Illustration by Bill McConkey

The Greens can break through—if they grow up

The environmentalist party could have a major role to play in UK politics if it learns from its counterparts on the continent
March 25, 2024

The two-party system that has dominated British politics since the war has been under threat for some time, as voters become increasingly disillusioned. In each of the three elections between 2005 and 2015, the combined vote share of the Labour and Conservative parties was less than 70 per cent.

Brexit briefly repolarised the electorate, pushing the two parties to a combined 82 per cent in 2017—their highest since 1970. But as that issue fades, the pattern has re-asserted itself. The combined total is back below 70 per cent in the polls. It is only our electoral system that has, so far, prevented a more complete, European-style fragmentation.

Of the smaller parties, the right-wing Reform—successor to the Brexit Party—has seized most of the headlines, with polls showing it rising to the low teens, though this hasn’t been replicated yet in any real-world election. It has also benefitted from the defection of controversy-monger Lee Anderson from the Conservatives, while Nigel Farage’s endless hints at another comeback will ensure it continues to spook the Tories. Its voter surge has come largely from disgruntled Leave voters abandoning the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat party has made less showy progress but has re-established itself, after its post-coalition woes, as the main opposition to the Tories across much of southern ­England. In the past two years it has gained more than 600 councillors, will do well again in the upcoming local elections and hopes to restore its status as the third party at the general.

These two shifts are contributing to the dramatic disintegration of the Conservatives, by squeezing them at both ends. But another potential force could offer a similar threat to Labour. The Green party has also been picking up seats across the country in local elections and last year won full control of a council—Mid Suffolk—for the first time. It is looking to add to its solitary parliamentary seat in Brighton later this year, with a possible win in Bristol Central.

At a national level the Green party has arguably made less progress than it should have, especially given rising concern about environmental issues. This is partly because of its anonymous leadership. In a recent poll its co-leaders—Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay—had lower name recognition than a made-up politician called Stewart Lewis. Caroline Lucas is the only Green with a profile, and she is standing down.

On the flipside, its lack of national presence has allowed the party to appeal to a very wide range of voters across the political spectrum. Many of those council seats have been won in deep-blue rural areas by winning over Conservative voters worried about new housing developments and the degradation of local rivers. Meanwhile, in London and Bristol, it is picking up votes from disillusioned Labour supporters unhappy with Keir Starmer’s centrist caution. The Greens’ strong opposition to Israeli military action in Gaza has also increased its backing from Muslim voters.

It’s not hard to see how it could prosper under a Labour government struggling with the grim reality of the mess we’re in. If Starmer is serious about his pledge to build hundreds of thousands more houses, that will help Greens looking to become the acceptable face of home counties Nimbyism. At the same time, Labour will take positions on issues like welfare and civil liberties that alienate younger left-wingers. After the coming election, it is likely the Greens will be the second-placed party to Labour in a fair few urban seats where this type of voter is prominent, and well placed to win a byelection or two.

Whether the Greens can take full advantage of this will depend on their willingness to go on the journey towards professionalism that some of their European counterparts have undertaken. Greens are in coalition governments in Germany, Belgium, Latvia, Austria and Ireland. They are also the (very) junior partner to the SNP in Holyrood.

Participation in government has forced most of these parties to ditch the tendency towards student activism and become more conventionally centre-left with a focus on the environment. Compare, for instance, our own Green party’s ambivalence towards Nato with the forceful backing from the most senior Green in the German government, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. This doesn’t mean it needs to become a Labour clone; there is plenty of respectable space to the left of Starmer and Rachel Reeves on economics, net zero and criminal justice.

Coalition politics tends to force compromise and push out intransigent activists. First-past-the-post makes coalitions rare here. But if Labour does falter in office, and the Tories continue to alienate voters, we may find ourselves in a more fragmented landscape with complex hung parliament scenarios. If, by this point, the Greens have managed to build a party structure and programme that could fit within a broad centre-left alliance, it could finally be their breakthrough moment. But they will need to grow up to seize it.