Natalie Bennett on polling day. Photo: Anadolu Agency
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"This leftwing label is potentially unhelpful": the Greens on why they missed their moment

What happened to the Green Surge, and why aren't the Greens on a par with their European equivalents?

The 2015 general election was supposed to represent the culmination of the #greensurge. Instead, Caroline Lucas finds herself as lonely as ever in the House of Commons.

Even Brighton is no Green fiefdom. Lucas was re-elected with majority of 8,000 in Brighton Pavilion, but this was more an endorsement of her assiduousness as a local MP than her party. The Greens lost nine of their 20 seats on Brighton and Hove Council on polling day. Lucas was re-elected as a quasi-independent: she criticised aspects of the Green party’s minority control of the Council, for example, the hike in the cost of seafront parking to £20 a day, and made scant reference to the party on her leaflets.

No other Green candidates won, but the party still gained over a million votes – a 900,000 increase on 2010 (albeit partly accounted for by running an extra 250 candidates). Yet in a sense the election campaign merely highlighted how far the party lags behind its sister parties on the continent. The Greens even lost ground in Norwich South, where it had recorded its second best result in 2010.

Successful Green parties in Europe have cultivated an unthreatening image to win favour with the urban middle-class. But much of this demographic in the UK simply found Natalie Bennett too zany to countenance supporting her party. When the Greens should have been articulating their well-honed pitch a week before polling day, Bennett was discussing three-way marriage.

“Sandals and t-shirts with slogans on doesn't do us any favours,” says Darren Hall, the Green party's second most successful candidate in the general election, admitting that many voters “unkindly” still associate the party with hippy types.

No one would level that charge at Hall who, with his immaculate suit and background in the civil service, is considered a "textbook" new type of Green candidate. He finished second in Bristol West after a remarkable swing of 23 per cent – one of the largest swings in electoral history in England, driven largely by the collapse in the Lib Dem vote. Hall represents a rejection of the notion that the Greens should be a glorified pressure group.

“One of the reasons I was asked to stand, and why I was happy to stand, was to try and help take green politics in a slightly different direction and give it a credibility in terms of having done some jobs that mean I know what I'm talking about,” Hall says.

He accepts that the Greens will not match the success of its sister parties on the Continent without being seen as economically competent. “As shown by the Tories winning, people are most focused on economic issues,” he says. “I don't think the Green party has yet made its case about its ability to be economically credible and savvy.” In his campaign, he sought to cultivate support from social enterprises and small business, something too few candidates elsewhere did.  

“That rhetoric about being anti-growth – that's far from the truth, but we are yet to make the case in a way that people can understand,” Hall asserts. “This leftwing label is potentially unhelpful but we need to be absolutely clear that we are a party that is all about equality. That doesn't necessarily need to equate to being on the left.”


Hall’s message is strikingly similar to the advice to the Green party from Russell Norman, who has just stood down after nine years as the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party. In New Zealand, the Greens have established themselves as the third party, recording 11 per cent in the last two general elections.

While Bennett was mercilessly pilloried for her spending pledges at the last election, the Greens in New Zealand have emphasised economic competence. “Economic policy in a sense becomes a kind of signifier of how serious you are about politics,” Norman reflects. “We needed to apply ourselves to the concerns that people have in everyday life – jobs, income, housing, all that kind of stuff needs to be relevant. You can't expect people to vote for you if you're not relevant on all those things.”

The Greens’ success in New Zealand has followed the party’s decision to dress like politicians, suited and booted at every turn. “The way you look is important, so that that doesn't become a problem,” Norman says. If the electorate is thinking about what a candidate is wearing they’re not focusing on what they’re saying.

Of course, the Greens in New Zealand and Europe have a big advantage over the party in England: proportional representation. “It’s been critical, really; PR changes everything,” Norman says. Last month, the Greens received 300,000 fewer votes than the SNP, but 55 fewer seats.


But carping on about voting reform will not get the Greens very far. The UK decisively rejected the chance to embrace the Alternative Vote four years ago; a derisory 13 per cent of eligible voters supported AV. First-past-the-post is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

That is a fact that the Greens might need to confront. The party fielded 575 candidates across the UK this year, much to the delight of the Conservatives, who pushed for the Greens’ inclusion in the TV debates as part of a strategy to split the left.

The notion that a divided left allowed David Cameron to become PM is hogwash. But it helped. Had 3,000 Green voters plumped for Labour instead, Cameron would not have won a majority. After election night, Lucas expressed particular regret that the Lib Dem Norman Baker had been defeated in neighbouring Lewes; the Conservative candidate won by 1,100 votes in a seat in which the Greens got 2,800 votes.

“I personally think that longer term we have to do all we can to avoid fragmenting the vote between progressive candidates,” Lucas tells me. “We're nowhere near deciding any details and the comments are purely my own, and not an official party view. Clearly it would only apply in first-past-the-post elections. It's also a decision that would ultimately be made by local parties.”

And the broader challenge for the Greens is simple but profound: to professionalise the party without losing the sense of authenticity that attracted people to it in the first place. The party needs to become far more effective at selling itself; it took the Green party in Brighton Council three and a half years to get a full-time PR officer, by which time opposition parties had successfully defined the Council as a ragtag bunch.

The Greens were also slow to begin electioneering before the general election. “A year out from a national election you've got to go into campaign mode,” Hall says. “We only really got started about six months out.”


Most fundamentally, the Greens need to sort out their policy-making process, which senior party figures liken to an albatross. Policies are made and voted for by members, and remain party policy indefinitely, hence why the Greens were castigated for proposals to limit UK copyright terms to 14 years. The Greens retain identical policies to those that party members voted on 30 years ago.

“We've got to be credible in all kinds of ways, and we've got to focus on our manifesto, not on the historic party policy framework,” Hall says.

Nationally, the Green campaign was disjointed and utterly bereft of any message discipline. Bennett also singularly failed to take advantage of the opportunity presented by her inclusion in the TV debates.

“The perceived injustice of being excluded from the debates was a far bigger magnet for the party than anything Natalie Bennett could have actually said or done in the debates themselves,” says Adam Ludlow, senior consultant at polling company ComRes. “When the demands were finally acceded and the party included, the moment went and the Greens drifted back close to where it had been for the past few years.”

If Bennett does not perform well in the London Mayoral election next year, in which she is very likely to stand, her position could be vulnerable when the party’s next biannual leadership election takes place next September, and she may not even stand.

When Lucas resigned as leader in 2012, the hope was it would give her successor a chance to develop profile and join her in the Commons. Bennett was encouraged to stand in Norwich South, but avoided standing in any sort of target seat at all, instead running in the uber-safe Labour seat of Holborn & St Pancras. In a sense this is emblematic of the Greens' sense of missed opportunity. For all the astounding gains in Green party membership – which has increased fivefold, to 66,000, since the start of 2014 – how the party translates this into electoral gains under first-past-the-post remains unclear.

“The culture of the organisation is now growing up,” Hall says. “I hope that over the next five years there will be a move towards a better ability to communicate what we're all about.”

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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.