In the time that I’ve been writing Green Politics: Sustainable Futures, I’ve worked very hard to try and find a writing voice that remains positive and optimistic, while gently encouraging the Green Party to professionalise and speak more directly to the modern electorate. Honestly, there are times in the last few months when this has easier been said than done. Hence the motivational struggle today and the uncharacteristically critical tone. Hold on tight.
So, let’s take stock at the local election results from last week. Deservedly so for a party that mustered quarter of the vote, the media has swarmed over UKIP and has acknowledged that they have earned a legitimate seat at the political table. For those Greens I’ve heard bemoaning the fact that we have more councillors, I’d suggest they take a deep breath! They obtained nearly as many elected representatives as our complete national presence across town halls in one fell swoop, on a small selection of local authorities up for election. Their momentum and ours can scarcely be discussed in the same breath. Whilst I applaud Adam Ramsay’s article for Bright Green that calls for us to directly challenge UKIP’s capture of the anti-establishment mantle, his analysis doesn’t yet hit upon a coherent riposte to their success, other than a bit of misjudged venom.
Just listening and watching the news and radio in the last few days has confirmed my fears. This result will garner more invitations from UKIP speakers to appear across media outlets, shrinking the likelihood of Green participation below the already small levels it stands at now. The perception that we are the fourth political party (preferred over the UKIP as marginally more serious) is dissolving like snow in our hands as we speak.
Now the dust has settled, the consensus from opinion polls and commentators seems to have settled on this being a protest vote election, channeling disillusionment with the cosy political establishment as much as it is about issues such as immigration and unfairness. Surely though, if voters are seeking out insurgents fuelled by a break with the past, a fair deal for all and a more representative politics, they would turn to the Greens rather than UKIP? But they clearly aren’t.
We face a real existential danger here. Without the deep networks, institutional roots and imbedded relationships within local communities that Greens arguably enjoy, UKIP have leapfrogged our success at a stroke. I talked about some of the advantages they held over us last week in an earlier article, but the results here are much more stark than any commentator suggested. We are just not relevant to the vast majority of voters. We don’t look or sound like the rest of the country. In spite of the influx of a younger generation of idealistic social justice activists, we still look like ridiculous hippies with policies that take from those who have least, for reasons that seem frivolously self-indulgent to the rest of the country at this time of economic crisis.
And I’m sorry, but right now I fear that Natalie Bennett’s leadership style will be unable to harness the need for change and articulate it in a relevant voice. Her reaction to the pitifully miniscule net increase of five additional councillors (with a few losses amongst the new faces) was to cheer the ‘steady progress’ we made into new parts of the country, arguing that we ‘took the next step towards becoming a truly national party’. The sense of complacency, lack of urgency and breathtakingly ‘Polyanna’-esque spin she applied to her first electoral test as leader has left me unbelievably worried that she is unable to grasp the thorny realities we now face as a party. I would have respected her ability to turn it around more if she had named our shortcomings.
To try and end on a more positive note, I would argue that the shock results last week do contain potential opportunities for the Greens to shine. Mainstream politics is beginning to fracture further away from the three party system that has dominated the UK for decades, making it less likely that an individual party can corner the high majorities of the past. Coalition governments will become more likely to occur, offer us places of real influence and encourage a more participatory, inclusive democracy.
Apologies for taking a harsher line than usual, but one a number of fronts the Greens are reaching a crisis point. As I move back to Brighton this week, I’ll be concentrating in my next piece on the growing difficulties that Brighton and Hove Greens are facing.