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5 December 2014updated 24 Jul 2021 4:44am

Middle-class war: how Labour should combat the Greens’ success

As the Green Party goes from strength to strength, the middle-class green lifestyle is vulnerable to Labour's appeal to poorer households.

By Anoosh Chakelian

This has been a good week for the Green Party. The party’s membership has doubled since the start of the year. And one of its target seats, York Central, looks more winnable now the Labour MP, Hugh Bayley, is standing down. All this ties into the party’s “Green Surge” narrative, as it celebrates its greater number of councillors and members.

To explore what the party’s increasing popularity means for Labour and the Lib Dems, I went to visit Bristol West. This is the party’s second target seat after the one it already holds, Brighton Pavilion. The Greens could either win in Bristol, or take votes from the sitting Lib Dem MP and deliver Labour a win.

Either way, the Greens are set to take chunks out of the leftwing vote in various precarious constituencies on the way to the election, and the Labour party has acknowledged this danger by setting up an anti-Green strategy unit, fronted by shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

So how will the Labour party counter the Greens? With Ukip demonstrating that supporting small parties is no longer a wasted vote, it can’t really use that argument. Then there’s the emphasis on Labour’s “truly radical agenda”, as voiced by Labour’s Chief Whip in the Lords, Steve Bassam, in a Staggers piece. “Labour has changed,” he writes, noting Ed Miliband’s opposition to military intervention in Syria and the fact that he was the first ever Energy Secretary, highlighting his climate change awareness.

But this approach sounds to me a bit like trying to fight on the Greens’ territory. Attempting shamelessly to shed New Labour credentials, the party inadvertently reminds potential Green voters of what it stood for in the Blair years. This just reinforces their reservations and leads them to voting for the one party they see as truly of the left.

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From my reporting in Bristol West, I see Labour’s best chance of attacking the Greens as being on equality and class grounds. Put crassly, it remains easier to be green if you have some money. The Greens’ candidate in Bristol West, Darren Hall, did not deny this to me, and admitted the party’s enduring middle-class associations:

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I think it is [a challenge], I’ll be honest. There are a lot of myths about what green lifestyle is. So there’s an assumption that green lifestyle is organic, electric cars, solar panels, etc etc. And of course, early adopters of a lot of that stuff are the people who can afford it, because they can afford to take those risks.

The reality is that if you’re going to raise a free range pig, of course it’s going to cost more than putting ten in a stall in Denmark. Ethical business is quite a struggle.

The party is trying to make links between better housing insulation, for example, and saving on energy bills, to try and bring green consciousness to the more deprived. But the relative cost of a green lifestyle is a vulnerable area that Labour could exploit.

As the party’s Bristol West candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, told me:

Everybody doesn’t shop at an organic supermarket. There’s one at the end of my road. I can’t afford to shop there. I’m not poor, and I can’t afford it . . . And actually, I’m more concerned about whether or not the person serving me is paid a decent wage, and can they afford their rent, than whether or not their food is organic today.

Labour’s narrative against inequality, and supporting the many rather than the few, could well be its best chance to counter the “Green Surge”.