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22 April 2024

Should Labour fear the Greens?

The party is poised to win an MP in Bristol but becoming a national force is a different matter.

By George Eaton

Bristol is not a city that disguises its radicalism. The walls are festooned with street art and graffiti (Banksy is a former resident). The local Patagonia store features placards declaring “Net Zero Is Not Enough”, “Frack Off” and “There’s No Planet B”. Clues that the city may soon elect the UK’s second-ever Green MP surround you.

An MRP poll in February by Electoral Calculus projected that the Greens would win the new Bristol Central seat with 52 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 39 per cent. The woman bidding to oust the shadow culture secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, is Carla Denyer, the Greens’ co-leader and one of 25 city councillors (making them the largest party). 

“People say, ‘Well, I usually vote Labour,’ and then they trail off in a sad tone of voice,” Denyer – a lively, bright-eyed 38-year-old with a pixie haircut – recalled when we met at a café in the city centre that played Radiohead and Pink Floyd.

“Sometimes people will explicitly reference Gaza and the £28bn U-turn or various other policy disappointments: the refusal to lift the two-child benefit cap, funding for local government, Labour MPs not supporting striking workers on picket lines.”

If several of these don’t seem like typical doorstep issues, it’s because they’re not. Both Labour and Green sources describe Bristol West (the current constituency) as one of the most politically engaged in the country. Turnout in 2019 was 76.1 per cent, far above the national average of 67.3 per cent. 

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The seat exemplifies the UK’s shifting urban politics: Conservative until 1997 (as numerous London seats once were), New Labour, a Liberal Democrat gain in 2005 as voters revolted against the Iraq War and university tuition fees, and Labour since 2015. In the Corbyn era, the party’s majority swelled to elephantine proportions: Debbonaire won by 37,336 votes in 2017. Bristol became a Labour fiefdom with an annual Momentum festival. But there was an early warning in 2019: the Greens doubled their vote to 25 per cent as they attracted pro-immigration, Remain supporters, and Debbonaire’s majority fell by 9,117. 

Denyer, a former wind energy engineer, distilled her pitch to voters: “We’re almost definitely going to get a Labour government in some shape, right? So do you want a 100 per cent Labour government where Starmer can continue to U-turn on policies every two weeks? And nobody’s holding him to account? Or do you want a Labour government with a handful of Green MPs that can support Labour when they’re doing good stuff and challenge them to be bolder?”

The Greens are in the ascendancy: they now hold 760 councillors in England and Wales and took majority control of a council (Mid Suffolk) for the first time last year. They are also now the largest party in East Hertfordshire and Lewes. But more than a decade after Caroline Lucas became the first Green MP – for the Brighton Pavilion constituency; she will stand down at the next general election – the party’s performance remains underwhelming. It currently averages 6 per cent in the polls, far below Reform UK’s 13 per cent, despite the rising salience of climate change.

“They’re not going to be a player at the general election until they get a proper leader, a proper policy platform and a proper organisation – they have none of those things,” a senior Labour aide told me recently. “So they’ll be a protest vote on the fringes. But they’re not yet a serious party; they’re a long way from it.” 

I asked Denyer, who since October 2021 has shared her post with former Norwich councillor Adrian Ramsay, why the party doesn’t simply elect one leader. “Because that’s not what the membership of the Green Party voted for. Candidates for the leadership can stand as a pair or solo. It’s not that our constitution requires us to have co-leaders.”

She added: “It makes the role accessible to a much wider variety of people. Adrian has caring responsibilities, for example, so it would have been tricky for him to do the job full time. I wanted to give fair attention to my role as parliamentary candidate.”

A recent poll by Ipsos found that a fictional politician named “Stewart Lewis” had greater name recognition (5 per cent) than either Denyer or Ramsay (both on 4 per cent). How does she respond to that?

“That maybe the media should take that as a sign of the disproportionately low coverage they’re giving us compared to other parties, despite us having more elected representatives. Compare the amount of airtime that the Greens get compared to Reform, even though Reform only have around ten councillors.”

The Greens are often said to suffer from an identity crisis: split between left-leaning “watermelons” (green on the outside, red on the inside) and more centrist “mangoes” (a Lib Dem orange). While the former are concentrated in urban areas, the latter dominate in Tory-held rural seats. 

A recurrent complaint is that the Greens have advanced by opposing new housing and energy developments and appealing to “Nimby” voters. “I’m aware that’s the Labour Party’s main attack line. That might be because the Labour Party don’t have much else to criticise us for, to be perfectly blunt,” said Denyer. 

“But the fact is that where Greens are in administration we are often the councillors that are building huge numbers of council homes and affordable homes, often very low carbon, and developing more renewable energy… Of course, someone that is trying to make a party political point will be able to trawl through the minutes of planning committees and find a handful of cherry-picked examples where Greens have voted against a particular application.”

But would the party ever countenance building on the green belt? (As Labour has pledged to do.)

“Our priority is building on brownfields and that includes bringing empty properties back into use as well… We obviously want to avoid building on the green belt wherever possible,” Denyer replied. (Though she conceded: “I can definitely imagine edge cases where, say, there’s a brownfield site on the edge of the green belt.”)

Some commentators argue that the Greens’ future lies in appealing to disillusioned Tories – think of them as the political wing of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Alongside Bristol Central, the party is targeting North Herefordshire and Waveney Valley on the Suffolk-Norfolk border (where Ramsay is standing). Denyer noted that three-quarters of the new council seats won by the Greens last year were from the Tories.

But her positions remain unashamedly left-leaning: she favours the abolition of the monarchy, supports drugs legalisation (“the war on drugs has failed”), opposes Trident (“I don’t think it makes us safer”) and is sceptical of Nato membership. 

“We’d be pushing for a no-first-use policy for all Nato countries for nuclear weapons, a realigning of priorities towards diplomacy and being more reluctant to use force… We would push for reforms and entertain the possibility of leaving if there was an alternative [organisation] available.”

It is precisely such policies that lead some to dismiss the Greens as unserious. The German Greens, whose former leader Annalena Baerbock is the country’s foreign minister, have embraced Nato as “indispensable” to European security.

But the Greens could yet progress without resolving their identity crisis: like the Lib Dems in the 2000s, they could serve as a catch-all protest party: making a leftist pitch to Labour voters in urban areas and a more centrist one to Tory voters in rural seats. An increasingly promiscuous electorate may well be receptive.

I later joined Denyer and her team for a door-knocking session in Clifton Down. Two of her canvassers, Colin Gillie, 58, and Rebecca Bentley-Price, 25, were former Labour members, the first having voted for the party at every election since he was 18. They cited issues including the war in Gaza, Labour’s U-turn on £28bn and the two-child benefit cap. 

On the doorstep, Ellie, 22, a wildlife conservation student at the University of the West of England, was wavering. “I still haven’t made up my mind about Keir Starmer, to be honest with you,” she said. “I’m left wing and it’s anything other than Conservative for me, but sometimes I feel like he doesn’t exactly stick to what he says.”

How she and others resolve such ambiguities will do more than determine whether the Greens win in Bristol – it will determine whether they become a national force.

[See also: What on Earth is going on with the Conservative Party?]

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