In many ways, the Green Party’s victory in the Littletons by-election on 13 January is a very dull story. The Green Party of England and Wales was the most successful party in local council by-elections in 2021 and that trend seems likely to continue in 2022.
Is the Green Party a new problem for the Tories – or an old one, with a new name?
Littletons, in Wychavon, Worcestershire, is the type of council seat where the Green Party is doing well: a traditionally Conservative ward with no history of a serious Labour challenge, it was won by the Liberal Democrats under New Labour and lost by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government (although the Greens have also gained ground in traditionally Conservative areas with no history of any anti-Tory challenge).
The Greens are also doing well in traditionally Labour wards – with no history of a serious Labour challenge – that were won by the Liberal Democrats under New Labour and lost during the coalition. But the danger that the Greens pose in this case is in some ways a very familiar one for the Labour Party: the Greens are performing the same role as the Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2010, when they ran to the left of Labour with some success. That’s not to say that Labour doesn’t need to worry about this: a substantial Green vote, as shown in most polls, is a problem for the party if it occurs evenly throughout the country. But it’s not a new problem.
For both the Conservatives and Labour, the threat that the Greens pose at a parliamentary level is a gradual one. Again, there is a comparison to be drawn with the Liberal Democrats: one MP once complained to me that the Lib Dems were “like knotweed: they win one seat in a ward, then they win the whole ward, then they become the opposition, then they take the council, then you wake up one day and a Liberal Democrat MP has your seat in parliament.” The Green Party in England has a number of councils where it might be able to do the same if it keeps winning council seats – Solihull is one example.
The conflict between the big two parties in England and Wales is different from the conflict each of the big parties has with the smaller parties. The loss or gain of councillors in Conservative vs Labour battleground seats is important, because it impacts campaign infrastructure and capacity. But contests where the Conservatives or Labour are fighting the Liberal Democrats and Greens matter more, because the best weapon the big parties have against the minor parties is simply to use the first-past-the-post logic to squash their challengers down.
The Green Party challenge to the Conservatives, however, is slightly different to the old Liberal Democrat threat. Yes, there are similar themes (successful Green Party campaigns in Conservative areas tend to be hostile to new developments and infrastructure projects, for example). But on the Green Party’s biggest issue – the policy they are most associated with – the Conservatives and the Green Party agree: climate change is a serious problem and one that needs urgent attention.
Of course, the Green Party would say the Conservative commitment to green issues is skin-deep and insufficient, while Tories would argue that for the Greens to oppose nuclear power and HS2 equally does not show commitment. But on this issue, voters trust the Greens more than the Conservatives, and that makes the party hard to fight. The Greens have a healthy base of people who are open to supporting it on ideological grounds, and it can pick up tactical votes, because voters are more willing to give their second preference to the Greens – or to go Green as a protest vote – than they are to other parties.
This may be one reason why the argument advanced by some Conservative MPs – and by me on last week’s NS podcast – that the Tories are better off waiting until after the local elections to dump Boris Johnson as leader is a bad one. A bad set of local elections for the Conservatives may deepen their Green Party problem in England, in ways that a change of leader alone cannot fix.