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8 February 2021

Are the Greens surging? Well, it’s complicated

The party is polling at its highest level since August 2019 and the Liberal Democrats may have more to fear than Labour. 

By Stephen Bush

The Greens are polling at eight per cent of the vote in the latest IpsosMori poll, their highest rating with any pollster since August 2019. Does it matter?

The short answer is “No”, because this is, as essentially with every polling story of the past six months, a change within the margin of error that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already. 

As longtime readers will know, I don’t think voting intention is really that important outside of election time. A lot of the time it’s a bit like asking people whether they prefer tea or red wine: while most people will have a strong preference between the two, that won’t give you a particularly good read on what choice they will make if you offer them both another time, as their next choice would be determined by all sorts of other things, such as what time of day it is, whether you are serving food and a variety of factors we can’t define or easily gauge this far out from an election.

[See also: In an era of crisis, Conservative MPs are embracing the state]

The Green Party’s vote share could drastically reduce as it did during the general election campaign of 2019, reduce as it did in 2017, or hold steady as it did in 2015 (to the extent that the latter election, one in which the polls were wrong, is a useful example at all). I don’t think what you might call the Green Party’s “resting” share is a particularly useful gauge of that one way or the other. The approval ratings of the major party leaders among people saying they’d vote Green are, in every way, more important than the fact those people are telling us they’d vote Green.

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It is, however, noteworthy that what you might call the Green Party’s “resting” poll position has remained in the four to eight per cent zone since the local elections in May 2019 – rising as high as ten per cent immediately after the European elections, but never falling back to the one to four per cent zone it sat in from the summer of 2017 to the spring of 2019.

What’s not clear is if the people saying they will vote Green in 2020 and 2021 are the same people as those saying they would vote Green in 2018 and 2019, and if they will behave in the same way. One read is that these are, by-and-large, people who are concerned about climate change who are making what you might call an “expressive” statement about their values but will at election time think about making an “effective” statement about which party can win in their area and nationally, and that therefore Labour shouldn’t worry all that much about them.

That was my view in May 2019 and it remains my view now: although you can point to a number of seats where the Green vote is bigger than the Conservative majority, I don’t think that these voters were ever going to vote for Labour in December 2019, whether because they were committed Green supporters or because they had specific concerns about the major parties.

[See also: Why long-term Covid could mean long-term Conservative rule]

The other view is that these are a different group of voters behaving in a different way and are a real problem for Labour. We don’t have as much information as I would like about who these voters are, so at the moment we are really in the land of pure hunch.

But whichever interpretation is right is good news for the Greens as far as their central objectives – to keep environmental issues in the news and to win seats  are concerned. It ought to mean greater attention on the party going into local elections where they have good prospects not only for winning council seats but to use those seats as a springboard to winning parliamentary seats. (To my eyes, Solihull, Bristol and the surrounding area, and Liverpool, in that order, are the places I would be most excited about were I a Green.)

That may be a bigger problem for the Liberal Democrats than anyone else. If as we enter 2024, the Greens are not only consistently polling better than the party but have a more successful set of local elections, the Lib Dems may find themselves squeezed out of the national conversation at exactly the point the party would usually expect to be boosted by a greater share of coverage at a general election. Labour will probably be able to use the brutal reality of the electoral system as a pretty effective cudgel at a general election to get the Green vote down to its core where they need to. The Liberal Democrats won’t.

[See also: Is the SNP about to implode?]