On a very rainy day a few weeks ago, I took the train to Brighton to gauge the chances of the Greens in their top target seat, Brighton Pavilion. Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, is standing there and she’s the bookies’ favourite to win the seat, which would make her Britain’s first Green MP.
I arrived to meet the Tory candidate, Charlotte Vere, dripping wet. She was kind enough to make me a cup of tea and talk me through her strategy for the seat. She believes that she can tempt voters in the wealthier north of the constituency, and is campaigning hard in the swing wards in Brighton. Her campaign literature, however, betrays the effect of a serious Green challenge on the other parties. Labour and Lib Dems alike–both of whom are also fielding strong female candidates–are forced to greenwash their politics and their literature, because green issues are raised constantly on the doorstep and the parties can’t sidestep the issue.
And the Greens have done their work well. Taking a leaf out of the Liberal Democrats’ book before them, they bed down in an area, work hard, and practise old-fashioned grassroots politics. Green councillors, once elected, tend to keep their seats and increase their percentage of the vote.
But grassroots politics does not necessarily deliver parliamentary seats. For that you have to look sensible too (a fairer voting system would also help). The Greens have changed a lot since their self-confessed beard-and-sandal days of the 70s and 80s. They now boast members such as Emma Dixon, a high-flying barrister, and her husband, James Humphreys, a political analyst who used to work in Downing St with Alistair Campbell. They are standing in the two Islington seats; neither of them stands a chance to win this time. But Humphreys argues that whenever the green vote went up in elections, it had a “Pavlovian” effect on government, causing the ruling party to adapt its rhetoric and policies. Therefore the green vote, he claims, is never wasted – even if it does not deliver seats because of the vagaries of the voting system.
In Brighton, that hard work may well pay off. The Greens are throwing everything…