The general election of 2015 did not exactly show ‘Green surge’. The rise in support for the Green Party was one of the second-tier stories of the election, lagging in importance behind the SNP landslide in Scotland, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives’ strong results in the marginal seats where they were fighting Labour. The Greens had quite a good election, even if it did not match up to the ‘surge’ talk. Their UK vote share was 3.8 per cent (their previous best results were around 1 per cent in 2005 and 2010); and they achieved 4.2 per cent in England. Despite fighting on a broader front than ever before, their average share of the vote was up and the number of constituencies with a Green Party vote worthy of some note was higher than ever before.
There are two related phenomena going on. First, the base level of the Green vote has risen everywhere. In 2010, 258 Green candidates polled worse than 2 per cent of the vote, while only 34 suffered this fate in 2015 – of which 11 were in Scotland where the Greens were flattened by the SNP steamroller, just like everyone else. The bulk of these constituencies, in England, Scotland and Wales, were in white working-class areas. The Greens get 3-4 per cent of the vote in most constituencies just by standing. Their organisational capacity has improved in many areas to such an extent that standing a parliamentary candidate, and often a slate of local election candidates, was entirely possible for them.
The second facet of the Green performance is their ability to translate a broad but shallow pool of support into local successes by targeting. Although on a national level their 2010 vote was very poor, they achieved their principle objective of getting Caroline Lucas elected in Brighton Pavilion. While they consolidated their hold on this constituency in 2015, only one other seat emerged as a contender for future victory – Bristol West, where they won 26.8 per cent of the vote. Their result in Norwich South, their best prospect on the 2010 figures, was disappointing, particularly as some of their best results elsewhere were in other constituencies where the Lib Dem vote was disintegrating, such as Bath and Isle of Wight.
They were a very long way behind Labour in the other three seats where they came second (Liverpool Riverside, Manchester Gorton, and Sheffield Central). While the Greens can potentially save deposits in many places, getting significantly above 10 per cent requires some quite extreme ‘Latin Quarter’ demographics, particularly large numbers of students and liberal professionals. Under current patterns, the number of seats where they can break through and win under First Past the Post in a general election is very limited (just as it is for UKIP). They may, depending on how the politics of this parliament plays out, be viable in some by-elections.
The Green shoots, as we should perhaps call the 2015 vote, instead of a surge, did not do much damage to Labour. There are two seats (Brighton Kemptown and Plymouth Sutton & Devonport) where above-average Green votes may have denied Labour the seat, and a handful – probably six – marginal Conservative-held seats where a run-of-the-mill Green vote may have made the difference. Particularly galling for green-minded Labour supporters would be Derby North, where a tiny sliver of Green support would have saved one of Labour’s greenest MPs, Chris Williamson. Conversely, the absence of Greens in two target seats Labour won (City of Chester, Wirral West) probably put Labour in.
The Greens tend to perform better in local elections, benefitting (in off-years) from differential turnout and in all years from voters’ greater willingness to consider them in local elections than for parliament. The differences in some constituencies were notable:
This suggests that the potential Green vote reaches considerably beyond the recorded General Election vote in many areas; there were clearly a significant group of electors who vote Green locally and tended to vote Labour (or sometimes Lib Dem) in the general election. Labour owes several seats to them, including Hove, Bristol West and probably Cambridge. It is worth noting that while Caroline Lucas ran considerably ahead of her council running mates, the Greens were still a nose ahead in Pavilion and polled reasonably in Hove and Kemptown, despite the poor performance of the Green-run Brighton & Hove council since 2011 and the defeat of most of the council group.
Labour clearly lost some red-greens in 2005 over Iraq, but many of them seemed to rally to the party in 2010. The 2015 result showed some weakening, but the local elections show the possible scale of the risk of further losses of support. Keeping red-green voters on-side for Labour in future elections depends on offering both the hope of a Labour victory (to make tactical considerations matter in their general election vote) and also policies that they find attractive enough to differentiate the party from the Conservatives, or indeed from a possible Lib Dem revival. The Green factor just adds to the complexity of assembling an electoral coalition of support that produces anything like a majority in the current political environment.
Lewis Baston is a political analyst and writer, and tweets @lewis_baston.
This article first appeared in the most recent edition of ‘New Ground’ – the magazine published by SERA: Labour’s Environment Campaign. For more information please visit their website.