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The Challenge Facing the UK Greens Post-2017 Election

By Atus Mariqueo-Russell , Rupert Read

In light of its disappointing result in last June’s election, the Green Party of England and Wales must now take stock of its current position, and the new challenges which lie ahead given the recent shifts in the UK’s political landscape – particularly on the Left – and devise a new strategy for moving forward.

A lesson in how to lose an election from the UK Greens?

In April 2017, the UK Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May called a snap general election in an opportunistic attempt to win a larger majority of seats in parliament. The election results showed that this bid was flatly rejected by the UK electorate, and consequently the Conservative Party now lacks an overall majority. The aspect of the general election that was perhaps most surprising, and encouraging, was the unexpected increase in seats of a resurgent Labour Party, now led by consistently anti-war, progressive, and unashamedly socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn.

However, something that has so far escaped large amounts of commentary is the huge decline in the Green Party vote, which led to Greens losing half of their support in the space of 2 years, and failing to take any of their target seats. Thus for those in the Green Party of England and Wales, election night was one of mixed emotions, hope for the immediate future mixed with anxiety about the Green Party’s (and the green movement’s) place in that future.

Causes of collapse

Corbyn’s Labour was inevitably going to pose a challenge to the Greens’ voter base, regardless of the campaign that was run. At long last ideas that had been consigned to the Far Left (and to the Green Party) began to make their way into the policy platform of the official opposition to the government. Scrapping tuition fees, the renationalisation of the railways, an extensive council house building programme, and a commitment to ban fracking are amongst the Green Party policies in the 2015 manifesto to be found in Labour’s 2017 manifesto.

However, to reduce the causes of the Green decline in votes to simply the popularity of a newly invigorated Labour Party would be a mistake. That narrative overlooks two key decisions made by the Greens that aided and abetted the effective syphoning away of huge numbers of Green votes. It ignores the (in retrospect) disastrous decision to pursue an electoral campaign based heavily on encouraging electoral cooperation and ‘progressive alliances’ with a collection of disinterested political parties on the ‘Centre-Left’ of British politics. More importantly still, it ignores the extent to which the Greens had sunk into a malaise of traditional ‘left-wing populism’, while failing to articulate a distinct ecologistic voice into British politics.

This latter point hollowed out the Green appeal, relative to newly Lefty Labour. It left the Greens without a unique political identity, and set the scene for the electoral disaster. The coup-de-grace of this disaster was struck by the ‘progressive alliance’ concept, which entrenched the sense that Greens were giving their blessing to voters to cast their ballot for Labour virtually everywhere.

This is especially regrettable given that Labour’s 2017 manifesto was premised on achieving “faster economic growth”, an ambition antithetical to Green goals and undermining of many of the environmental commitments Labour had made.

What’s wrong with electoral pacts?

The UK voting system was designed to keep power concentrated in the hands of two parties. Unlike many parts of the world (including nearly all of Europe) with proportional systems, the UK system operates on a first past the post basis, where votes are tallied up in 650 constituencies and the person with the most votes in each gets elected to parliament. A consequence of this idiosyncrasy is a gross overrepresentation of the two dominant parties, at the cost of an erasure of smaller parties from representation. For example, in 2015 the Green Party won 3.8% of the popular vote, and UKIP won 12.6%, while both were represented by a miserly 0.2% of MPs (i.e: one seat each).

It is in the context of this voting system that Greens began to discuss at length the possibility of electoral cooperation with other parties. This is not unprecedented in UK politics, with Labour and the Liberals conspiring in 1906 to mutually cooperate and maximise the anti-Conservative voice in parliament. Something similar, although less dramatic, happened in 1997 between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, where informal agreements were made to ‘target’ different Conservative constituencies.

