Until a few months ago, Labour thought that its passage to power was simple enough. Hold onto its core vote, scoop up angry left-wing voters disaffected with the Liberal Democrats, and watch Ukip and the electoral system do the rest.
The assumption was that Labour would not face pressure on its left. That belief has now been shattered – and not only by the SNP. In 2014, the total membership of the Greens, including both the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Green Party, rose from 15,000 to 35,000, just 9,000 fewer than the membership of the Lib Dems. Almost 300,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the Greens be included in the TV debates before the general election.
Worst of all for Labour, the Greens now average six per cent in the polls, compared with one per cent at the last general election. Their support more than doubled in 2014. Relatively few of the new Green supporters voted for Labour in 2010, but around a third are former left-leaning Liberal Democrats: exactly the segment of the electorate that Labour regarded as its “firewall” in 2015. “A Green vote of six per cent would probably be enough to prevent Labour from getting an overall majority,” explains Adam Ludlow from the polling firm ComRes.
As 2015 has already highlighted, the Conservatives might just be the Green Party’s best friends. In attacking Labour’s spending plans as “unfunded”, the Tories are goading Labour to deny the charge, as George Eaton notes. But by seeking to win fiscal credibility, Labour has to accept that it will not reverse some cuts many on the left regard as unpalatable. Doing this opens up political space for the Greens to parade its anti-austerity credentials and, to those on the left, paint an unflattering contrast with Labour.
While the “Green surge” has even got its own hashtag on Twitter some perspective is needed. The Greens failed to make any impact in by-elections this Parliament and, while it gained an MEP in May, its national vote was actually slightly lower than in the 2009 European elections. While the party makes much of its appeal to voters disaffected with the Lib Dems, those who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 are actually more likely to support Ukip than the Greens today.
Still, Labour is confronting the fact that the rise of the Greens – even if it has not been on the same scale as Ukip’s – could stop Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister. In October, the shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan was appointed as chair of a new Labour Party unit on the Green Party. A few weeks later he visited Brighton Pavilion, which Labour is trying to win back from the Greens. The constituency is Labour’s 19th top target seat, the sort of seat it needs to win to be the largest single party, let alone win a majority.
On a crisp Saturday morning at the end of November, I repeat Khan’s journey. The caricature of Brighton – and the traditional Green stronghold – is North Lane, with its copious juice bars and shops like Vegetarian Shoes. When I meet Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s first MP, it is not there but on the less affluent London Road, where she is manning a Green Party stall. Several shops, including the one behind the stall, have fallen into disuse, and graffiti covers their shutters.
That the Greens are campaigning here is evidence of a party attempting to expand its support, though the process is not easy. “They’re very middle-class,” a train driver tells me outside the 99p store opposite. Despite efforts to forge links with trade unions, 61 per cent of Green supporters today are ABC1s.
Still, Lucas has established a rapport with her electorate that would be the envy of most MPs. A grannie asks for a selfie. Two young girls have dragged their parents out to meet Lucas. Another woman, who has the look of a middle-aged bohemian, interrupts our chat. “You do wicked work. Thank you so much,” she says. Most importantly of all, Lucas appeals to voters who would not normally support the Greens. “I’m not a green believer,” a cab driver tells me. He loathes the Green-controlled council who “make life very difficult” for him and hopes they are defeated next year. But he will still be voting for Lucas. “She’s the only person in Parliament who talks sense,” he says. “She’s not hidebound by party politics.”
Developing an appeal beyond her party base is essential to Lucas’ chances of winning re-election. In 2011, Brighton became the first ever council to fall under Green control (although it does not have a majority, it has more councillors than any other party). Many locals – even those well disposed to Lucas – have not found the experience a happy one. The council has an appalling recycling record: 302nd out of 326 councils. A bin strike led to a week of rubbish amassing on the streets. Shopkeepers in the market on London Road also grumble that exorbitant car parking prices and a 20mph speed limit imposed in much of Brighton have “crippled business,” as Patricia, who owns a family fishmonger’s, tells me.
The Green Party’s rule in Brighton has often made for an unedifying spectacle. In the summer of 2013, a councillor attempted to conduct a coup against Jason Kitcat, the Green leader of Brighton Council, by enlisting the support of a Labour councillor over direct message on Twitter. Labour gleefully leaked the correspondence. The Greens have also tried to organise a referendum to get public support on a council tax rise of 4.75 per cent. And this year another Green councillor, Ben Duncan, was expelled from the party after calling soldiers “hired killers”.
“The basic problem that they have is they haven’t really decided whether they want to be a party of protest or a party that actually runs an administration,” says Neil Schofield, a Green councillor who defected to Labour last August. “They seem to be very divided between people who use the council chamber as a platform and people who want to get things done.”
