The Green surge: a history
It’s always hard to look back in time and determine exactly when something started. One key date which sticks out in my mind is February 23 2013.
On that day, in Nottingham, 71% of delegates to the Green Party spring conference voted to replace the party’s Philosophical Basis – the preamble to its constitution. The new one, penned by members of the University of York Young Greens, was seen to put more emphasis on social justice than the version it replaced, which I believe was written in 2001 – the year I joined the Scottish Greens.
Peering back a little further, the 13 of May 2012 was also a key moment. That was when Caroline Lucas announced she was standing down as Green Party leader – a move which allowed space for someone else to step in and take on the role of building the party whilst she got on with representing Brighton Pavilion. Another note in the margin of this history, of course, came almost exactly two years before that, at 5:50am on Friday May 7 2010, when it was announced that Caroline had been elected Britain’s first Green MP.
Whenever it began, something remarkable has happened. At the start of 2014, the total membership of the three Green Parties across the UK was around 15,000. As I write this in January 2015, it’s passed 51,000. Of that growth, most has happened in the space of three months – much in the space of three days – January 14, 15 and 16. From the start of September 2014 to January the 18th, the Green Party of England and Wales grew from 18,000 members to more around 43,500. The Scottish Greens went from from 1,800 to more than 8,250 members, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland from around 200 to over 350.
Whilst much of this growth has been triggered by the exclusion of the Greens from the leaders’ debates, it’s important to remember that the party was shut out in 2010 too. There have, arguably, been numerous opportunities for Greens to launch themselves – ourselves – dramatically onto the national stage over the last decade. So if we’re going to try and get our heads round the Green Surge, party members need to understand that this isn’t just a random product of the dramatically changing political weather. It’s a consequence of how the party has changed itself so that it is better able to navigate the fast changing seas.
A generational shift
The new philosophical basis, of course, wasn’t a cause of the explosion in membership – few will have read it before signing up. It was an effect of other changes, of a more sluggish heaving which built a base upon which the current growth could take place. And it wasn’t just the product of the student Greens at York, though their youth symbolised a generational shift. It was the culmination of years of work, done by hundreds of members, to build a Green Party ready to face the future.
The fact that it passed with such an overwhelming majority was telling: it was a clear signal that the average member was now as much an anti-austerity activist as she was a climate change campaigner; as keen on defending the NHS as saving the rainforest. The party is increasingly seen not as a single issue environmental pressure group, but the electoral expression of the emerging new left.
This shift to more explicit left rhetoric was marked in other moments too. In Bristol, Autumn 2012, Natalie Bennett used her first conference speech as leader to call on members to “ask not what the trade unions can do for us. Ask what we can do for the trade unions”. That weekend, the party debated a policy, originally penned by Peter Tatchell, supporting the right of any group of workers to buy out their company and become a co-op. One old Green, opposing the motion, said that this looked too much like Old Labour to him. There were laughs and cheers, explained by a heckler “that’s the point”.
The motion passed, though the heckler was wrong. The policy, and, more generally, the contemporary Green Party, isn’t and shouldn’t be a recreation of Old Labour: that mythical creature existed only in a fictional past. In any case, Greens are more skeptical of centralisation, and must look to the future. A more interesting question is to ask if the party is growing into the space Labour left fallow when it decided to follow Anthony Giddens rather than Stuart Hall in the early nineties.
‘Modernising’ the party
Of course, it isn’t just what Greens moved towards that matters. It’s also what the party moved away from. And, in that context, the February 20 2010 is a significant date. That was when the party conference voted to replace its science policy. Though not hugely salient for most voters, the issue had been a millstone in the 2009 Euro elections, when commentators had (reasonably enough) hammered Greens for being too close to quacks on issues like stem-cell research and homeopathy. The picture of the party painted by such policies left many, particularly younger progressive voters, with an impression of old hippies who didn’t represent them. Lots of members couldn’t help but agree. We organised, found ourselves to be in a majority, and abolished most vestiges of quackery which had been left in policy documents from earlier eras. At the time, this change felt like more than the sum of its parts: it made the party seem less like a hangover from the movements of the 1970s, and more like a modern, radical force, representing progressive politics as it is today.
