Will the Greens become England’s third largest party?
Building on a solid performance in the local elections and higher salience of environmental issues, the Green Party is looking likely to play a bigger role in British politics by taking votes from Labour, the Conservatives and challenging the Liberal Democrats to become England’s third-largest party.
The headlines following the local elections may have been dominated by Conservative gains and a chaotic Labour reshuffle, but the results were also a fresh sign that more of the British electorate is changing their support to vote for the Green Party.
After standing more candidates than ever before, the Greens made a net gain of 88 English council seats — more than any other party after the Conservatives - to raise their total to 151. Sian Berry, co-leader and the Green candidate for London mayor, came a distant third place, but increased her tally to 200,000 first round votes and almost eight percent of the vote share.
The Greens have begun to demonstrate enough support across the country to potentially cause Keir Starmer’s party headaches in marginal seats
Buoyed by the results, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley declared, “It’s clear that the Green Party is the next major force in British politics”. While that remains to be seen as they are starting from a small base, the Greens certainly have momentum. Their performance draws parallels with the advances made by green parties in other Western European countries, Germany in particular.
The Scottish Greens — a separate party to the Green Party of England and Wales - also had their strongest ever result, winning eight seats and growing their vote share in every region of Scotland following a campaign in favour of an independence referendum and a green recovery from the pandemic.
The UK’s first-past-the-post voting system makes it difficult for smaller parties like the Greens to increase their representation in Westminster. Whilst the Liberal Democrats still have more MPs and more council seats overall than they do, local election results have in the past forecast emerging trends such as the UK Independence Party’s rise in the early 2010s. If this continues, it suggests the Greens can more credibly argue they are challenging the Lib Dems claim to be England’s third largest party.
Much like the Lib Dems before they entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the Greens are consolidating a core vote of young university graduates in urban and suburban areas, whilst also appealing to voters who may not be ideologically on the left but are dissatisfied with the other traditional parties.
Their strong performance in cities was most notable, such as in Bristol where they gained 14 seats and became the joint largest party on the city council. However, the Greens also took seats from the Conservatives in small towns that are not filled with young graduates, such as Ulverston West in Cumbria, Duffield and Belper South in Derbyshire, Tonbridge in Kent and Braintree in Essex. The decline of Ukip and the Brexit Party, and the Lib Dems’ coalition legacy, provide an opportunity for the Greens to target voters dissatisfied with both Labour and the Conservatives.
Ideologically, they are more likely to attract voters who were previously loyal to Labour rather than the Conservatives. In fact, polling from before the local elections showed that Labour was losing roughly one in 10 of their 2019 voters to the Greens. Whilst many of these voters will be in safe Labour seats in cities, the Greens have begun to demonstrate enough support across the country to potentially cause Keir Starmer’s party headaches in marginal seats elsewhere.
However the Lib Dems are the party that should be looking over their shoulders, with some voting intention polls placing them neck-and-neck or even behind the Greens. Voters’ increasing concerns about climate change and the government’s focus on COP26 will shift the debate onto territory favourable for the Greens, and the Lib Dems will understand from their experience of Cleggmania in 2010 how a smaller party can suddenly capture the mood.
But polling gains do not automatically translate to votes. For co-leaders Bartley and Berry, there will be more work to do before the Greens can credibly claim the mantle of England’s third largest party at the next general election.