Some thoughts for Greens after a ramshackle polling day
Yesterday was a pretty significant polling day, as they go. Police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, a troika of Parliamentary seats up for grabs, Bristol mayor, and various local council by-elections.
We’re still waiting for most results to come in. But, as I write, the results of these elections seem to confirm a narrative of the last few years for Greens: steady progress, but too slow.
In both Manchester Central and Cardiff South, our vote was up. Because of higher spending limits (and because we don’t focus on them) we tend to go backwards in by-elections, so this is good news. But going up 2.9% in Cardiff South, or up 1.6% in Manchester Central can hardly be seen as a great leap forwards, and our result in Corby (1.1%) shows that the biggest party which supports investment in re-industrialisation has real work to do in industrial cities.
Like Manchester and Cardiff, the Bristol Mayoral election showed a credible result – with nearly 6% of first preference votes, Daniella Radice did OK, as Greens go – beating Jenny Jones’ vote in the London election earlier this year. But this isn’t the stuff of history books.
In the police and crime commissioner elections, we stood only one candidate – Joe Michna, who got 13.7% in Cleveland – again, a good result for a Green. Finally, in local council by-elections, we got 51% of the vote in the Risbygate ward, and so broke through to Bury St Edmonds Council.
All of these are solid Green results. Fears that, with the Tories in power, left voters would flood back to Labour have, to an extent, been quelled. But they are hardly setting the heather alight. They are hardly a breakthrough. And a breakthrough is sorely needed.
Progress in politics consists of two things. The first is the slow, plodding work of building a base. This is crucial. The Green target to win strategy (choosing winnable council seats and working in them year round) delivers this. What rewards we a reaping today are, surely, a result of this strategy. It was the decision to target which built our vote in Brighton to the point where we could secure our first MP. This work must continue, and it must be the base of the party’s activity for years to come.
But progress also comes with a second prong: parties need sudden leaps forward, sudden moments where we feel as though the momentum is with us, where we win against all of the odds. To understand this, we need only to look to those who invented target to win – Lib Dems. The logic of the strategy would be to ignore activities outside target wards. But in fact, the Lib Dems did the opposite – they built a by-election machine, and they got good at winning them. In doing so, they gave energy and momentum to their local campaigns. Even where they lost, the attempt taught activists lessons and helped them build bonds of solidarity.
Greens could have won something big today. That it looks certain that an independent will win Bristol Mayor shows that the big parties didn’t have it wrapped up. That Respect could win in Bradford shows that a victory in Manchester Central was not impossible. I am in no way saying that there is anything we could have done to ensure we won those campaigns: we could easily have thrown everything at them and lost. But it certainly would have been possible for us to cause a serious upset.
But we didn’t try. The local campaigns in Bristol and in Manchester clearly did a good job – they put their vote shares up. But I didn’t get any emails from the national party asking me to help them, or to donate to them. Party conference was in Bristol this year. When it was in Brighton, we all went canvassing for Caroline. But I didn’t hear of any mass canvass for Daniella.
Not trying is our agreed strategy. We focus. We build. One step at a time, one street at a time. Steady as she goes. The other end of this spectrum is disastrous: if the national party threw everything at every by-election or out-of-season Mayoral election, everything would all have been gone years ago. If we abandon targeting and let everyone think that they will be the breakthrough candidate, coming from last place to secure an incredible victory, then our base will crumble, and we will slide rapidly backwards.
But breakthrough moments are as key to political parties as steady progress – where would the SNP be without Hamilton? Or the Lib Dems without their run of successes? Would their activists have stayed involved if they hadn’t felt that surge of momentum, the solidarity of members of a national party sitting together long through the night knowing that, at some point in the wee, small hours, their friend might, for a moment, turn national politics on its head?
Such moments don’t happen at random. They have to be chosen carefully. We can’t just leap on every passing bandwagon. But politics is about momentum. Unless we limber off and take a punt every now and then, I don’t see how we Greens can build ours.