack cuts-making Labour councils. The underlying anger at the austerity measures implemented by Labour councils cannot be underestimated. For the first time, both Unite and Unison trade unions’ local government bodies nationally have called for no-cuts budgets, an expression of the mood among workers.

Unfortunately, the Greens’ track record on council cuts is similar. Taking charge of Brighton council in 2011, the Green Party passed on £25 million in cuts, after standing on an anti-cuts platform. In the 2015 local elections, cutting Green councillors were kicked out of office, losing twelve of their 23 seats to Labour. The same Brighton electorate, however, re-elected Caroline Lucas to parliament, after she publically opposed some of the council cuts.

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters should take heed of the lessons of Brighton’s Green-led council. Corbyn’s election campaign only really scratched the surface of the anti-austerity mood. A real fight-back, in deeds and in words, would rally many more. Conversely, a failure to fight will be noted, and tarnish Corbynism’s anti-cuts credentials. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s letter to Labour councils, sent in December urging them to set ‘legal budgets’, has been taken as a green light by right-wing councillors to continue implementing austerity at a local level.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has explained how councils could set no-cuts budgets and build a mass movement, mobilising workers and young people to demand an end to austerity. The example of the Liverpool council of 1983-87, winning back millions of pounds of funding from Thatcher’s government, shows the possibility. But without a determination to take a similar route, both Greens and Labour will struggle to harness the anger in society.

This May’s elections will see the Greens without the same burden of power, challenging in mainly Labour areas where councils have passed on huge cuts. Although reports indicate that Green membership is falling, their numbers and resources are still significantly greater than just two years ago. Even the low turnout in the Green Party executive elections was almost double those who voted in the last leadership elections in 2012. If Corbyn continues to retreat in the face of Blairite and big business opposition, deferring change until the 2020 general election, a small layer of students and young people could continue to be attracted to the more ‘unified’ position of the Greens.

However, the Green surge of 2014-15 benefitted from a wave of media interest and coverage. While the Greens have maintained a certain media profile, they are unlikely to reach the same heights. Already, the BBC has outrageously allocated the UK Independence Party, with one MP, three political broadcasts outside of election time, while the Greens, also with one MP, have been allocated none.

The referendum on European Union membership could also potentially undermine any Green resurgence. David Cameron, together with the majority of big business, is campaigning for Britain to remain within the EU. Given the anger that exists, there is a huge potential for workers to seize the referendum to punish the rich and their politicians. This campaign could have parallels with the Scottish independence referendum, which saw an upsurge in political activity in working-class communities across Scotland in favour of independence, with the Better Together campaign only winning narrowly.

The Scottish Green Party, an independent organisation from the Greens in England and Wales, saw a significant increase in membership during and after the referendum as a result of its pro-independence stance. However, Green leaders such as Lucas and Bennett have already started campaigning to remain in the EU. They could find themselves on the opposite side to many workers and youth in the referendum.

The Green surge has been undermined by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. But while Labour has seen hundreds of thousands join, many have come up against the right-wing machinery – and the fact that Labour in local government across the country is implementing austerity. While the Greens in power have a similar track record, they have not been tested in action on the same scale as Labour is currently. If the Corbyn surge is not translated into building a fighting socialist anti-austerity alternative – encompassing forces both inside Labour and in the trade unions and working-class communities outside it – what is now a Green ebb could flow once again.

Ben Robinson

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