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Caroline Lucas, still awaiting the Green moment

In 2010, there was little to suggest that Ukip would comprehensively surpass the Greens. While Lucas won the seat of Brighton Pavilion, Nigel Farage came in third when he tried to oust John Bercow in Buckingham.

By Tim Wigmore

For much of the past four years, the Green Party has been searching for relevance. It has watched enviously as Ukip has surged in popularity and influence. Yet exclusion from the broadcasters’ proposals for the 2015 TV general election leaders’ debates has proved reinvigorating. Almost 200,000 people have signed a petition requesting that the Greens be included in the debates and the party regularly leads the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls.

So it is no surprise to find Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ first and only MP, in a chipper mood when we meet in her Westminster office. She has been a party member for 28 years – initially to the confusion of her Conservative-supporting parents, who sent their daughter to the independent Malvern Girls’ College in Worcestershire.

Lucas senses that if the Greens were to be included in one or all of the debates it could prove a “transformational” moment for the party. “A lot of people would recognise that the Greens are the party that they’ve been looking for.”

Lucas, rather than the party leader, Natalie Bennett, could be the Green representative in the debates. She says she “would be happy to do it”, though there are “discussions still to be had” over whether she, Bennett or Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Greens, would represent the party. There’s a strong case to be made for Lucas assuming the role; she is the most recognisable face and an assured media performer.

Two years ago, Lucas resigned as party leader, not something she regrets. “It’s actually increased phenomenally the amount of overall coverage we’ve managed to get.”

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In May 2010, there was little to suggest that Ukip would comprehensively surpass the Greens. While Lucas won the seat of Brighton Pavilion in 2010, Nigel Farage came in third when he tried to oust John Bercow in Buckingham. Membership of the two parties was not hugely different but the Greens had four times as many councillors in local government as Ukip. Even so, its vote share in this year’s European elections was nearly 1 per cent lower than in 2009.

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Lucas is a little defensive when asked about this. She says that the media fascination with Ukip “does become a self-fulfilling prophecy” and also pinpoints Ukip’s “massive financial backing”. She also concedes that Ukip’s “clarity of message” is “something we can all learn from”.

She continues: “‘Leave the EU’ is a much easier rallying cry than the position of the Greens, which would be to say that the EU’s done some fantastic things [but] they’ve also done some pretty bad things, so we need to reform it.”

The Greens have suffered, Lucas accepts, from “the image of being a middle-class party”. However, helped by its policy of abolishing tuition fees (funded by a business education tax on the largest 4 per cent of companies in the country), the Greens are well placed to mop up disillusioned Lib Dem voters. Recent YouGov analysis showed that half of the party’s current support had come from Lib Dem defectors. Bristol West and Norwich South, the most likely Green gains next May, are Lib Dem-held seats in university towns.

For the Greens to gain traction, the party would need to replicate Ukip in attracting blue-collar voters. Lucas feels that her party’s relationship with trade unions – “far stronger now than they have been in the past” – is emblematic of its growing working-class appeal. Now that Labour has signed up to matching Conservative spending plans for 2015-2016, it could be said that trade union leaders have more in common with the Greens, the only UK-wide anti-austerity party in Westminster, than with Labour.

Lucas wants to make it clear that “tackling an economic model which is trashing our environment is absolutely central to all of the challenges that we face today”. While she draws “renewed hope” that climate change can be “tackled” by groups outside parliament, the three main parties’ environmental policies have left her “less hopeful than I was”. And she was “horrified” that the “ill-informed, ignorant, misleading” Owen Paterson was environment secretary for two years.

In a preview of the Green’s likely general election message, she accuses Labour of offering “Tory-lite” policies. She has met Ed Miliband only “once or twice” and considers him to be “incredibly badly advised, because I sense that perhaps he would like to go much further than he does go”. Lucas sees part of the Greens’ role as trying “to push Labour to be truer to its original principles”.

What would the Greens do in the advent of a hung parliament?

“We would be a little bit cautious [about entering a full coalition and would provide] confidence and supply-type support” – as the Greens have done in the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly.

The question will only become relevant if Lucas is not the only Green MP after next May’s general election.

Lucas’s central frustration – the underperformance of the Greens relative to its sister parties in the rest of  Europe – is unlikely to abate. “Sometimes people say, ‘Why aren’t the Greens in the UK as successful as they are in places like Germany?’ My answer to that is just two things: proportional representation and state funding for political parties.”

If this is the start of the “Green moment”, these are very tentative steps.