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6 October 2021updated 08 Oct 2021 9:10am

Why the Greens are missing their moment

In Germany they are heading for power. But England’s Green Party is mired in the culture wars.

By Harry Lambert

Why isn’t the Green Party one of the most powerful political forces in Britain? Sea levels are rising. Forests are burning. Fires and floods are forcing people out of their homes each year. We have an energy crisis. And only one party has spent three decades propounding the environmental cause, making the Green Party name perhaps the most valuable brand in British politics today.

In August one in three Britons named climate change as one of the most important issues facing Britain, and the world, with the issue ranking second only to the Covid pandemic – ahead of the economy, the NHS and Brexit. And yet, the Greens are a resolutely minor party and often mired in internecine conflict. Far from challenging Labour as the party of the left, they are still struggling to surpass the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, the Greens in Germany are likely to form the next government as part of a centre-left coalition.

Why are the Greens missing their moment? Why are they so marginal?

We know parties can surge in popularity in a short time. In the 2010 general election, Ukip won 3.1 per cent of the vote. Three years later, it was polling 18 per cent. By 2013 Ukip’s growing popularity had persuaded David Cameron to promise voters the Brexit referendum. At the 2015 general election, Ukip won nearly four million votes. In a brief window in the 2010s, Nigel Farage and Ukip changed British political history.

The Greens appear nowhere near to effecting such change. In the 2019 general election, the party won 2.7 per cent of the vote. Two years later, polls suggest it has doubled its support, to 6 per cent. But support will have to double again before the Greens begin to matter at Westminster. Is that likely? Should it already have happened? And is the party that controls a priceless name sufficiently well-run, led and organised to ride the surge of support for green issues?

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“Scientists are running out of language to describe the speed at which we need to act,” Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ sole MP, tells me. “We face an absolutely existential threat to our existence.” The Greens, she says, “sadly will be helped by the accelerating nature of the climate crises”. For Jonathan Bartley, who recently stood down as party co-leader, “It is the Greens’ moment. The penny is dropping, we have been on the right side of history.”

But Lucas describes the party she once led as “deeply old-fashioned” in the way it is run, and this is holding the Greens back. The Greens are not leader-run. In fact, the party scarcely has leaders at all. “Our leaders are just principal spokespeople, relabelled,” Bartley says. “We have influence, but very little power. We have no power to set policy, no power to tell the party how to conduct itself, no involvement at all in disciplinary actions.”

Green leaders, Lucas says, “don’t have any more formal power than anyone else in the party”. She has been trying to change that for years, but her and Bartley’s plan for a complete overhaul of the way the party works (which would shift power away from its volunteer-run executive committee, on which Green leaders are but one of many members) has been blocked at repeated party conferences. Nothing official can happen in the Green Party unless it is passed at a conference. Every policy must be passed by members before it can be adopted. Leaders simply promote policies decided on by party activists.

The Green Party, in other words, has all the disadvantages of a bureaucratic monolith without any of the advantages of scale. It is small yet it is not mobile. “The party needs to be fit for purpose,” Bartley tells me. “Hand on heart, I’m not convinced it is ready to meet the opportunity that is there for it.”

British politics is a leader-led culture. In the UK, elections are becoming increasingly presidential in style, with voters often backing the party whose leader they prefer at recent general elections. Yet, the Greens eschew empowered leadership. The party’s name may be an invaluable asset, but no enterprising outsider can take control of it and drive through a change in culture, policy or appeal. The Greens will not be modernised by a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair. The charisma of any Green leader will always be checked by their powerlessness.

“The question the Greens should be asking themselves,” says Patrick O’Flynn, a key force in Ukip’s modernisation in the 2010s, “is why aren’t they on 20 per cent? Intuitively they own the biggest issue of the era.” O’Flynn thinks that the Greens are failing to learn from Ukip’s strategy in the 2010s, when the party’s leadership cut anything from its policy programme that “wasn’t popular”. Most notably, Ukip ditched its ideological libertarianism and swung behind public funding for the NHS. Some of its politics were described as “Red Ukip”.