Older Greens often get frustrated when people talk about all of this as though it is a change. Because in truth, Greens have always been a party rooted in the evolving social movements of each era. And Green Party policy has always been deeply critical of neoliberal capitalism. Its founding principles included social justice, radical democracy, equality and peace as well as concern for the environment. In a sense, while the wording of the philosophical basis changed, the philosophy stayed the same.
But the wording matters. Because politics is a conversation between people, and so it is much more about what people hear than what you mean to say. What voters think about political parties is defined not by complex lists of policy comparisons, but by simple stories and clear values. And all too often, the Green Party failed to tell a story about itself. And so it was all too easy for others to pigeon-hole us as a bit like the Lib Dems, only a little more eco: a party of cycling and recycling; of bikes, bins and eco-bling; an addendum to the fashionable lifestylism and ethical consumerism of the neoliberal boom years.
This image was never exactly accurate. From their earliest foundations, the Liberals, then Lib Dems, were a party of capitalism, free trade, and laissez fair economics. When I joined the Greens in 2001, it was effectively the electoral wing of the then booming anti-globalisation movement, only, when it actually came to elections, it often seemed a little embarrassed to tell anyone. Many Greens preferred to hide away their radical economics and present themselves only as a “yes, and” party: “yes, what all the other parties are offering you, and we’ll make it easier for you to buy low energy light-bulbs”.
The scale of media consensus that being radical and left was the road to electoral oblivion meant that even many on the radical left had internalised it. But it was always a falsehood – as one exasperated Green friend said to me in 2007 “it’s not as though getting as many votes as Labour did in 1983 would be a disaster for us”. And so, all too often, many (though by no means all) were content to accept an eco-lifestylist label foisted on them by an establishment keen to co-opt dissent by turning movements into brands. Rather than breaking out of the box we’d been put into by talking about the most popular and salient Green policies and telling a story about ourselves which resonated widely, many in the party seemed content with preaching only to those who were already signed up environmentalists, assuming that, as the climate crisis unfolded, that number would inevitably grow.
Another key date for our timeline, then, is October 8 2008. That was the day that the UK government announced its first bail-out package to prevent the implosion of Britain’s banking sector, triggering the longest economic slump in a century. Up until that moment, climate change had been rising higher and higher up the media agenda. When the financial sector collapsed, the general analysis from commentators who bothered to notice Greens was that our time had come and gone. Political debate would return to questions of macro-economics, and no one would want to hear eco-warriors bang on about the planet.
When Labour crossed to the opposition benches after the 2010 election, this narrative accelerated. Greens may have got our first MP, but this would be a tough era for the party, people said, with the left consolidating to get the Tories out. The fact they were led by a former secretary of state for Energy and Climate Change who came from the wonky leftish of his party made this story seem all the more viable: environmentalists, we were told would happily get behind Ed Miliband.
Those who thought that the climate falling down the agenda would damage the party misunderstood the Green vote. Even for the most consistent supporters of the party, worrying about the planet has never come on its own as some box that can be ticked. It’s a part of a broader world-view: concern about corporate take-over; a desire for democratisation; a sense that all is not right in a world where capital is king. And it was the sense that Greens offered this democratic alternative to the corporate power-grab; a party to the left of a triangulating Labour, which attracted much of the support. Obviously the environment was a major concern for much of that base, but as the canary in the mineshaft of corporate plunder rather than an isolated issue impacting on an abstract planet.
While commentators were writing off any chances of an increase in support for the Green Party, many of its activists saw an opportunity. Not long before the banks collapsed, in May 2007, Greens had been taught an important lesson at the hands of the Scottish electorate. Four years earlier, in 2003, weeks after the start of the Iraq war, the party won seven seats in the Scottish Parliament. These new MSPs had, on the whole, acquitted themselves well, and a strong media team ensured they were a daily presence in the Scottish press for four years.
Coming up to the 2007 election, climate change was higher up the agenda than it had ever been before, or has ever been since. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had made an almighty splash, and newspapers were reporting climate stories across their front pages. Greens became convinced that this would be the first climate election, and ran a campaign with a strategy best characterised as: “CLIMATE CHANGE”.
