Happy birthday to Britain's fourth party (that's the Greens, not Ukip)

Nigel Farage's party would crave UK political representation to match that of the Greens.

As exotic locations go, a Coventry solicitors’ office does not rank very highly. Yet the motley group who met there 40 years ago tomorrow live on. What these 43 people created in 1973 is now established as the UK’s fourth biggest political party.

Affording such status to the Green Party may ignore Ukip’s current surge. But Ukip would crave UK political representation to match that of the Greens. The Green Party has 141 councillors, nearly four times as many as Ukip’s 39. While former party leader Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavilion to become the first Green MP at the last general election, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, running against only John Bercow of the main three parties, was beaten by an independent candidate dressed as a dolphin.

So, after two name changes and much mockery, the Greens have achieved something tangible. Where they have had success, it has come from recognising that no election is too small; the party’s development in Brighton serves as a model of local politics at its best. Years of campaigning and gaining councillors – and then control of the council – culminated in Lucas’s election in 2010. A similar strategy has led to electoral dividends in Norwich, where the Greens have 15 councillors and could gain their second MP in 2015.

Despite these successes, the party should feel frustration too. Progress since the general election could generously be described as anaemic. The anti-establishment streak of Lib Dem voters disillusioned with the coalition should be prime Green targets. But the Greens aren’t even fielding a candidate in Eastleigh, saying they will concentrate on the county council elections instead.

In great contrast to Ukip, they have barely impacted upon the national debate. While the Greens might justifiably complain that they have been featured less on programmes like Question Time, Ukip have, through persistence and Farage’s zeal, used their media showings to steer the public debate.

The Greens' failure has been in not creating a clear, easily understandable link between their ideas and solutions to Britain’s problems. People may not agree with Ukip’s solution of leaving the EU; at least everyone understands it. Until it can resolve this problem, the perception of the party as the preserve of the middle-class will remain.

Yet for all that the Greens must envy Ukip’s prominence in political discourse, so Ukip long for representation to rival theirs - and above all a Westminster presence. To Greens that – and the knowledge of how far they have come from that Coventry meeting – must be worthy of a birthday toast.

Caroline Lucas became the first Green MP when she won Brighton Pavilion at the 2010 general election.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.