The Green Party is anchored to its historic policy programme, and that programme is not just green but deep red. The party’s economic ideas are far to the left of the Labour Party and indeed the German Greens. That’s popular: many British voters, according to polls, are economically to the left of Labour. But the Greens are also socially to Labour’s left – a far less popular position – with the party’s policy on gender rights having caused stark internal divisions, for instance. The party’s core policies are many coloured: green and red, and pink and light blue.

The Green Party is not, in short, a party focused on the environment alone. Its internal democracy empowers its members but narrows its appeal. That has its electoral advantages, but in any bid for national popularity, says Rob Ford, co-author of Brexitland, the party is “going to be hamstrung by its own activists”.

On 1 October Adrian Ramsay, the former deputy of the Green Party, and Carla Denyer, a councillor in Bristol, were elected as the Green Party’s new co-leaders. One of their first issues is to resolve the internal conflict over gender rights exposed by the party’s leadership contest. Shahrar Ali, a “gender critical” candidate, who opposed the blanket introduction of gender “self-ID” for access to single-sex spaces, won 21 per cent of the vote in the leadership election’s first round, polling third. Self-ID is a Green Party policy, which the party defines as the right to change your legal gender by declaration alone, “without medical or state encumbrance”. After the contest, Ali tweeted to his supporters, “You may be considering your continued membership”, but encouraged them to remain in the party.

Bartley is regretful that the contest revolved around the vexed issue of gender rights, for which he blames Siân Berry, with whom he served as co-leader. When Berry chose not to stand again as leader after Bartley stood down in July, she publicly challenged Ali’s position – that there are times when biological sex takes precedence over self-declared gender – saying that she could not work alongside him.

“I don’t think it was wise for Siân to say she wasn’t running again over this issue,” Bartley tells me. “It made the whole leadership election about the gender split. I think it was a political mistake. Whenever we now go and do an interview, it comes up and it’s the story.”

The party, Bartley adds, has “some wonderful policies on active peace-making, on reconciliation, on non violence. But the way that it conducts itself internally is a long way from those values. It played a factor in me standing down.”

Bartley became wearied by the Green Party’s internal conflicts. “We should be the party best at conflict resolution but actually we are very poor at it.” He likens his attempts to defang opponents in the gender debate to “wading through treacle”.

“There are a whole bunch of people who want this to be a fight, and to win and expel the other people. But the future for the party is to learn to listen, and to instil the values that we say we have. The bigger battle within the party is whether we’ll embrace peaceful resolution. If we do, we will survive. If we don’t, we will rip ourselves apart.”

When I ask Ramsay, 40, the new co-leader, how he hopes to resolve this issue, he is calm, if indirect. Ramsay, who was raised in Norwich and studied there, became a Green councillor in 2003, aged 21. During the leadership campaign, Ramsay’s co-leader Denyer, 36, referred to the LGB Alliance – which represents lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people and argues that there is a conflict between LGB rights and trans rights – as “a hate group” for its exclusion of trans activism. This statement is, perhaps, unlikely to help unite the party or broaden its appeal. Ramsay is less provocative when I ask him whether, at times, it is appropriate for spaces to be exclusively reserved to those born female, a principle laid out in the 2010 Equality Act.

“Under current legislation,” he says, after a brief silence, “there are circumstances where service providers can make judgements on a case-by-case basis and prisons is an example of that, where safeguarding decisions are made that way.”

Ramsay did not elaborate, but his position is obvious: it may indeed be acceptable to restrict access to a space on the basis of sex, as in current law. That is a more nuanced position than the one held by Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who recently declared that those born female do not have a right to their own spaces.

Ramsay cannot independently change the Green Party’s policy, whether or not he wants to, but he will speak for it. He can emphasise or soften its edges. When I asked Lucas, who backed Ramsay and Denyer’s candidacy, if single-sex spaces were appropriate she declined to answer. “It’s clearly part of what needs to be discussed,” she said, noting that there are “people who are upset” by the party’s policy. Lucas thinks the way to deal with that is “to try to find safe spaces to discuss this with respect, and a bit of kindness, rather than people just leaping to the barricades”.

How did gender rights become the issue that Green Party leaders spend their time evading? Why is the party preoccupied by anything other than the environmental emergency? For Patrick O’Flynn, the Greens should be “the party of David Attenborough” and little else. But that is not the party that has developed out of Britain’s environmental movement.

