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29 April 2021

What would be a good night for the Greens in the 2021 local elections?

The Green Party of England and Wales has a great deal going for it in this set of local elections.

By Stephen Bush

Thanks in part to their excellent gains in the 2019 local elections, but also to their slow and steady progress in the preceding years, the Green Party now has a genuine national presence across much of England.

Many of those gains were in councils that elect on the “thirds” model – that is, one-third of the seats are up one year, another third the next and the final third the year after, with the “spare” year the only one that the council has no elections. The Green Party would, on a good night, make gains in some but not all of those areas: Amber Valley, Tameside, Colchester and so on. Given how unpopular both the major parties and their leaders were in May 2019, I don’t think it is reasonable to expect the Green Party to do as well as they did then. They might, but it would mean the party was doing exceptionally well and having a fantastic night overall. On a merely good night, I think simply winning an extra seat in about a third of the 2019 gains that are up again this year would be more than enough for the party’s co-leaders, Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley, to say they had performed very well indeed.

In addition to the 2019 election gains, the party would, on a good night, make gains in England’s core cities as well as in college towns, particularly in Bristol and Liverpool. They would continue to make in-roads into the heavily rural Conservative seats that Labour has generally struggled to reach. A bonus would be for the Liberal Democrats to slip backwards, particularly in areas where the two parties might compete to challenge one of the big two. In Liverpool, on a great night, they would clearly overtake the Liberal Democrats to become the second party in the city. 

But the party’s Westminster problem is that while they are well positioned to become the challenger to Labour in some constituencies, it is hard to see how they can turn that potential into further parliamentary seats unless Labour finds its way back into office. It’s very easy to see how the Green Party might pick up a further four to six constituencies the next time Labour loses power, just as they gained Brighton Pavilion in 2010. But it’s quite hard to see where those gains will come from before Labour takes office again, which may not happen for another decade, if at all.

What they really need to do is establish themselves as the unquestioned second party in Conservative areas. There are a number of local authorities where they could do this, but Solihull looks like the best bet in many ways. A strong Green group, a history of electing Liberal Democrat MPs, and a Conservative incumbent at a parliamentary level make this an appetising place for the Greens to make further gains over the next few years.

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Why have you ignored the strong Green campaign in other areas?

These are not predictions, but benchmarks: I’m not saying this is what will happen, I am saying this is what would have to happen for the party in question to say with a straight face that they have had a good night.

The Greens had a phenomenal night in 2019. Isn’t your yardstick for a good night here still a little too high?

Yes, maybe. I freely concede that I don’t have a good grip on what would be a reasonable yardstick here: I think we can all see that “just doing as well as 2019” would obviously go beyond a “good” night and be well and truly phenomenal. That said, we all know that gaining your first councillor is harder than gaining your second. So I don’t know one way or the other.

Given that gaining the first councillor often takes much longer than gaining more, is there a chance that you are underestimating what the Greens could do in places they picked up a first gain in 2019, 2018 or 2017?

Yes. However, I am more confident that I haven’t set the bar unreasonably low than unreasonably high.

What about the various mayoral races? Why so little about them?

Candidly, I am not convinced there is much joy for the Greens here. They do not have any credible gains and they have yet to see any real benefit to, for instance, their establishing themselves as the third party in mayoral elections in London. So outside Liverpool, so I am not sold on the view that the party gains much from good performances in mayoral elections in the past.