With the local elections taking place later this week on the 2nd May, media attention has focused almost exclusively on the inexorable rise of UKIP and the implications their predicted success will have on the fortunes of the main political parties. Whilst a majority of UKIP’s vote will come from disenchanted Conservative voters, a good proportion (around a quarter in Labour’s case) is likely to stem from the other political parties. It isn’t too surprising, as all three of the establishment parties are implicated by holding office during the financial crisis, a rapid increase in unemployment and the deterioration of living standards.
The rise of UKIP as a political force is understood as a rejection of the status quo by many voters disenchanted with the records in office of our political class. No longer able to register their disapproval with a protest vote to the Liberal Democrats, they are looking elsewhere. Not unreasonably however, the question is being posed: why aren’t these voters turning instead to the radical agenda of the Green Party?
I’ve argued before that the Greens should set our sights higher than just being the recipient of protest votes, but as we still register around the electoral margin of error, we cannot afford to avoid this issue. Some of the reasons for their greater traction with the public are fairly straightforward, if dispiriting. As a rightwing, Eurosceptic political party committed to tax cuts and curbs on immigration, they have tailor-made outlets to amplify their pitch to the electorate through a sympathetic mainstream media in the UK. This profile and their appeal to big business has meant they have been easily able to access financial backing from a number of sympathetic high-wealth individuals, many of them refugees from a Conservative Party insufficiently hardline on their pet issues.
Glancing over the feedback I’ve already received to my survey on the success of Green politicians, the number of people highly frustrated by the disparity between the Green and UKIP media profiles was marked. The absence of a credible challenge to UKIP’s incoherent policy programme from the media is especially grating. Inconsistencies in how their budget can be balanced are skated over, whereas Greens are regularly torpedoed by a sharper and unforgiving response from the press. Their leader, Nigel Farage, has perfected a disarming response to such questions, deflecting attention squarely by communicating his impatient annoyance and returning to the ‘bigger questions’, such as spending by the European Union, the lack of British judicial independence and the destructive effect of wind farms. This aggressive stance, predicated on anger, resentment and an appeal to voter self-interest was always more likely to warrant news headlines than the measured approach taken by our front bench.
Consistent anecdotal evidence emerging from the survey underlines that Greens continue to experience a credibility gap that shows no signs of closing. There is a sense that we are taking freedom away from people and good-naturedly lecturing them, rather than reflecting their concerns and solving their immediate problems. The prominence of the environment in our political DNA still distracts from the increasingly strong growth strategy we are trying to promote. We aren’t seen as a political force to be reckoned with, so therefore a gentle contempt marks the way we are reported upon. Put starkly and occasionally, not unfairly, we are accused of navel-gazing whilst UKIP are angry and fiercely fighting against something (the EU) that they are clearly opposed to. I may passionately disagree with nearly everything they stand for, but I can instinctively sense their momentum, even if it aims to move the country backwards. We need the courage to take risks with our policy platform and create the media weather just as aggressively.
Interestingly, when they appeared together on BBC Question Time last week, Natalie Bennett and Nigel Farage clashed more noticeably than any of the other guests on the panel. At first, Natalie seemed to pitch it slightly too strongly, but in some ways it was good to see her channel some anger and steel at quite a pernicious political character. It really opened up sharp dividing lines between the two parties for the first time during Natalie’s leadership and should be applauded. There is much to be angry about these days, as welfare cuts and under-employment start to bite hard on communities up and down the country. As I argued in more depth last year, modulating our political voice to reflect that sense of urgency and confidence in our solutions is more important than ever before, making the most of cost-free social media to create a buzz around our platform.
However, things aren’t all going UKIP’s way. Their recent, rapid influx of members to around 25,000 (more than double our membership) means that a whole generation of vocal activists are beginning to make demands on the current top-down cabal of men ruling the roost within the party. Reports are already emerging that because they haven’t invested time and thought into a solid policy foundation, individual politicians shoot from the hip and risk tearing the fragile coalition of discontented voter they have built up. In the longer term, whilst imperfect, the more grounded party machinery Greens possess can enable us to sidestep many of the rookie mistakes they will undoubtedly make and the internal democratic deficit that will stack up.
I’ve concentrated in this piece on the advantages that UKIP have demonstrated since the General Election with the hope that they represent areas in which we can either neutralise them or learn from their successes to match them in the coming months. Our greatest challenge will lie in next year’s European elections, the ultimate goal to which UKIP’s strategists are concentrating the efforts and the prize we need to aim for as soon as our local parties recover from their efforts this week.