The Green Party was the party’s third name, wisely seized upon in 1985 after the Greens began life as first the People Party (in 1972) and then the Ecology Party. In 1989 the party’s Scottish branch detached itself; the Scottish Greens now sustain the SNP in Holyrood under an informal coalition.

After the first Green breakthrough in the 1989 European elections, with the Greens polling 15 per cent, David Icke, a television presenter, joined the party and soon came to be seen as its de facto leader – until he resigned in 1991 to announce he was the son of the Godhead and that the world would end in 1997. The Greens are no longer haunted by such inauspicious beginnings, but the party remains anchored by an evolving text – “Policies for a Sustainable Society” – that dates back to its founding. The Green Party has, for instance, been arguing since 1975 that “continued industrial expansion” is “not sustainable”.

Today, the Greens are keen to highlight their success at attracting both Labour and Tory voters in recent local elections, but only the former seem likely to back the party in strength at a national level. Natalie Bennett, the former leader, and Lucas both tell me that the party can be a natural home for “small-c conservatives”, especially in rural areas. Yet the party’s economic radicalism may deter such conservatives, however environmentally concerned they may be.

The party’s red economic vision is captured by a set of long-standing Green ideas: a universal basic income; a four-day working week; a move away from GDP as a measure of economic health; and a spike in wealth taxes to pay for the transformation to a green economy. The Greens have been calling for a basic income for 40 years. Bennett echoes Marx in describing the policy to me: “Everyone has the freedom to choose their own life, the freedom to choose how you want to spend your time, with no boss or state telling you what to do.”

The policy itself may not be quite so emancipatory: it guarantees adults just £4,628 per year, about a quarter of the minimum wage. Bennett tells me she is often asked if she’s a socialist, to which she replies, “no I’m a Green, and a Green is more radical than a socialist”.

I ask Ramsay if the party is a threat to moneyed interests, as those behind the Jeremy Corbyn project claimed they were. He answers diplomatically. “The biggest threat we face is the environmental and ecological emergency. That threatens everybody regardless of their wealth.” A mass reinsulation of homes, he says, needs to be government-funded; it should be progressively taxed.

Whatever you may wish the Green Party to be in Britain, it is clear what it is. Its narrowness as a project may disappoint some, but it has an electoral upside. As Labour moves to the right on the economy, it is vacating space to its left. Former Corbyn voters may drift to the Greens. The party may win several new MPs. As Ford puts it to me, “If you, as a party, win under-40 socially liberal graduates, there are seats where there are a lot of them.” That is a problem for Labour: the party racks up votes in safe seats, especially in cities where young graduates are clustered. But Labour’s problem is the Greens’ opportunity. “The young aren’t tribal at all,” notes Ford, “they’re very flighty.” Many could be won over.

In its narrow form, the threat the Green Party poses is to Keir Starmer’s party, which can little afford to lose the youthful, idealistic wing of Labour’s fragile coalition. It is the Tories who will benefit from the over-definition of the Greens. Too many colours other than green run through the party’s programme for it to appeal to the broad set of voters that a purely environmental party could win. At the next election, the Greens are more likely to split the parties of the left than to win the votes of the soft right: of market- sceptic conservatives committed to a more harmonious vision of conservation and preservation.

Caroline Lucas is confident enough to predict at least five new Green MPs by 2030. But the perennial problem for the party, aside from its lack of funding – the Conservatives out-raised the Greens by 100 fold in the 2019 election – will be Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Support for the party, says Lucas, is continually “suppressed because many can’t vote with their hearts”. Why vote Green when every election is, in the end, a choice between the green policies of the two major parties?

England’s Green Party looks longingly to Germany, where the Greens benefit from a proportional voting system that allows them to enter government after winning 15 per cent of the vote. But there are deeper differences between the parties, ones that the Greens are reluctant or unable to recognise.

The modern German Greens are moderate and pragmatic: they empower their leaders, who are unafraid to shed policies and positions that are likely to alienate the electorate, and they have a realist foreign policy. They want to be a broad church, and at one point earlier this year polled 25 per cent, almost eclipsing the SPD, the historic party of the German centre left. In their present form, England’s Greens have little hope of making such an impact. They will likely disrupt British politics over the next decade, but not change it. The Green moment is here. The Greens are missing it.

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This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places