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
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