Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Green haze

Labour can and must resist further advances by the Greens. Luke Akehurst and Linda Smith outline how

With this year’s AV referendum indicating that the UK will retain First Past the Post for parliamentary elections for the foreseeable future, there is – barring an environmental catastrophe – no realistic chance of the Green party becoming a major parliamentary force as it is in Germany.

However, the election of the first Green MP in Brighton Pavilion last year, and the first Green-led council, also in Brighton and Hove, in May shows the party is a potent localised threat to Labour. It is one that needs to be combated if we are not to cede to them a further scattering of parliamentary seats, and larger numbers of councillors. That the Greens can be fought has been proven. They have been resisted in Hackney and forced into retreat in Oxford.

The potential pool of votes for the Greens is quite easy to define demographically. All the places where they have made progress share similar features: Brighton, Lancaster, Norwich, Oxford, Stroud, and in London the Stoke Newington part of Hackney, parts of Deptford, and similar individual wards in Camden, Lambeth and Southwark.

What these areas have in common is a high prevalence of the Mosaic codes who read The Guardian and Independent: students, recent graduates, and older people who would view themselves as part of the urban left intelligentsia. Even in wards where these voters live alongside working-class or BME voters the Greens have made little breakthrough with the latter two groups as they have little that is attractive to say to them.

The motives of Green voters vary, though, and anecdotal experience from canvassing suggests they fall into several broad categories. First, there are the genuine hardcore environmentalists for whom green issues are the key voting determinant. As Labour is never going to be more green than the Green party these voters are probably a lost cause to us.

Second, there are voters who have been seeking a left alternative to New Labour having grown disillusioned over a range of issues, but particularly the Iraq war. In other seats with a weaker Green presence these people went Liberal Democrat, but with the formation of the coalition, the Greens and Labour are competing to pick them up. The electoral cycle suggests many of these voters can be won back as politics returns to a more binary struggle against the Tories.

Third, there are the voters who are motivated by local community issues, including, but not limited to, green ones like recycling. They perceive the Greens in the same way that effective Liberal Democrat Focus teams are seen: as apolitical hyperlocal community activists. Effective local campaigning can win them back.

Fourth, voters who are making a lifestyle statement about the kind of middle-class person they are. If they lived in Surrey they would be Tories based on wealth and housing, but in choosing to live in vaguely countercultural urban areas they are making a statement, and so they pick a party to vote for that reinforces that self-image. It is self-affirmatory: ‘I am a good person therefore I vote for a left party, but I am not poor therefore I don’t vote Labour.’ These people’s green-ness is often highly superficial – Labour canvassers have encountered such voters arguing against anti-car measures.

Finally, the split-ticketers. In multi-member council elections the Greens actively encourage Labour voters to split their ticket and give one vote to a Green on the basis that people can ‘keep a Labour council but with a Green voice on it’. This is very difficult to counteract as it sounds attractive in areas where Labour dominates the council but creates a wedge effect where the Greens get a public platform, develop support through incumbency and break the psychological pattern of habitual Labour voting.

The Greens are beginning to recognise the limitations of this pool of voters. It is enough for them to win in a low-turnout election but not in many places in a high turnout one. Their activists, who tend to be younger and to the left of their voters, have taken clumsy steps to try to engage with working-class and BME voters by physically moving onto estates and living in ex-right-to-buy properties, and by arguing for estate tenants’ and residents’ associations to merge with those of the surrounding street properties.

Once elected, the Greens operate using a mixture of ward-specific hyper-local campaigns (eg for small areas of disused land to become allotments, or against particular planning applications) and gesture politics in the council chamber – motions calling for council pension fund disinvestment from arms companies (which is illegal) or for meat-free days in council schools and workplaces. They have very little distinctive to say about the actual running of councils or key policy areas like housing, education and social services. Where they have had the opportunity to go into coalition it is almost invariably as part of an anti-Labour pact, as in Leeds. This may change now that Labour is not in power nationally.

The first and only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, has grandstanded in a similar fashion, making lots of parliamentary noise about worthy national issues and using her profile as an MP to be the party’s face in neighbouring seats. However, there is very little parliamentary activity visible that directly relates to her constituents.

