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Carla Denyer: “Under proportional representation, Labour might split in two”

The co-leader of the Green Party on electoral success, climate spending and voting reform.

By Zoë Grünewald

Carla Denyer and I met at a quaint café in Parsons Green, west London. I sipped a cappuccino; she plumped for something thick and green. Dua Lipa played in the background, a fun reminder that the co-leader of the Green Party doesn’t yet have the luxury of a Westminster office to hold such meetings.

Denyer was upbeat – and perhaps she has good reason to be. The Greens made historic gains in May’s local elections, winning control of the Mid Suffolk District Council, the party’s first council majority. More recently, in the three July by-elections, the Greens took the third-highest share of each constituency.

She spoke to me about her chances of winning a seat in Bristol at the next general election. “It’s not going to be easy, I’m not cocky about it… In 2019 we had 11 councillors in Bristol as a whole. We now have 25. So we’re the largest political group in Bristol, and that is an increase both in the constituency and the city as a whole.” What’s changed? “People know us more, they like us more, they like Labour less, and the boundaries have changed since last time.”

Denyer is different from Westminster’s other party leaders. She is the only woman, and at 38 years old, she is young – older only than the Westminster leader of the SNP, Stephen Flynn. In a previous life, Denyer worked as a mechanical engineer. “In my spare time, I was campaigning on climate and other specific issues and getting quite fed up of having to ask things from politicians from other parties, over and over again,” she said. “That happened to coincide with me meeting some Green Party members in Bristol and realising that they were quite different politicians from other parties. I realised that the most effective way of achieving the change I want to see in this country, rather than trying to persuade politicians from other parties to do the right thing, is to stand for election to replace them.”

[See also: Michael Parkinson – The last interview]

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The Greens’ influence is growing across the country. The party is picking up council seats in cities with young, liberal populations, such as Norwich, Sheffield and Oxford. As the Labour Party shifts to capture the middle ground, some voters on the left have found the Green’s vocal position on the environment, public ownership and proportional representation more appealing than Labour’s centrism.

And the Greens are drawing in Conservatives, too. In rural areas, more and more voters are identifying with the party’s environmental activism. “We find that when we speak to [voters] on the doorstep, present our policies plain and simple, especially in a lot of these areas that are quite affected by the sewage scandal,” she said, “voters from across the political spectrum like that, including the majority of the people that voted Conservative in the last election.” Hence the party’s success in the Mid Suffolk council election, in which it snatched control from the Conservatives, taking 24 out of 34 seats.

How does Denyer reflect on the results? Is this a crisis of identity for the Greens? “We have always had people coming to us from across the political spectrum [who] previously voted for other parties,” she said. “Now that we’re making massive, record-breaking gains, and this is the fourth consecutive local election where we’ve made huge gains, I think it’s becoming a bit more obvious.”

She acknowledged that some of the Greens’ success is down to tactical voting, but I found her reflections on the party’s capture of former Conservative voters persuasive. “People that have voted Conservative in previous years, they’re not necessarily Conservative. They may have previously voted Conservative because their parents did, or because the Conservatives were the only ones that ever knocked on their door… It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a long way to the right on the political spectrum.”

[See also: The Green awakening]

Denyer is thoughtful and well spoken, and it is easy to get swept along with her enthusiasm. But I remind myself, and her, that despite the party’s recent successes, it is unlikely to win seats in the House of Commons at the next general election. At present, the Greens’ only parliamentary representative is Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, and that is under threat. Brighton’s Green Party lost most of its councillors in the May local elections and Labour took control of the council for the first time in 20 years. This result followed criticisms of the Green-led council’s management of finances and public services. Recycling rates in Brighton have slowly declined, and refuse disputes in 2021 led to rubbish being dumped in the streets. Increases to parking fees are claimed to have cost Brighton more than £1m from lost tourism over three years, and a Labour councillor accused the council of pushing the city to “financial disaster” after overspending by £3m last year.

Are there lessons to be learned? “I think the financial situation is just as much the responsibility of the previous administration,” she said of the situation in Brighton. “It’s worth remembering the last local elections in Brighton and Hove [in 2019], and how it was that Labour won that election. They gave up control of the council part-way through [the term, in 2020] because they had so much infighting that so many Labour councillors stepped down, or left the Labour Party, that they lost their majority.

“The Greens were willing and encouraging Labour to work with them and the Labour administration refused to cooperate.”

She accused Labour and Conservative councillors of deliberately obstructing green policies in the constituency, telling me that the parties collaborated to block a temporary cycle lane from being made permanent. “[It’s] a waste of money, as well as going in the wrong direction in terms of making the city a liveable place.”

I asked Denyer what she thinks of Labour’s U-turn on its £28bn a year climate investment, a subject that is clearly more comfortable for her than the party’s failures in Brighton. She said Labour Party members were “clearly very disappointed” with the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s diluting of the policy, but that the amount pledged was never sufficient. She points to the 2019 Green Party commitment of £100bn a year, which she insists was “fully costed” and “independent analysis from various think tanks and experts agrees that that was about the right order of magnitude”.

Do the Greens really see £100bn as a figure that will be acceptable to the electorate? Labour has, Reeves said, been forced by a fractious economic climate and inflation to adjust its own pledge, saying it would “scale up” to £28bn a year instead. Why should the Greens be exempt from similar compromises?

For Denyer, the answer is simple. Such investment is not only necessary for the planet’s survival, but good for communities and economic growth, too. “Even if you don’t care about climate change, [green policies] are good for the economy, and they’re good for the well-being of the system.” For example, she told me the Greens would be prepared to spend £25bn on retrofitting homes with insulation. “That’s what we need to get to zero carbon, and it also creates hundreds of thousands of green jobs, that are good-quality, well-paid green jobs that… are geographically dispersed, not just in London.”

Denyer’s optimism extends to the electoral system of proportional representation (PR) too. The Greens remain highly committed to electoral reform, in the hopes of a more diverse and inclusive political system. Support for PR extends across parties, including in the grassroots of the Labour Party. But Keir Starmer has all but ruled out PR, categorising it as “not a priority” at last year’s Labour party conference and confirming it would not be included in its electoral reform pledges. “If we had a proportional voting system, the Labour Party might not exist in its current form anymore,” Denyer said, knowingly. “[Labour] might be split into two parties, or more people might come towards the Greens. That’s OK. Because multiple parties that have some overlap working together works fine for most European countries and generally provides a more stable government. Supposedly the benefit of first past the post is a stable government…

“We are one of the only countries left in Europe that still uses first past the post, which is incredibly out of date and unfair to voters who so often see their vote is wasted. The only other country in Europe that still uses first past the post for general elections is Belarus – not a famous bastion of democracy and freedom.”

Starmer’s party remains loyal, at least while its poll lead is strong. But Denyer is convinced there is enough support for PR across the political system that Starmer will eventually have to change his mind. “It’s not just the Greens. There’s a large majority of Labour Party members. It’s the Lib Dems and various SNP members, various other small parties, and all of the democracy NGOs and campaigning groups, some of whom had been working from within Labour, as well as outside.

“I know that single-handedly I wouldn’t be able to persuade Starmer to change his mind,” she acquiesced. “But I hope that with all of those actors working simultaneously, he or his successor will have to acknowledge, sooner or later, that they are really behind the curve of things, internationally.

“The sooner they do that, the sooner we can fix democracy in this country and get on with passing policies that make the country a better place.” For Denyer, it’s a matter of Labour seeing sense: “Labour being part of government most of the time is a better outcome than being the whole government not very often.”

[See also: Can the Greens become more than a single MP party in England and Wales?]

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