When does a surge become a slow but steady trend? Both phrases could be used to describe the Green Party’s achievements in the local elections on 5 May. The party has reached a record high of 545 councillors on 166 councils, up from last year’s similarly groundbreaking 445 and 362 in 2019.
It will not be easy for the party to repeat this success at a national level. The first-past-the-post electoral system works against smaller parties such as the Greens, whose vote is scattered across the country. Meanwhile, the more mainstream the party becomes the less appeal it may have as an “alternative” to the Conservatives and Labour.
Yet there is reason to believe that increasing Green support at a local level is more than a simple protest vote and could soon lead to more MPs joining Caroline Lucas in parliament.
“We have broken onto 21 local authorities this year — councils often dominated by Labour or the Tories,” says Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a councillor in Bristol. “A single seat breakthrough is usually followed by multiple seat gains in future elections. In Bristol, for example, we now have 24 councillors, an equal number to Labour. This was how we paved the way for our first parliamentary seat in Brighton Pavilion, and it’s how we will do so again and send more MPs to Westminster.”
There is also evidence that the party’s elected officials are having an impact beyond winning seats, pushing local councils and national politicians to be more ambitious on local air pollution and planetary health. This effect is acknowledged by figures across the UK political spectrum. The 35 council seats the Green Party has won from the Conservative Party in last week’s local elections “demonstrates that strong environmental policies are not a political liability but could be an electoral asset”, Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network, told the New Statesman. “The success of the Green Party and the relative failure of the anti-net zero Reform UK party suggests the public does not blame green policies for higher bills.”
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has similarly thanked Green representatives in many speeches to the London Assembly, says Zack Polanski, a Green assembly member who is chairman of its Environment Committee. “Khan frequently credits myself, Caroline Russell and Siân Berry for changing his thinking,” Polanski said, citing policies on clean air, retrofitting (rather than totally rebuilding) housing estates, and introducing the polluter-pays principle for charging road users. “It’s the Greens who are asking important questions and are often the visionaries.”
The party’s representatives are eager to extend this influence further still.
For Tess Read, newly elected to Exeter City Council as part of a five-strong, all-female Green group, the emphasis will be on holding the Labour-controlled council to account for its claims to make sustainability a priority. Just last week, for instance, it was a Green councillor who questioned why electric car charging points and bike racks were not included in plans for a new housing development, she says. “I can hardly believe that plans are put forward for building developments in this day and age without these basic steps to net zero [greenhouse gas emissions]. And neither can the voter.”
Such emphasis on local solutions to global problems is what many Greens believe is helping to give them the edge — from pressing for better energy efficiency measures to promoting green spaces and biodiversity. “People are seeing that while other parties are arguing about national issues, we are highlighting what our local authorities can actually do for them on the ground,” says Alex Catt, 24, who defeated a Labour cabinet member to claim a place on Norwich City Council last week.
Equally, party representatives and analysts stress that it’s not only local issues that are behind the party’s rise. The worsening climate crisis, and increasing public anger about it, are also critical factors.
“It isn’t just coincidence that the steep upward positive turn in the Green Party’s fortunes began precisely at the time that [Extinction Rebellion’s] influence and Greta Thunberg’s fame approached their peak,” says Rupert Read, an academic, former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion and former Green councillor (and Tess Read’s brother).
Leo Barasi, author of The Climate Majority, similarly draws a connection between Green support and rising concern over climate change. “The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on the 1.5°C temperature target in 2018, which preceded the surge, and the recent spate of extreme weather, along with the media taking climate change more seriously, have no doubt also been important.”
So can Green progress at the polls translate into real political change? “The most likely short-term electoral path for the Greens is — unfortunately for them — the one that has happened regularly,” says Barasi. “They do well in lower-stakes and proportional elections then get squeezed in Westminster elections. Exactly that happened in 2019 between the EU and general elections. But things change in politics. It’s not impossible that they’ll retain enough support this time to win more seats, which could be important given a hung parliament looks fairly likely.”
Peter Newell, a professor at Sussex University and author of Global Green Politics, says: “The spread of Green support across regions and voter profiles this time suggests they are extending and deepening their appeal beyond their core constituency.” British voters, he adds, are not the only ones realising the world needs greater economic and environmental security. “Going forward it will no doubt help [the Green Party’s] cause if it can point to governments around the world implementing their policy ideas.”
Plus there is another crucial aspect to the Greens' surge. In January 2019 only two of the party's councillors elected England and Wales were Young Greens. This year 25 of them were.
“It’s not a protest vote -- it’s a clear vote of confidence in these individuals and how hard they’re working,” says Polanski, with particular reference to the five young Greens he has supported on their election campaigns in London this year (including Nate Higgins, now sitting on Newham Council, which had been all-Labour since 2010). “I think people see us as something genuinely different.”
Rosie Rawle, age 30, a former leader of the Young Greens who gained a seat in Oxford from Labour last week (half of city’s six Green councillors are now aged 30 or under), adds: “Young people's voices are so rarely heard, let alone represented in local and national government, and so I'm proud to have been elected as a young person against that trend. I believe that with each year, we will see more talented young green activists elected ready to deliver on a radical platform and transform their communities. It's clear that people have been keen to elect young representatives with fresh ideas and perspectives, rather than see the same old business as usual."