But the Greens can and have been beaten by Labour. The most obvious way is by increasing turnout so that their elitest and minority pool of high-turnout voters is swamped by Labour’s normally low-turnout masses. When the local elections in 2010 were held on general election day, because turnout was almost double that in 2006, the Greens lost all but two councillors they had in London.

Some Labour activists almost seem to feel self-hatred and guilt that we are not the Greens, and want to try to beat them by a bizarre reverse triangulation where we try to out-left and out-green them. This is both politically suicidal – it repels all the other voters who are not more leftwing and greener than Labour – but also impossible: Labour can never out-green a party that is one of protest not power. They will simply thank us for conceding ground to them and move to an even more radical position.

We can, however, out-campaign them. We have to be local – hyperlocal – producing street-by street leaflets and locally produced direct mails talking about the issues in those streets and estates. This is effective but it is hard work and requires candidates with local credibility and knowledge.

In terms of our message, we need to ensure Greens are no longer seen as harmless idealists but as dangerous cranks who will seriously damage your local council and local economy, and impose authoritarian measures on your daily life in the name of environmentalism.

While some elements of what they stand for may seem superficially attractive, the majority of voters do not want to make the kind of sacrifices that are the logical conclusion of Green party policies. They do not want to pay more for parking or be forced to give up their car; to have their children only offered vegetarian food at school; or see their local parks and green spaces dug up to grow food. They do not want local businesses and factories to shut and jobs to be lost as a result of their anti-industrial policies or their local zoo or animal park to be shut down.

If ignored, the Green vote grows as it appears an idealistic, apolitical and cost-free way to make a protest or lifestyle statement. But when their politics are exposed, many voters will find the Greens deeply unattractive. And this, combined with an attractive local Labour offer and efforts to motivate and mobilise our low-turnout core support, works.


Broken promises in Brighton

We only have one example in the UK of a Green-led council: Brighton and Hove. In its first five months in office the Green administration has, wrote Hove Labour activist Caroline Penn on the Huffington Post, failed ‘to put rhetoric into practice. I would certainly challenge the assumption that they are shaping the political consensus. In reality they are struggling to meet manifesto commitments with political and economic realities.’ She continues: ‘The Greens have been forced to abandon even their most precious manifesto commitment. At the door step they promised to “stop the cuts” – a pledge which formed the central theme of their election campaign. At best it would be considered naive to demand a meeting with the local government minister and expect Eric Pickles to treat Brighton and Hove as a special case. Yet, post election, Green councillors claimed it would be their first action. Clearly it has cut no ice, and as a result we have a 3.5 per cent rise in council tax and a 15 per cent cut in local services. The Green party have had to implement the very cuts they so proudly voted against in February.’


Luke Akehurst and Linda Smith are councillors in the London borough of Hackney. Luke Akehurst is chairing Progress’ fringe event at Labour party conference Green to Red: How Can Labour Stop the Greens Spreading? 28 September, 8-9am, Vinea, Britannia Pavilion, Albert Dock, Liverpool


Photo: Leo Reynolds

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Luke Akehurst and Linda Smith


  • isn’t the Labour Party essentially a party of protest not power ? protest against Capitalism that is, grabbing what we can from it for those exploited by it ? I’ve always voted Labour on this basis,that Capitalism is a contingency ,we have no alternative,we can only try and moderate its abuse….which hasn’t been going that well has it.

  • isn’t the Labour Party essentially a party of protest not power ? protest against Capitalism that is, grabbing what we can from it for those exploited by it ? I’ve always voted Labour on this basis,that Capitalism is a contingency ,we have no alternative,we can only try and moderate its abuse….which hasn’t been going that well has it.

  • “poor Knick doing the right thing so hard blah blah ” , “oh come ON how hard can it be choosing which colour tie to wear,mate ? eh eh eh ?””

  • Luke, I agree with a lot of this. But on a ward by ward basis attacking the Greens just isn’t a winning strategy. Where they’ve got cllrs or activists who are seen as hyperlocal and apolitical attacking them is like attacking Pooh Bear. And to attack them nationally gives them more credibility than they should have. Obviously Brighton Labour can now attack their record in power but in most places we face them we’ll just been seen as the nasty bullies of little local ‘community champion’. They have support where there is a strong left leaning vote. We can compete on our merits and ignore them. It worked in Highgate last week.

