How Greens can become major electoral force in Greta Thunberg era – Mark Stuart

THEY’RE the political party that young people are starting to talk about. Buoyed by their recent success in the English local elections in May, the Green Party’s co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, claimed: “It’s clear that the Green Party is the next major force in British politics.”

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg (centre) marches during a Youth Strike 4 Climate protest in Bristol.
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg (centre) marches during a Youth Strike 4 Climate protest in Bristol.

But how true is this boast as Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg galvanises young people? And what are the prospects for a Green surge in the near future?

Past history suggests we should be cautious. There have been at least two false dawns before. First, in 1989, the Greens polled 15 per cent in the European elections, benefitting from the messy merger of the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). As a result, the Greens became the clear protest party, but not for long.

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Other political parties became greener, blunting the Green Party threat. It is often forgotten that Margaret Thatcher, herself a scientist, cleverly climbed on board the Green Party bandwagon, making a series of high-profile speeches on the dangers of climate change. The Green surge soon subsided.

Protesters in Leeds, as tens of thousands of children across the UK skipped school as part of a global climate strike.

More recently, the Greens experienced a minor surge in the run-up to the 2015 General Election when they were initially denied a place in the leaders’ televised debates.

By January 2015, the party had 60,000 members, more than either Ukip or the Liberal Democrats. However, the poor performance of their then leader, Natalie Bennett, in the leaders’ debates, and in a series of ‘car crash’ media interviews, saw them fall back on polling day.

The 2015 experience demonstrated two things about small parties like the Greens. First, the performance of the leader is almost everything in terms of electoral appeal. Second, that with a surge in support comes greater scrutiny over policy, and in 2015 the Greens’ policies simply melted under media pressure.

The closest that Green policies have come to fruition was when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party in the summer of 2015.

How can the Green Party best exploit the Greta Thunberg phenomenon?

At last, Green voters had their archetypal leader – a falafel-eating allotment holder – and as a result, they deserted the Greens in their droves. No fewer than one in 10 new Labour Party members in this period were Green voters from the 2015 election.

However, fast forward to 2021, and there are four good reasons to suggest that the conditions are now perfect for another Green Party revival.

First, the lack of voter loyalty to political parties. Gone are the days when people routinely voted for either of the two main parties. In conditions where voter attachment to parties in weakened, surges in support for smaller parties like the Greens become far more likely.

Second, left-leaning Labour voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the paucity of policies emanating from Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership, and are growing hungry for a more radical alternative.

Brighton's Caroline Lucas remains the Green Party's solitary MP.

Third, the issue of climate change is likely to become the leading issue of the second half of 2021, particularly when the Prime Minister hosts the ‘Cop 26’ United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. While Boris Johnson will try shamelessly to steal the Green Party’s agenda, by this stage the Greens could be seen as a much more credible political force.

Finally, the German elections take place in September, and there is every prospect that the Green Party will gain a share of power, with its leader, Anna Baerbock, in line to become German Chancellor.

Such a seismic event in European politics would help the Green Party overcome the ‘credibility gap’: the well-known phenomenon under first-past-the-post where people don’t vote for political parties because they don’t think they can win.

In other words, electoral success in Germany could create a ‘tipping point’ for the Greens in the UK. As Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s former leader and only MP, commented in 2010: “It’s massively important for people to know that we can win.”

Green Party success can therefore be achieved by emulating the success of the Liberal Democrats the 1990s against the Conservatives by demonstrating that they can win power, first in local elections, then in winning by-elections, and finally in specifically targeting their limited resources at general elections in 
places such as Sheffield Hallam, Stroud, Norwich South and Bristol West.

But one of the problems for the Greens is that they tend to fish in the same waters as the Liberal Democrats, winning support from a narrow pool of students and university graduates. The party, therefore, needs to lose its single issue status, coming up with a distinctive appeal across a range of issues in order to broaden its electoral appeal.

The recent success of the Liberal Democrats in exploiting discontent over planning laws in the Chesham and Amersham by-election is a case in point.

The Greens should ‘own’ opposition to controversial housing developments in traditional Tory areas, thereby appealing not just to grandchildren but to grandparents.

Focussing more on local issues relating to pollution and litter, rather than always referring to lofty scientific data on the environment would also broaden the Greens’ appeal, as would becoming a more centrist party, with less radical policies which do not frighten off older, middle-class floating voters.

So, while the enduring influence of Greta Thunberg, and school climate strikes, demonstrates the Greens’ growing appeal amongst young voters, the Greens must go grey in order to gain any share of political power in the future.

* Mark Stuart is a political academic from York. He has also written biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.

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