In the 2010 general election the Greens national poll dropped to 0.9%. Although they made a breakthrough in
Brighton, winning the city's Pavilion constituency, they did so with less than one in three of the votes cast, and failed to come close to winning a seat anywhere else in the country. Why should Labour be concerned about a party that has all its support concentrated in one small strip of the south coast? And in any case, aren’t the Greens a Left party and therefore losing seats to them isn’t quite that bad?
Many in the Labour Party will hold this view I suspect. Because for most councillors and activists the Greens often don’t contest local elections and when they do, they tend to poll low, single digit percentages. They aren’t seen as a threat and that’s because they very often aren’t.
But Labour needs to wake up to the threat the Greens pose in certain parts of the South.
The Greens in Local Government
In 1997 there were just three Green councillors in the south, all in wards the party had won from the Conservatives. The Greens weren’t a threat to Labour then – they were a segemnt of the electorate that we sough to squeeze in parliamentary elections; in all probability, the Green Party was probably happy for us to squeeze their vote as part of the marshalling of anti Tory voters behind the candidate best placed to beat them (usually Labour).
The picture after the 2012 local elections is somewhat different. There are now 91 Green councillors across the political South, serving on 25 different authorities. Their biggest breakthrough came in Brighton & Hove, where the Greens have run a minority administration since 2011. The two biggest Green Groups are Brighton & Hove (23 councillors) and
(15, with a further six on Norfolk County Council). But in 16 of the 25 local authorities the Green presence is restricted (so far) to just one ward. Norwich
Table 1 - Green councillors
Green councillors represent 58 wards across these local authorities. Table 2 identifies when these wards first elected a Green councillor.
Table 2 - Green wards
Winning at Labour’s expense?
While there are a scattering of Green councillors in small wards in rural areas that return Conservative MPs with hefty majorities, most Green councillors represent urban areas and face Labour as their principal party of opposition. As Table 3 shows, Labour is overwhelmingly the main opposition to Green councillors in the South, with 67% of Green councillors beating Labour into second place when they last won election.
Table 3 – Second placed opponents to Greens
The collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Green seats has been an important part of the latter’s success. In
Beating the Greens
Here’s the rub: there are very few examples of Labour taking (or re-taking) seats from the Greens. In
Brighton and Norwich Labour has thus far failed to win any seats off the Greens. Labour has had more success in Oxford and , where gains were made at the Greens’ expense in St Clements ward and Abbey ward respectively. (The recent defection to Labour of the remaining Green councillor in Cambridge removed the party from city hall completely). Cambridge
Labour needs to look outside the South for its best effort at turning back a Green tide. In 2007 the Greens on Lancaster Council made five gains at Labour’s expense and rose to become the second largest group on the council. Four years later Labour retook four of those seats and while the Greens remain a presence on the council, they were very much stopped in their tracks.
Labour’s campaign in
recognised that a core vote strategy would be insufficient to retake seats. Instead, Labour established a credible squeeze message and was prepared to take on the Greens directly on local issues where the party felt the Greens had placed themselves on the wrong side of local opinion. Notably, the party also took the student vote seriously and in the University ward where Labour made two of its gains, well connected student candidates where an important part of the electoral mix. Lancaster
We will be published a fuller article on the Labour campaign in
later this week. Lancaster
5 steps to beating Greens
1. The Greens are a political party and as such in contesting seats against Labour, they are our political opponents just as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Labour’s deputy leader in Brighton and
Hove, Warren Morgan rightly highlights the Greens motivations when he quotes their former council leader as saying “if we [the Greens] get this right, it will make things very difficult for Labour in the city in 2015”.
Labour activists need to set aside their rose (green?) tinted glasses and see the Greens for the electoral challenge they are.
2. Luke Akehurst has experience of fighting the Greens in
. He rightly identifies the second task for Labour: hyper localism. Labour needs to match and beat the Greens when it comes to campaigning on local, street-by-street issues. This worked well in London , too. It is hard work and requires locally committed candidates willing to put the graft in. Labour needs to talk to voters about loos and litter, not Leveson and Lords reform. It isn’t why everyone joins Labour so the right candidates are important. The electorate recognise when you are faking interest in their concerns. Lancaster
. Oxford . Cambridge Brighton. . (and Norwich ). They all have one thing in common – universities and student voters. It is clear that in some places Labour hasn’t managed to make establish and maintain a credible presence on campus. That needs to change and Labour parties need to take an active interest in the existence and health of Labour Groups on campus. During the course of my research for this article, I saw one comment from Lancaster Brighton that suggested Caroline Lucas has “virtually camped in the student union” during her 201 parliamentary election campaign in Brighton Pavilion.
4. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Instead, shine a light on them. Constant exposure. They hate it. Like the LibDems they say one thing to get elected, and do another when elected. Very often they will find themselves on the wrong side of local opinion. Labour should ensure they capitalise on this.
5. Finally, there isn’t a national blue print that will work irrespective of where you are fighting the Greens. Indeed, what works in one place will not work in another. In Brighton & Hove in 2011 the anti coalition message helped win four seats from the Conservative, but had no impact in Green held wards. Yet in
in the same year, an anti-coalition campaign theme suggesting that only by voting labour could you send the Government a message, worked well. Lancaster
With so few councillors and only one MP, it is difficult to appreciate what life would be like locally if Green party policies were pursued and enacted. Following the 2011 local elections, we no longer need to speculate. Steve Bassam, a former Labour leader of Brighton Council and now Deputy Leader of Labour’s Peers in the House of Lords is a trenchant critic of the party. He has chronicled how the Greens in power have failed to deliver on pre-election pledges and have been poor on equalities and fairness issues. A decision by Green councillors to cut Sure Start instead of a food waste project isn’t the action of a party that understand the needs of deprived communities.
Sixteen of the Greens’ southern councillors are up for re-election in next year’s county council elections. Let’s ensure we take the fight against them as seriously as we do the fight against the coalition parties.