Yet Lucas has largely risen above the problems in Brighton. Even Schofield describes her as “a very conscious, very able MP who has a really strong public profile”, and, “has used her platform in Parliament to raise really important issues.” A recent poll by Lord Ashcroft gave Lucas a ten-point lead in the constituency, having been neck-and-neck with Labour in the constituency last June. “I’m sure she will hold her seat,” admits one senior Miliband aide.
Astutely – and, to Labour, disingenuously – Lucas has distanced herself from Brighton council since standing down as Green leader in 2012. “There are lots of things I would have done differently to the council,” she says, citing her opposition to the council’s handling of the bin strike. She calls the experience of leading a council “an inevitable learning curve” for the Greens.
Labour has not seemed quite sure how to respond. “We agree on a number of positions,” says Purna Sen, Labour’s candidate in Brighton Pavilion. The difference? “We have to not just protest, which is what Caroline Lucas does, but to govern.” Privately the Miliband aide says, “We’ve found the best line of attack is to attack the Greens as an upper-middle class lifestyle choice.” But, if this a reason why the Greens have failed to make any inroads in Labour’s northern heartlands, the line lacks traction with many Green supporters further south. Here, Labour is trying to flatter the party and its voters instead. Sadiq Khan recently praised Lucas, saying they “agree on a great many things.” But he warned: “every vote for the Green Party only makes it one vote easier for the Conservatives to win.” In Britain’s messy multi-party politics, ‘Vote Green, Get Tory’ is the new ‘Vote Ukip, Get Labour’.
In Brighton and beyond, the Greens are hammering Labour for not being left-wing enough. “Welcome to Brighton: Home of the true opposition in Parliament”, a Green Party billboard declared during last year’s Labour Conference in the town. “PS – Labour is down the hill on the right.” If the message wasn’t clear enough, the revolving billboard had a checklist of policies that the Greens advocated and Labour, by implication, did not: saving the NHS; fighting austerity; the nationalisation of railways; and scrapping Trident. To this list can now be added a wealth tax – more radical than Labour’s offer of a mansion tax – and a more liberal stance to immigration.
As Ukip has risen, so all main parties have hardened their position on immigration. This has been a boon for the Green Party, allowing it to shape a new identity as the antithesis of Ukip. “One of the things that the rise of Ukip has done is actually just remind people that there is a greater variety out there,” Lucas explains. “Labour has got caught up in the arms race of who can ‘out-Ukip’ Ukip.”
The Greens are benefiting from their new status as the anti-Ukip party. On the doorstep with Labour’s candidate Sen, I encounter a woman in her 40s who has been a Labour supporter for most of her life. “In normal circumstances there’s no question I’d be voting for you,” she tells Sen. But there is a problem. “I really hate seeing how the Labour Party nationally aren’t standing up to Ukip,” she says, citing the party’s rhetoric on immigration. “In the context of the crap with Ukip and everything to have other voices coming in is so good.” She is planning to vote for Lucas next May, though her vote in the council elections will probably be for Labour.
Where Ukip is fond of saying it is “not on the right or left”, as Nigel Farage told the New Statesman in November, the Greens are very ostentatiously positioning themselves on the left. They are open to the fact that their policies place them much closer to Labour than the Conservatives. When I ask Lucas about whether the Greens are attracting Tory voters, she admits “I haven’t come across that personally myself.” And while Farage says that he could support any government if it offered him a referendum on the EU, Lucas is adamant that “I will never vote for a Tory government.” Indeed, the Greens hope to counter Labour’s argument about the dangers of fragmenting the left-wing vote by arguing that more Green votes “will push Labour as well to be more radical.”
The message particularly resonates among students. If the Greens are diametrically opposed to Ukip the contrast is also reflected in their supporters: where Ukip thrives among pensioners who have been left behind, the Greens do best among the disillusioned young. In this year’s European elections, 25 per cent of students voted for the Greens – more than the number who voted for Labour. Up to a quarter of Green supporters did not vote in 2010, compared with 13 per cent of the electorate as a whole. In both Brighton Pavilion and Bristol West, the most likely source of a second Green MP, over 20 per cent of the electorate are students. The Greens’ fate in these seats may be determined largely by how many students vote. This means that the switch to Individual Electoral Registration next May, whereby voters have to register individually rather than by household, threatens to be disastrous for the Green Party. Experts agree that it is likely to result in more students who are not registered to vote.
But however the Greens fare next May, their rise mirrors a wider trend, detectable across Britain and beyond. To every new generation, the notion of loyally voting for one of the two main parties seems more archaic. So far disaffection with the political class in Europe has mainly benefited the populist right, but the radical left – in Spain (Podemos) and Greece (Syriza) – is belatedly catching up. Support for the Greens is comparatively puny, but, as their focus has shifted away from environmentalism, they are winning a hearing with those for whom the main parties are not left-wing enough. With Labour now polling fewer than 35 per cent that makes the rise of the Greens a big problem – in 2015 and beyond.