In a sense, there was a tragic irony to all of this. For decades, the Green Party analysis had been that the environment wasn’t a separate issue. While Lib Dems and Labour may care about the planet too, Greens had always said you can’t save it unless you’re willing to make radical changes to the way that the economy runs: as long as all of the decisions are made by rich white men seeking to maximise profit, our future will always be sold off to the highest bidder. “You can’t talk about our ecosystem in isolation from the economic system” said Greens, before doing just that.
Another problem with this narrative was that it was too easy for environmentalism to be defined by those with more power and louder voices than one small political party. In 2005, the Lib Dems campaigned promising to introduce ‘green taxes’, and Gordon Brown became famous for ‘stealth taxes’ – significantly more likely to clobber poorer households than levies on income or wealth. Similarly, the Labour government shifted the blame for its utter failure to reduce carbon emissions by funding a series of advertisements telling people that they were individually responsible. “You must change your lightbulbs” they’d say, whilst attempting to expand airports and invading Iraq to secure ever more oil.
Around the same time, as documented in Naomi Klein’s new book, a cluster of right wing think-tanks came to the conclusion that action on climate change was one of biggest threats to neoliberal capitalism. And so they developed strategies to make environmentalists unpopular – strategies delivered in the UK through the right wing tabloids, using the messages emanating from both Labour and the Lib Dems to convince people that climate activists blamed them, and wanted to control them and tax them.
Rather than effectively articulate a different and more powerful story, too many Greens fell into the trap created for them – talking about “carbon footprints”, “eco-taxes” and ways we could all reduce our personal carbon emissions. Voters inferred that yes, Greens did basically think they – and their failure to live “eco” lifestyles, were to blame. As one new member put it “I always used to think you wanted me to weave my own hair shirt”.
The result of the 2007 “climate change election” in Scotland was that five out of seven of the Green MSPs lost their seats – mostly to a resurgent SNP, who attracted many of the votes Greens had won in 2003. Largely, they did this by talking about policies both parties shared, but Greens forgot to mention, like opposing Labour’s part-privatisation of the NHS.
To an extent, these lessons were learnt. In the 2008 London Mayoral election, when Ken Livingstone declared it to be another “first climate change election”, Green hacks rolled their eyes. The campaign manager, Gary Dunion, had lost his job with the Green MSPs on the back of the same hype there only a year before. They ran with the slogan “a Green London is an affordable London”, and made the case that global capital was pricing people out of the nation’s capital. The candidate, Siân Berry, won the endorsements of the Observer and the Independent, and took the party from 7th place in 2004 to 4th.
And so, for many in the party, the financial crisis of 2008 didn’t herald electoral devastation but a much needed opportunity to shift focus. It would force the party to emphasise the economy and the need for radical democratic challenges to a failing system. And, with Green economic policies, it’s easy to make it clear to most people in the country that “we’re on your side”. Rather than biting its tongue, the party would get better at articulating the most popular story it had to tell about itself – after-all, polling has consistently shown that on issues like public ownership, the electorate, like the Green Party, is a long way to the left of Labour.
This shift of emphasis took place relatively quickly in key target areas – nothing makes you focus on issues of immediate material interest to voters more than knocking on their doors in the slipstream of a recession. But it took time to go national.
When Caroline Lucas was elected, she ended up with what member and writer Jim Jepps described as the four most difficult jobs in the party: constituency MP, the sole Green voice in Parliament, party media spokesperson, and leader. She did the first three brilliantly, but, by necessity, effectively left a vacuum at the top of the party just when it needed leadership. For half a decade, activists had understood the strategy: focus, focus, focus: a breakthrough under first past the post would require throwing resources at a couple of key seats, and hundreds of us became familiar with the train journeys to Brighton and Norwich. After that breakthrough, what next? Over the two years after the election, street politics took off – student protests, UK Uncut, then Occupy. Many in the party, or who might otherwise have joined, instead spent their time being dragged out of tax-dodging shops and camping in public squares.
Leading the surge
All of this changed when Natalie Bennett became leader. In a supreme act of political maturity, Caroline had recognised that she didn’t have to hog all of the jobs at the top of the party. Standing down gave space for someone else to step in and actually lead. And Natalie – a surprise victor in the vote – has done exactly that.
