Do the Greens have a future without Caroline Lucas?

The co-leader has announced she’s standing down.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, will not be standing again in the next leadership election. Principal speaker from 2007-8, leader from 2008-12 and co-leader since September 2016, she announced that she’d be standing aside from leadership duties in the Guardian today.

Her reasons? She’s strengthened the party’s internal structures and electoral performances, and carved out the party’s voice in modern politics – enough to let someone else take over.

As the Greens’ first and only MP, representing Brighton Pavilion since 2010, Lucas is the highest-profile Green politician in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate Green parties). A passionate campaigner and shrewd politician with a dizzying work ethic, Lucas is the party’s biggest asset. Many within and outside the party have periodically questioned whether the Greens can survive without her – particularly during the past three years of tempestuous politics.

Although Lucas is perhaps the least likely British politician to be compared to Nigel Farage, the Greens have often worried about having the “Ukip problem” of stalling without their raison d’etre and charismatic leader.

Where Ukip went electorally adrift after the Brexit vote, the Greens have faced an “existential crisis” – as one party source puts it – since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party in 2015.

Under the leadership of Natalie Bennett, who led them into the 2015 election, the Greens took a new tack: prioritising anti-austerity politics, challenging inequality and positing radical social policies, like citizen’s income.

This move from an eco-friendly focus to an extensive economic and social manifesto (which one former senior party figure described to me as “a fantastic utopian suicide ticket” at the time) contributed to the “Green surge” ahead of that election, and the party’s vote increased four-fold nationally.

But when Corbyn arrived on the scene shortly after, the Greens’ unique selling point as an emerging socialist party was challenged. This was part of what Lucas writes were “strong countervailing forces” that buffeted the Greens at that point, and led her to agree to stand for the leadership again in May 2016.

The Greens suffered heavily in the 2017 election, as did all the smaller parties. The horizon looked bleak for the party, but Lucas continued with a policy of outflanking Labour on key left-wing and environmental issues, such as Trident, nuclear energy, HS2, airport expansion, and free movement.

The Greens have also felt able to push for bolder economic policies than Labour: their pledge of a four-day week, for example, comes after their citizen’s income proposal has gained mainstream traction since they announced it in 2015.

This strategy seems to be paying off. The Greens’ performance was strong in the most recent local elections, defying even their own expectations with a net gain of eight seats, prompting them to call themselves “England’s fourth party”. Jonathan Bartley, Lucas’ co-leader, became one of four new Greens elected to Lambeth council (making the total five), and became Labour’s official opposition there (with Bartley as leader).

Now the Greens are on course again, Lucas feels she can risk standing aside to allow more talent to rise up through the party and foster more high-profile Green figures (this was the idea with Bennett, who led the party from 2012-16, before poor media performances and policy confusion scuppered her career).

So no, judging by the success of the Greens’ new direction and ability to begin holding their own against Corbyn, losing Lucas as leader need not finish them off. Not least because strong local campaigns have thrown up a number of councillors who are potential leadership material: Alison Teal in Sheffield, who has gained local plaudits over the tree-felling scandal, for example, or the Bristol councillor Cleo Lake, an actor and artist who is now the city’s lord mayor.

Other names include the Greens’ young and media-savvy deputy leader Amelia Womack (elected aged 29 in 2014), and the London Assembly member and twice London mayoral candidate (beating the Lib Dems to third place in 2016) Sian Berry. The latter is experienced and respected in the party, and being party leader while running for London mayor again could give her the necessary profile boost in future.

Bartley has not yet announced if he’ll stand again to be co-leader, but he has built his profile since he was elected in September 2016 and his ground game in Lambeth impressed the party.

As the Green party has always prided itself on having female leaders, though, it’s doubtful that a man would lead alone.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS