Green Party Conference: Eat the Greens

As the news round focused on the Labour conference and PM Liz Truss this week, you could be forgiven for not realising that the Green Party conference is taking place in Harrogate this weekend. Despite the rail strike, leaders and activists will find their way to the spa town to determine how they can best influence the political agenda. 

Compass Fringe event at Green Conference 1st October 2022

The big political backdrop is not unhelpful.  The climate crisis is now inextricably linked to the economic crisis.  Climate chaos registers with the voters from left to right and while the cost-of-living hit is now at the forefront of minds, the blips of support for environmental policy are turning into a consistent drum beat. 

We will turn to Green strategic choices below.  But first it’s essential to register the fact that the political system works extraordinarily unjustly against the Greens at every turn. First past the post voting (FPTP) fixes electoral outcomes to the massive advantage of the Tory/Labour duopoly and to the massive disadvantage of the Greens. In 2019, it took roughly 38,000 votes to elect each Tory MP and 50,000 for each Labour, but 850,000 votes to get just one Green MP, although she punches way above her weight.  

But it’s how the system sets the Greens up to fail at every election that is so frustrating for them. Many Green voters hold their nose and back the least bad option, Labour or Liberal Democrat, in the national interest.  Those beneficiary parties then bank those votes as their own and claim they won. Not all winning candidates do that. Layla Moran for the Liberal Democrats and Clive Lewis for Labour are two examples of gracious winners.  But most don’t and critically their leaders don’t. And so, the cycle is repeated with no reward, no thanks. The Green vote is squeezed by an essentially abusive system that tells environmentally concerned voters ‘Waste your vote and let the Tory through or use it to back the least bad option with no gratitude expressed’. 

Come the next election, by voting tactically, green members, activists and supporters in effect sign their own political death warrant by backing other parties because it can look like they can never win. Their vote is suppressed by their own generous instincts. Take the seat of Lewes in East Sussex, a traditional Tory/Lib Dem marginal. At the council level the Greens got the biggest share of the vote, but that was squeezed to almost nothing come a general election. This injustice is spread across the country.  Even the very language of ‘wasted votes’ unfairly disadvantages the Greens.

In the past some Green candidates have stood aside for the greater good. This diminishes the Green vote totally in those places and has the knock on effect of denying their one MP state funding for her office which is based on national vote share. 

In 2019, against the Brexit backdrop, deals between Liberal Democrats and Greens were done. Now there is little if any conversation between the Lib Dem leadership and the Greens.  Meanwhile, Labour in effect denies their existence.  While Green leaders have said they are open to talks, so far, no one wants to talk back.  Instead, they play hard ball, squeezing the Green vote where they can, continuing to abuse voters because ‘they have nowhere else to go’. 

Understandably attitudes in the Green party are hardening. There is little worse in life or politics than being ignored.  If no one even talks to them, what option do they have to but to stand everywhere they can, maximise their vote, but at the same time split the progressive vote and bring the roof in. It’s a terrible choice, forced on them by a combination of FPTP and the arrogant tribalism of Labour in particular.  Although the Liberal Democrats also need to think hard about being better pluralists.   

In an electoral sense, Labour and Liberal Democrats could be playing with fire.  The Greens vote currently hovers around 7%. If its’ maintained or grows at all they could be Queen/King makers in some seats.  

Obviously, the prize for the Greens is proportional representation (PR,) which just got both a lot easier and a bit harder to achieve.  Labours’ leadership refusal to commit to putting PR in the manifesto is disappointing but not surprising.  But the sea change in Labour members views on PR leads the way for more plural and cooperative politics, especially at local level. 

Of course, progressives must fight and win the next election under FPTP. But how we cooperate or not, and whether all parties are incentivised to work together really matters to the result and what happens after. 

It’s tough to find more seats under FPTP that the Greens can win. This goes back to their vote being artificially suppressed.  But we are where we are. In the absence of any talks the Greens will go all out in seats like Bristol West to win against Labour.  If there are seats the Greens can do well in and Labour and Liberal Democrats aren’t targeting, then they should be given every chance to do well.  Tactical voting and vote swapping sites should be used cleverly to bolster the national Green vote and make up for any tactical votes in key seats. Local deals, like those in Richmond-upon-Thames in London, give Greens a foothold in councils they can build from.

It’s likely that the Party will play hard ball back as long as they can, to drag the other parties to the table. But the dilemma of Greens wanting to get the Tories out and get rewards for their party – is impossible to dodge. Building its power and being agile will be key. Here we come to the strategic issues facing the Greens. Indeed, what is their strategy in the face of this horrible voting system?

I’ve long argued the Greens should learn from the strategy and tactics of UKIP while of course rejecting their right populist political content. UKIP never won any seats outright, despite in 2015 3.8million people backing them, but changed our country and its place in the world by exerting electoral and message pressure.  This theme was picked up a year ago by Harry Lambert in the New Statesman in an article called Why the Greens are missing their moment. In it he quotes Patrick Flynn the UKIP strategist “The question the Greens should be asking themselves is why aren’t they on 20 per cent? Intuitively they own the biggest issue of the era.”

O’Flynn told Lambert he thinks that the Greens are failing to learn from UKIP’s strategy in the 2010s, when the partys’ leadership cut anything from its policy programme that ‘wasn’t popular’. Most notably, UKIP ditched its ideological libertarianism and swung behind public funding for the NHS. For O’Flynn, the Greens should be “the party of David Attenborough” and little else. That’s probably a step too far, but the Greens attempt to be a ‘catch-all’ party is flawed.  Instead, they should think of being a ‘green christmas tree’ on which other social and democratic policies can be hung. With this focus on the environment the party can then claim to be the home of both small c- conservatives, especially in rural areas, and the more radical left.  

To get there, with this strategy or any purposeful strategy, the party itself needs to professionalise.  Its internal democracy is to be lauded but leaders need to be able to lead in these complex and fast-moving times. The irony here is that Green conference goers have been reluctant to pass necessary power up. It’s now holding the party back.  As former co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, told the Statesman last year “the party needs to be fit for purpose. hand on heart, I’m not convinced it is ready to meet the opportunity that is there for it.” Not enough has changed since then. It needs to. Imagine a parliament with a fair proportion of Greens MPs given their vote, that’s 56 Caroline Lucas’s! To get there, message and movement strength must be combined with tactical agility. Time is running out.

Neal Lawson is the directer of Compass

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