Too often, people in such jobs are judged by their speeches and their performances in broadcast media rather than by their ability to lead and to build. On the former, Natalie started out relatively unpracticed, but has improved rapidly. She has an impressive grasp of detail, but can appear a little stilted and abrasive at times. She’s often criticised for this and, while those comments may be fair when judged on their own, they ignore an important fact: in the other, more important half of the job, she has been hugely successful – for three key reasons.
First, she hasn’t insisted on hogging the limelight. Bennett has been happy to allow Caroline Lucas to remain the face of the party, and to share media appearances as widely as possible – witness recent Any Questions performances from Molly Scott Cato and Jillian Creasy. This will be vital in the future: a UKIP without Farage would, at least until recently, have seemed certain to flop. There is no longer one person on whom the Greens are dependent in the same way. If we consider that the Green membership is now roughly the same as UKIP’s despite only polling half the support, the increased propensity to join might in part be explained by the sense that Greens are a collective endeavour rather than a one woman band.
Second, it seems there is barely a town in England and Wales she’s not visited since she became leader – wooing supporters to join the party, or enthusing armchair members into activism. Never a snob, she’s been happy to spend hours on a train to go and visit relatively small groups in a dusty town hall, though, perhaps the first sign that the sudden growth was brewing was reports from local parties throughout 2013 that they had been amazed by the turnout to see her speak. With Caroline still mostly holding the fort as media front woman, the new leader’s job was building the party, and Natalie can claim huge credit for having done just that. Where, in the past, Greens relied on a number of key areas, there is now significant local representation across much of England and Wales.
Natalie’s constant tours of the country have also given the national party a much better sense of what local parties are doing. This has allowed the office to be more responsive to activists – repeating messages which go down well on the doorstep and sidelining those which don’t, for example, and, just as important, to share successful ways of doing things. As Chris Luffingham, national campaigns director, put it to me: “She is, in many ways, our best source of on the ground intelligence regarding local parties, the strengths and grass roots support.” One consequence of this is that, if you spoke to many leading Greens two years ago, then they would have talked excitedly about “The West Midlands Model”.
That region had seen the most growth in party representation after 2010 (Greens are, for example, the opposition on the Solihull council). They’d achieved this by getting local parties to band together, target effectively, and win representation in areas Labour had taken for granted for too long. Will Duckworth, who was deputy leader from 2012-4 and a councillor in Dudley, spent much of his time in the role touring the country, training people in how to do what his region had managed: win thumping majorities in wards no one would see as “traditionally Green”. With new money, the party is now able to invest full time staff capacity in delivering this strategy more fully.
The third thing Natalie has been much more successful than her predecessors in doing is shaping a story around the party. A feminist activist by background, she has always understood the need for Greens to expand beyond the “environmentalist” box and, a journalist by profession, she understands how to develop a narrative. The alternative, afterall, is that someone else invents a story about you. Rather than jumping from issue to issue and leaving a messy blur in people’s minds, a blur which others will inevitably then twist, she uses speeches and policy announcements to paint a clear picture of the Green Party: that it is the only party left on the left, that it represents the millions of people abandoned by Labour and the Lib Dems; that it is brave enough to stand up to UKIP rather than pandering to them. There is a simple way to tell that this story has been heard: it’s the one repeated back by hundreds of new members at meetings to welcome them across the country.
A key part of this success is that, rather than ducking fights, she takes them head on. Rather than avoid discussing immigration, she stands up to Nigel Farage. Rather than accept the Ofcom ruling, she’s heading for the courts. The opposite of being controversial is being ignored and, as they taught me in English classes, every good story needs conflict. With Natalie at the helm, the Greens are no longer “too nice” to fight their corner.
All of this leads us back to another vital date: November 30 2007. Because the very existence of a leader made much of this change easier. The post was only created in the party after a referendum among the membership, whose result was declared that day. The change didn’t only allow for one new role in the party: it signalled a new seriousness.
Unity and party-building
Perhaps most importantly, in hindsight, it let the party finally move on from the “realo/fundi” (realist/fundamentalist) debates which had plagued Greens across Europe in the Nineties, and to focus instead on questions relevant to, well, anyone apart from the hacks. Closure on the issue also meant that two powerful groups in the party and their fellow travellers: Young Greens (who tended to be on the left, but pro-leader ‘realos’) and Green Left (who were very much anti-leader ‘fundies’), were able to move beyond these disagreements on internal structures, and push through the various changes I’ve listed above.