Given these precedents, and given the UK Greens’ new found ideological proximity to Labour’s leader, much effort was put into pursuing electoral cooperation with a cluster of broadly so-called ‘centre-left’ parties. This effort was predominantly focused on Labour and the Lib Dems, but with overtures made to include others such as the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party, and the National Health Action Party. The campaign for ‘centre-left’ parties to work together received some support from others on the progressive wing of politics; however, tellingly and (in retrospect) dangerously, it was only in the Greens that the party hierarchy took the idea seriously.

And seriously they did take it. In 2016 the Greens elected Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley as the new co-leaders of the party. Together, they ran for the position on an explicit platform of electoral cooperation with other progressive parties. In the run-up to the 2017 election the Green Party passed a motion at conference in support of progressive alliances to change the voting system, with the provision that it would be local parties who make the decision about whether to actively stand down in some constituencies or not.

Prior to the announcement of the snap general election, the Greens had been campaigning hard for electoral cooperation against a brick wall of silence from the Labour and Liberal Democrat hierarchies. This campaign paved the way for local Green Parties to consider standing down candidates and supporting the ‘centre-left’ candidate with the best chance of winning in their local area instead.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; local Green Parties have always thought carefully about whether it is prudent to stand candidates in marginal constituencies. What proved uniquely disastrous this time around was the large amount of media coverage created by these decisions to stand aside. Struggling to gain media coverage has always been a challenge for the Green Party; however, in this election a disproportionate amount of the coverage that was generated was devoted to the Green decisions to stand down in constituency after constituency. The image of Greens persistently standing down in marginals left many voters with the perception that Green votes were simply not important in this election. After all, the Green Party had made the decision to support other parties in many parts of the country despite extracting no policy concessions at the Party level and without any reciprocal arrangements whatsoever (at least from the Labour Party – the main beneficiary of the Green collapse in votes).

Moreover, for electoral cooperation to get off the ground it requires a highlighting of areas of similarity between the participants involved. An appeal to shared values and shared policies is a prerequisite for gaining the support of activists in parties that are accustomed to opposing each other at election time. This is all very well and good but a consequence of it can be an elision of the unique and distinct features of the different members into a singular homogenous image. This is what we witnessed in 2017, where the Greens emphasised their similarities instead of their differences with other parties on the ‘Centre-Left’ thus consigning themselves to self-inflicted obscurity at the election.

What’s wrong with ‘left-wing populism’?

In the 2015 general election, the Greens campaigned on a left-wing populist platform and were able to capitalise on the disenfranchisement that many people felt with a lacklustre centre-left Labour Party. The Greens were very effective in this approach, with policies like the erasure of student fees and debt, rejection of anti-immigrant sentiment and reform of the asylum process, renationalisation of the railways, and a mass public spending programme, enticing large numbers of people to join and vote for the Green Party. The Green Party of England and Wales’ membership doubled between the end of 2014 and the end of 2015, catapulting them to higher membership figures than both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats.

Having lost this ground, the Greens failed to adapt by emphasising their difference and stuck to repeating the prior mantras that had previously worked so well for them. This decision was electorally disastrous. Most voters inevitably opted to support Labour, now the larger party advocating left-wing populism, and the party that had a realistic chance of forming a government. That said, it was somewhat understandable that many Greens wanted to continue to pursue this framing of Green polices under the rubric of left-wing populism. These are after all broadly good policies, and while Labour has come a long way on many of these issues, the Green Party is still stronger on many social issues and economic inequalities.

Because of a desire to continue with this framing, coupled with a desire to emphasise similarities over differences in the pursuit of electoral pacts, distinctly ecological policies did not feature heavily in the Green election campaign. Yet there are many policies – policies absolutely critical to human flourishing – that are still distinct to the Greens: economic and political localisation, an opposition to airport expansion and road building programs, opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear power, universal basic income, and, perhaps most importantly, transitioning to an economy without economic growth. Labour is nowhere, on all these crucial areas.

