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What’s behind the Green Party surge?

Green gains at the ballot box should give Labour some cause for concern. For voters, there's always somewhere else to go.

By Jonny Ball

This article was originally published as an edition of the Green Transition, New Statesman Spotlight’s weekly newsletter on the economics of net zero. To see more editions and subscribe, click here.

The local elections may seem like a lifetime ago to readers of the GT. Since the slow trickle of results started coming in a week ago, we’ve had a new leader of the SNP, which is now ruling in a minority government (without the support of the Scottish Greens); a member of the hard-Brexit Tory faction the European Research Group joining Labour; and of course we’ve found out that Sadiq Khan is, in fact, still mayor of London.

On the latter story, it had been excitedly briefed by both Labour and Conservative teams that Susan Hall – the Tory candidate who has previously liked posts featuring Enoch Powell on the social media platform X – could come very close to winning the mayoralty in the capital. It would have been an upset, to put it mildly, for a large, cosmopolitan city to elect a hard-right member of a dismally unpopular ruling party, largely off the back of an anti-Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) vote concentrated in car-dependent suburbia. Like the Uxbridge by-election last year, that kind of shock result would probably have been taken as a signal by both party leaders to row back even further on their net zero pledges, lest they annoy the hallowed motoring voter. So, for fans of clean air and lower carbon emissions, it’s good news that Khan was returned 11 points ahead of his rival.

And speaking of hard-right members of dismally unpopular ruling parties, Natalie Elphicke is now a dismally unpopular member of His Majesty’s Official Opposition, having defected to Labour earlier this week. This may have come as a surprise to her constituents in Dover, who were treated to a leaflet from Elphicke just the day before criticising Keir Starmer’s party on immigration, the economy and, you guessed it, net zero.

Aside from being accused by one Tory MP of supporting a “war with France” over small boats crossings, Elphicke also wrote supportively on Facebook last year of Rishi Sunak’s postponement of the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, as well as new gas boilers, by 2030. It is yet to be revealed whether Elphicke has experienced some kind of Damascene conversion on this, and several other, issues.

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But back in the world of local politics and elections, the Green Party has made history by achieving its highest ever councillor tally, with 812 councillors on 174 councils in England and Wales (the total number of local authorities is 317). Although the New Statesman’s State of the Nation tracker has the Greens hovering around 5-6 per cent for the general election, (which will likely result in their usual one seat under the iniquities of first-past-the-post), the positive local election results are testament to the Green Party’s ability to run strong, highly focused local campaigns in wards across the country.

Bristol stood out as an area of particular success: following Brighton, the local authority in the south-western port city will become the second in the country to have the Greens as the largest party. The Bristol Labour MP, Thangham Debbonaire, may be suffering sleepless nights as the Greens won every single seat in her new constituency of Bristol Central.

Carla Denyer, the Green Party co-leader and the candidate challenging Debbonaire, claimed that “the people of Bristol have turned to the Green Party to deliver the change that this city needs”.

Perhaps the even bigger story is that the party – despite traditionally being seen as the preserve of the progressive, allotment-loving, vegetarian middle classes – made stunning breakthroughs in places traditionally considered to be outside of its comfort zone. While it’s easier to imagine the success of the green message in youthful, trendy, relatively affluent Bristol or Brighton, the party now has councillors representing deprived wards in Bolton, Newcastle, Leeds and elsewhere.

So what’s happening?

We should probably ditch some of the stereotypes about who cares about net zero and climate issues, because poll after poll, along with research from the Conservative Environment Network, the centre-right think tank Onward, as well as the Centre for Towns, shows that there is majority support for climate action among Red Wall voters, and “there is, in fact, no part of the electorate that net zero scepticism plays well with”. 

But that doesn’t mean everyone in Newcastle’s Elswick and Byker wards, Halliwell in Greater Manchester, and Leeds’ second poorest ward of Gipton and Harehills, all of whom are now represented by Green councillors, have all suddenly joined Extinction Rebellion or are happily smashing glass with Just Stop Oil. Like many voters, they’ll be concerned about climate issues, but that isn’t everything: the winning candidate in Gipton and Harehills apologised after saying his win was “a victory for the people of Gaza”. The crisis in the Middle East is of paramount importance in many communities, and the Green Party’s unwavering stance against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza threatens Labour in some places.

In many rural communities, good old Nimbyism drives some voters towards the Greens. The Party has enjoyed some significant local successes when mobilising voters against new housebuilding and development (perhaps not the best look during a housing crisis, as some point out). Local opposition to HS2 has also boosted the Greens’ fortunes (they say it amounts to “ecocide”) despite the fact that boosting rail capacity and improving mass public transit systems will have to play a key role in decarbonising transport. Some critics say these policy positions place the Greens firmly on the side of the anti-growth Nimby classes, pointing out that the party is more concerned with conservation than green industrial transitions, or getting the energy sector to net zero (which would inevitably necessitate a huge amount of new infrastructure, for generation and grid, on green belt land). But for now, these contradictions aren’t holding the party back, as it attracts protest voters and true believers from across the spectrum, with an eclectic range of political motivations.

In the Noughties, Peter Mandelson, when asked about maintaining the support of Labour’s working-class bedrock in the post-industrial north, allegedly responded that Labour needn’t worry: the Red Wall had “nowhere else to go”. That fallacy came crashing down in 2019. The locals last week demonstrated that Labour is still on course for a super-majority at the general election. But, as some in the party are warning, as it triangulates with new right-wing MPs and ditches some if its more eye-catching green agendas while equivocating on emotive issues like the bombardment of Gaza, Labour will be hoping that the Green Party doesn’t eventually become the new other place to go.

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