In any case, from that moment, the party steadily grew. A simple arithmetic consequence of this is that it’s led to a gradual increase in the funds trickling in to the tiny Old Street Office. The party’s membership has a lower average income than the country, and it has no major financial backers, meaning it’s mostly run by volunteers. But the steady expansion of annual payments allowed the Executive to recruit a few more employees, enabling it to get a little more press coverage, support organisation on the ground better, and to fundraise more effectively.
In Spring 2014, an office restructure, resulting in part from these increased funds, led to the recruitment of two new senior staff – replacing what had been one job before. It was their job to make the party ship-shaped, ready to surf the fast-shifting tides of British politics. By the end of last summer, they had an ambitious five year plan for membership growth. As ever, though, change doesn’t happen gradually. As with tectonic plates, pressure builds up slowly, but is released all at once. The party took years to set its sails so that it could be thrust forward by one gust of wind. And as a hurricane of new members suddenly arrived – bringing with them hundreds of thousands of pounds of direct debits, the office simply moved in three months into what had been the third year of what they had thought was an ambitious plan, recruiting staff and building infrastructure they didn’t expect to have until 2017 on their most hopeful projections.
When asked why the Green Party has grown so much in the last few months, it’s tempting to give an account entirely different from that I have just laid out. That story would list the failure of the Labour party, the uselessness of Ed Miliband and the sense that Greens are the only party left on the left. It would talk about the energy released by the Scottish referendum, Occupy and UK Uncut and the fear of a rising UKIP and a failure to confront them. It would discuss changes in demographics – a huge portion of new Green members are under the age of 30. It would interrogate the self-immolation of the Lib Dems and the rise of Syriza and Podemos, the SNP and Canada’s NDP. It would examine the fragmenting force of the internet and it would isolate the Scottish referendum and the exclusion of the Greens from the election debates as the key trigger points.
Such an account would all be true. Talk to new members of the Greens and all of these factors come up as reasons why they have joined. A huge swathe of the new membership is under 30, and it’s important not to ignore that this represents a new generation laying claim to politics, democracy, and its own future – rejecting the NGOism of their parents and demanding a redistribution of what might in the past have been called “hard power”.
But here’s the thing: it’s now 20 years since Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party and seven years since Gordon Brown replaced him. There has been a clear space on the left of British politics ever since then. It’s more than a decade since the Iraq War and the energy unleashed in the vast protests against it. It’s six years since global capitalism lost its footing, nearly five years since Cameron and Clegg stood together in the Downing Street Rose Garden and four years since students burnt bus shelters on Whitehall. Greens were excluded from the leader debates in 2010 too.
Why us? Why now?
Any explanation of the sudden surge in Green membership can’t just point at events in the world and assume they are sufficient causes. It must also ask why it has happened now when it didn’t happen on this scale before, despite other events which could equally have triggered such a surge. It must also ask why the Greens and not Left Unity, or Respect, or a new British Podemos. And for me, a significant part of the answer is that the Green Party (partly because of all of those previous events – after all, Natalie Bennett joined after the Iraq War) changed itself.
At party conference after party conference, in internal elections and in local meetings, new and young members teamed up with those in the party who were willing and ready to embrace change, and nudged it into its current position – articulating a modern, radical, left politics, focussed on the challenges of the future rather than licking its wounds from the battles of the past. These Greens, not without some opposition, transformed their party – made it confident in being radical at a time when radical ideas are needed, polished old messages to ensure they echo around a fast changing world, and arrived with a firm belief that change is not only possible, but coming.
2015 and 2020 – the game-changers
Which brings us to a final two dates: May 7 2015, and May 7 2020. Because the next two general elections will be the most important yet for the party with the youngest membership in the UK. While it’s unlikely that the former will bring additional seats, it could well leave Greens as the main challengers in a number of places, smashing through the tactical voter barrier to allow a significant rush forward in 2020.
In the mean time, tens of thousands of new Green Party activists are gathering their strength for the biggest election campaign in the party’s history. They may have vast mountains to climb, but their legs are fresh.