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28 May 2021

The Greens are on the march. Who should be afraid?

May’s local elections saw support for the Green Party increase, but that won’t necessarily translate into more MPs.

By Ben Walker

England’s Green party is on the march. Buoyed with local council seat gains throughout much of the country, there’s talk now – albeit talk almost exclusively from them – of supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the nation’s third most popular party. The polls don’t yet show that to be the case, but the latest numbers do record a slight uptick on the Green party’s support since the May local elections. 

But in our electoral system, how far can they go?

One of the interesting trends of this year’s local elections was the success of smaller parties breaking through in communities not typically associated with their base vote. Green candidates saw their fortunes rise in areas with voters from lower socio-economic backgrounds and less educated, as well as in more affluent, degree-educated enclaves.

Of the 129 wards where the Greens topped the vote, 40 were gains from Labour and 35 were from the Conservatives. Greens also won in some intensely Brexit-backing areas, in addition to areas which fervently voted to Remain.

Green gains came in both Brexit-backing locales as well as Brexit-hating ones
Estimated share that voted Leave (x) and top-vote share for the Greens in 2021 (y)

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What this points to is not necessarily a political earthquake, but a sign that the Greens can now establish relevance in almost every part of the country. Contrary to the national positioning, environmentalism is not read by voters as a left-wing talking point. Both Labour and Green candidates told me that when faced with the choice of a Labour councillor and a Green one, Conservative voters were more likely to vote Green.

[See also: Green gains in red-brick England]

This is good news for a party in the ascendancy. The Greens are emulating the journey of other anti-establishment parties that once broke through with disaffected voters: the Lib Dems and Ukip. But can this translate into parliamentary wins? 

LE2021: Greens topped the vote in Bristol
Local election results by local authority, vote share

Caroline Lucas, representing Brighton Pavilion, has been the party’s sole MP since 2010. Her success came from a build-up of council wins at the local level and a few cycles of sustained presence in parliamentary contests. But for Greens wanting to replicate that journey elsewhere, the picture is mixed. If we look at council results, just nine locales saw levels of Green support exceed more than one in five of the total votes cast. Some were solidly Conservative boroughs; and others, solidly Labour.

In comparison, Ukip in 2013 and 2014 were polling more than 20 per cent in more than a dozen locales. Their support, though demographically specific, was better concentrated.

The Greens’ best performing council result in May came in Bristol. There, the party pipped Labour for first place with 33 per cent of the vote, an increase of 11 points on 2016. In the wards which make up both the parliamentary constituencies of Bristol West and Bristol South, the party was 19 points ahead and 3 points behind respectively.

LE2021: Greens notionally “won” Bristol West by a 19pt margin
Local election results by parliamentary constituency. In certain cases the boundaries may not 100 per cent match up to the constituencies

Will this lead to an extra parliamentary seat in the next general election? It is doubtful. In the 2016 locals, the Greens came top in Bristol West just as they did last month, but then went on to perform poorly in the general election of 2017.

It looks as though voters are essentially ballot splitting: backing the Greens locally but Labour nationally.

Head north to Sheffield Central and you see a similar picture. In the May local elections, totting up the wards similar (though not of a 1:1 match – which can be blamed on boundary changes) to that which make up the parliamentary seat, the Greens won 43 per cent of the vote, with Labour at 38 per cent.

But in general election results, the best the Greens have done here was 16 per cent in 2015.

This tells us that, thanks to ballot splitting, the Green vote has historically been soft. Whether that is still the case now is up for debate. The Greens have recently achieved success across much of England because they are relevant locally. The challenge for them now is to be relevant nationally, and at present it’s hard to see them going far under a First Past the Past system until they’re polling at double what we’re seeing now. 

The Greens may be gaining support, but until that vote firms up and remains steady even in general elections, Lucas will be very much alone.

[See also: Alex Salmond’s Alba already exists: it’s called the Scottish Green Party]