Ecologism instead of socialism

What future is there then for a UK Green Party trapped in an unrepresentative voting system and near-matched in the framing of its platform by a Labour Party with far greater resources and media coverage? We submit that there is a future, but that this future will not be possible to attain without a reframing of the Green message to voters. What is therefore essential, is for Greens to build up a public framing based on what is distinctive to them, and on those issues on which Labour has no credibility: an ecologistic message, one based in the land and the Earth, and opposed to the outdated and destructive pursuit of ‘economic growth’.

Crucially this means broadening appeal beyond the ‘Left’ of politics. Greens should be trying to reach voters who do not identify themselves as resolutely left-wing but whose values are such that they may still be won over by eco-logical policies. There is an opportunity now to offer conservative-minded voters the security that is often of paramount concern to them through the lens of Green politics. These voters have been mis-sold what real security means by a Conservative Party that is intent on trashing our planet for corporate profit and is thus undermining the very conditions needed for survival, let alone security. Anthropogenic climate change is the biggest national security threat that we face, and being unashamed to frame it as such can only build the Greens’ credibility among c/Conservative voters as the inevitable consequences of dangerous climate change become more keenly felt. Ecologism is the only political philosophy that can deliver climate security, not to mention the preservation of green belts, and care for animals, etc. . The challenge is to take this message to traditional Conservative voters.

Simultaneously, Greens have an opportunity to offer more liberal-minded voters a vision of radical democracy. This is something that old-school socialists in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn do not understand. There is much to like about socialism, but too often socialists favour centralised control over genuine democracy. This is evident from Labour’s totemic refusal to accept the age of political pluralism that would be ushered in by voting reform. Moreover, only the Greens have policies that link political localisation with economic localisation. If a community does not produce basic goods such as food and energy then its democratic control is undermined. The Green philosophy of localism places at its heart the anarchist observation that local communities generally know best what is good for them; and recognises that central government, while necessary for some things, should not be invested with too much power.

The bottom line is that there is absolutely no future in placing socialism front and centre, while the main Left Party in one’s country has re-embraced socialism. If the Green Party continues to stand on this platform it is the electoral equivalent of shooting themselves in the foot. Greens must instead make the case for ecologism. For only an ecologistic future will escape the death-grip of growthism, common to most socialists as well as capitalists, and instead offer a sustainable and higher quality of life (rather than a larger quantity of stuff or money).

Challenges ahead

Our diagnosis of what went wrong for the Greens in 2017 is threefold. Firstly, the inevitable challenge posed by much of Labour’s new platform was always going to hurt the Greens. Secondly, Greens pursued a failed effort to build electoral cooperation with parties on the ‘centre-left’, which elided the Green identity with that of others on the ‘centre-left’, while only improving support for Labour. Finally, the left-wing populist platform that the Greens stood successfully on in 2015 stopped working and Greens failed to adapt their message accordingly. They failed to move from socialism to ecologism.

The pivot in framing that we are advocating here does pose challenges. The biggest of which is that by shedding a left-wing ‘identity’, Greens instead risk being perceived as centrist. The Green Party of England and Wales must continue to have many left-wing policies. But to frame itself as predominantly ‘left-wing’ is disastrous: it is a standing invitation to voters to vote for a Labour Party that is now perceived as properly ‘left-wing’. This is merely aggravated by the ‘progressive alliance’ strategy, which makes it sound as though being ‘left-wing’ is what the Greens are mainly about.

We were both, until Election Day, strong supporters of the effort to bring about a progressive alliance in the UK. But when the facts change, it is crucial to change one’s position. It is now clear that the combination of a ‘Left populist’ Labour Party, a ‘Left populist’ Green Party, and a ‘progressive alliance’ strategy is fatal to the Green Party’s hopes, and fatal to the possibility of an ecologistic post-growth future. The Green Party of England and Wales must now radically change tack, and return to brass tacks, to its Green roots. We hope earnestly that other European Green Parties learn from what has turned out to be a serious mistake.

The Challenge Facing the UK Greens Post-2017 Election