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How red are the Greens?

What lies behind the Green surge – and to what extent can they be considered a new vehicle for the left? Andrew Dolan reports

April 21, 2015
8 min read

Andrew DolanAndrew Dolan Red Pepper co-editor. @Andrew__Dolan

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how-redIn the run up to the general election, opinion polls have been recording the highest levels of support for the Green Party since the 1989 European elections, when they got 15 per cent of the vote. In January the Ashcroft National Poll had the Greens at 11 per cent and they have scored 7-9 per cent across multiple polls since then, regularly coming ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Growth in Green Party membership has been even more impressive. Between September 2014 and March 2015 the combined membership of the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Green Party, alongside the few hundred Northern Irish Greens, more than doubled from approximately 26,000 to 55,000. In the context of the long-term decline in UK political party membership – the three main parties are at a historic low – such growth is remarkable.

Youth in revolt

The Green surge is strongest among younger voters. According to a YouGov voting intention tracker for 18 to 24-year-olds, between January and December 2014 those intending to vote Green rose from 7 to 22 per cent, placing the Green Party joint second with the Conservatives, after Labour on 32 per cent. Hinting at the occupational composition of this younger vote, the research organisation Youth Site currently has the Green Party as the second most popular choice amongst university students.

The number of Young Greens and Scottish Young Greens (under-30s) is around 17,000, almost one third of the total membership. Given that the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey indicates that since 1983 each generation has been less likely to identify with a political party than the previous one, the prevalence of younger Green Party members is no mean feat.

Green Party gains among younger voters appear to have been made primarily at the expense of Labour. According to the YouGov intention tracker Labour’s share fell from 44 to 32 per cent during 2014. Conservative and Liberal Democrat support remained broadly unchanged, indicating a considerable shift of allegiance from Labour to the Greens within this demographic.

The shift is likely in part a consequence of the Green Party’s opposition to the austerity politics that Labour has committed itself to. The Greens’ policies of rail nationalisation, social housing construction, a rise in the minimum wage and free education represent an attractive alternative to a demographic traditionally located on the left and more likely to express dissatisfaction with neoliberalism and austerity than those already entrenched within labour and property markets.

green-votersWhere is the Greens’ vote coming from? This chart shows which party 2015 Green voters supported in the two previous general elections

Red to Green?

Beyond exclusively young voters, the ‘dissatisfied Labour voter’ explanation is prevalent in many attempts to understand the Green surge. Yet the image of left-wing Labour voters defecting to the Green Party en masse is misleading. Research by James Dennison at the London School of Economics has shown that of those intending to vote Green in 2015, approximately half voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (see chart). Similarly, according to a survey completed by 4,500 Green Party members, 47.5 per cent voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 while just 23.2 per cent voted Labour.

Dennison’s research also highlights that, on specific economic policy issues, those planning on voting Green in fact tend to be less left wing than Labour voters. What clearly separates likely Green voters from those of other parties, UKIP aside, is that a far higher proportion express a lack of trust in MPs in particular and UK democracy in general. So here lies arguably the best insight into the nature of the Green surge: those who vote Green in the general election may not necessarily be as left-wing as Labour voters but they will largely share an anti-establishment politics.

Indeed, given that almost half of the likely Green voters that voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 did not do so in 2005, it becomes less a story of the Liberal Democrats losing core voters to the Greens than of an anti-establishment vote searching for a political home. After all, before their entry into coalition with the Conservatives and abandonment of a number of pre-election promises, the Liberal Democrats were in 2010 the premier protest vote destination. This was the party that opposed the Iraq War and a further rise in tuition fees; the party of ‘Cleggmania’ and all its attendant ‘newness’.

The demise of the Liberal Democrats as a protest vote has been the Green Party’s gain, then, and it is not hard to see why. Accompanying the Greens’ leftward policy shift has been a new rhetoric comparable to that deployed by contemporary populist movements across Europe. Talk of ‘the people’, of ‘us versus them’ and even of ‘revolt’ is now commonplace in Green Party publications and speeches, and carries some legitimacy when considered in relation to the party’s well-publicised support for various grassroots struggles and the involvement of the Scottish Greens in the Radical Independence Campaign.

New trajectory

This interaction with extra-parliamentary politics appears to have had further effect. The Green Party’s international coordinator, Derek Wall, recently remarked that the new Green Party members ‘are much more left wing than older Greens’ and there is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that a sizeable contingent have minimal history of institutional political involvement.

Jenny Rogers, 38, a veteran of the alter-globalisation movement, is one such new member: ‘I joined in the midst of the excitement over Syriza. I would still say my politics are broadly anarchist, but they are also anti-austerity and pragmatic and I believe a wealth of strategies makes sense rather than a singular method. Also, the vibrancy of the direct action movement isn’t what it was in the 1990s, and there isn’t the welfare system to support people engaging in social movements full-time, which is what we had the luxury of. Full-time work, a child, exhaustion means I’m up for easy resistance. But I don’t see myself as a Green Party member as part of a singular identity.’

Conversations with activists suggest that Jenny is not alone in her political trajectory. Of course, those radical leftists who have joined the Green Party are most likely unrepresentative of the wider Green Party membership, which is itself unrepresentative of the wider constituency of Green Party voters, so one cannot draw any conclusions as to a shared political history. Nonetheless, their involvement signifies that the Green surge cannot be reduced to a single political phenomenon, or simple shifts in allegiances between parties. And for as much as it is predicated on a crisis in parliamentary politics, it is also linked to a growing recognition of the limits of the purely horizontal, anti-parliamentarian politics that has held sway over much of the radical left for the past two decades.

Electoral consequences

Despite its growth, the Green Party is unlikely to win more than one seat come May. Aside from traditional strongholds such as Brighton, where Caroline Lucas faces a tough battle to be re-elected, and Norwich South, a ‘four-way marginal’ where the Greens polled 15 per cent of the vote in 2010, the party lacks the organisational presence and concentrated constituency support to mount a credible electoral challenge within the first-past-the-post voting system.

Yet the Green surge may still have immediate electoral consequences. There is a growing consensus, supported by research by the psephologist Robert Ford, that ‘red to green defection’ could cost Labour a number of seats. In an analysis for the Observer at the end of January, Ford identified 22 seats that could be lost to Labour as a result of potential supporters voting Green. These range from Brighton Kemptown and Hove, where the Conservatives are defending majorities of 3.7 and 3.1 per cent respectively (Caroline Lucas has a wafer‑thin 2.4 per cent majority in Brighton Pavilion), to Hendon (Conservative majority 0.2 per cent) or Bristol West, where the Liberal Democrats have a 20.5 per cent majority that Labour has high hopes of overturning but the Greens are mounting a significant campaign.

A newly emboldened Green Party has little interest in such tactical anti-Tory considerations. Rather its eyes are fixed on the opportunities that may arise should ‘politics as usual’ and the austerity it entails continue. The party’s recent talks with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and their stated intention to ‘unite whenever possible to battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity’, hints at the possibility of a changed political landscape: one in which the idea of the ‘other parties’, including the Green Party, transforming growing popularity into power is more than just a pipedream.

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Andrew DolanAndrew Dolan Red Pepper co-editor. @Andrew__Dolan

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