  • I agree with your conclusion, but your analysis for Lancaster at least is completely wrong. They have clearly picked up working class votes, there really aren’t enough trendies to account for their results. Having said which, it is the local campaigning that can beat them and has done.

  • “we need to ensure Greens are no longer seen as harmless idealists but as dangerous cranks who will seriously damage your local council and local economy, and impose authoritarian measures on your daily life in the name of environmentalism.”
    Dangerous, as in opposing illegal foreign wars? Authoritarian, as in opposing the Serious and Organised Crime Act? Damaging, as proposing vicious, insulation-based house improvements as in the Kirklees Warmzone? Oppose the Greens but don’t make stuff up!

  • Your definition of ‘lifestyle voters’ appears to be someone who lives in the kind of place they’d like to live in and votes for the kind of party they’d like to see govern them. And the fact you have nothing to say about the fact that it is illegal for local councils to withdraw investments from arms manufacturers shows Labour for what it is: unethical, unelectable; the party of capital over people.

  • I’m afraid that inventing words like “hyperlocal” will only get you so far. A left-of-centre party trying to limit the influence of another left-of-centre party is not only counter-productive, it also happened in the early 1900s, when the Liberal party was concerned with the rise of a newly formed party called Labour.

    Speaking as a Liberal in Stroud, I can assure you that the easiest way to combat the Greens is to ask them what their policies for Stroud are. Aside from “Saving the NHS” and attacking the County Council, they don’t have any. There is no mention of how public transport in Stroud should be improved in four months of updates on their website, and yet I’d argue it’s a big issue in a town where the bus station is on either side of the busiest main road. Better to ask searching questions then to go “hyperlocal”.

  • Very strange this ‘Greens aren’t Labour therefore must be evil analysis’

    They list some of our supposed more affluent wards to characterise our voters as a bunch of shallow muesli eating middle class lefties but conveniently don’t mention our seats in Kirklees, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Solihull probably because it doesn’t fit the dodgy argument being made.

    I don’t know who they’re referring to about our candidates moving into ex Right to Buy properties to engage with the working class but it sounds highly specific and probably only refers to one person and makes a huge assumption about their motivations.

    Where they have an opportunity to go into Coalition it is ‘invariably as part of an anti-Labour pact’ – this has not been true in Kirklees where we have worked with all parties at one time or another, or Leeds who have worked both in an anti Labour grouping and have more recently supported a Labour administration. Our support varies according to local circumstances and the best option to forward what we believe in.

    A disappointing posting which doesn’t recognise the benefits of pluralism in politics.

  • “we need to ensure Greens are no longer seen as harmless idealists but as dangerous cranks”

    Indeed. Why waste time and effort on issues or policies? Go straight for the character-assassination jugular! The manual for this kind of low-road negative campaigning would be Edward Carlton Tufnell’s “Character, Object and Effects of Trades Unions” (1832) . Why don’t you just come right out and accuse Greens of throwing sulfuric acid in their opponents faces? It worked for the Whigs, eh?

  • That’s my bike in the photo (The one at the front)! 🙂 So I feel I have a right to comment… I’ll just say this:
    My ward, which I have recently stepped down from representing after 7 years (and which I still live in), is not high Mosaic at all. It’s mostly working class estates.

  • Whatever its failings, surely it is vital to have in the political system a party which draws attention to the fact we are living in a global ecological crisis. That is the historic context we are in, which all the other parties try to ignore. To try to squeeze the Green Party out of the one seat it holds in Parliament is to try to deprive politics of that voice. Instead of trying to defeat the Greens in Brighton, the Labour Party would benefit itself, and politics, far more by announcing it is standing down and urging its supporters to vote for Caroline Lucas.

  • What an unsavoury and hateful contribution. I may be naive, but I still believe political parties are a means, to create a better society, not a goal in themselves. Instead of fighting and trying to destroy the party that comes closest to your own principles of sustainability and fairness (at least I hope so) you should cooperate with them to fight the real enemy. The real enemy, may I remind you, is blue, not green.

  • Labour councils could start “outgreening the greens” by ensuring scare public sector resources earmarked for crucial carbon reduction work are not squandered by NGOs. And fewer “ecobags” please till somebody
    can prove they help reduce single use plastic. Otherwise we are handing ammunition to the Tax Payers Alliance.

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