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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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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What did Jeremy Corbyn really say about Bin Laden?

He's been critiqued for calling Bin Laden's death a "tragedy". But what did Jeremy Corbyn really say?

Jeremy Corbyn is under fire for describing Bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” in the Sun, but what did the Labour leadership frontrunner really say?

In remarks made to Press TV, the state-backed Iranian broadcaster, the Islington North MP said:

“This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

He also added that it was his preference that Osama Bin Laden be put on trial, a view shared by, among other people, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson.

Although Andy Burnham, one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, will later today claim that “there is everything to play for” in the contest, with “tens of thousands still to vote”, the row is unlikely to harm Corbyn’s chances of becoming Labour leader. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.