How the Green election campaign went from bad to worse – and where we go from here
The dust has now settled on the most heartbreaking election since the last one. All the votes are now counted. And for the fourth election in a row, we once again woke up to a Tory government. This time, the Tories won their biggest majority since Thatcher.
Pieces of good news are few and far between. The SNP have reaffirmed their place as the dominant party in Scotland and accelerated the path to a second Scottish Independence referendum. The DUP lost a fifth of their MPs, and there are now more nationalist than unionist MPs from the North of Ireland for the first time ever. Quietly under the radar, the national vote share for the UK’s three Green parties rose by 1.1% of the vote. The Greens also picked up their second highest share of the vote ever.
But – at least in England and Wales – that Green result was in spite of, not because of the Green Party national campaign. There were strong media performances from Sian Berry, Jonathan Bartley, Amelia Womack, and others. There was a powerful mobilisation and ground campaign in Bristol West. But despite this, the central campaign was nothing short of shambolic.
Shackling the Greens to the Liberal Democrats
It all started with a unfathomably poor decision. A week after the General Election was called, the Green Party – who have been talking up the benefit of electoral pacts since 2017 – entered into an ‘anti-Brexit’ alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru.
Leaving the debate about electoral pacts in general to one side, the impact of Unite to Remain on the Green Party can’t be understated.
Longstanding members left the party. Campaign organisers report being unable to mobilise core activists. The Greens were lambasted by the wider left.
Why? Because the agreement was made with a party who less than five years ago were in government implementing the most hard-right economic agenda since Thatcher. Because the agreement included seats that were marginal between Labour and the Tories – with some having pro-Remain Labour MPs. And it reeked of ‘jobs for the boys’ decision making, with Jonathan Bartley, Molly Scott Cato and Anthony Slaughter being given free runs in no-hope constituencies.
And what did this pact of Faustian proportions achieve? No increase in seats for either the Greens or Plaid, and a net seat loss for the Liberal Democrats.
For literally no benefit to the Green Party, this decision broke two rules of politics so obvious they’re never even discussed or stated. Number one: don’t alienate your most engaged members just before you need to mobilise them behind a campaign. Number two: don’t cause near irreversible damage to your reputation among people who could become your members in the near future. A dodgy deal with the austerity peddling, neoliberal, nuclear-button-pushing, underhand, deceitful, spineless charlatans in the Liberal Democrats managed to do both of these in one fell swoop.
Greens veering off script on even the most basic Green values
For some, it seems, entering pacts with Lib Dems wasn’t enough. Instead, we needed to act like them too.
Greens have long held the belief that any responsible approach to tackling climate change has to be based on a just transition. Central to this has to be a meaningful engagement with trade unions and the workers they represent. There’s no climate justice without workers’ justice.
Sadly, Molly Scott Cato decided to throw these principles out the window with her repeated attacks on trade unions during the campaign. Mere days after the election was called, Scott Cato was accusing Labour of introducing “caveats” to their climate policies in order to “keep the unions happy”.
Two days before polling day, she was at it again – accusing Labour of being “beholden” to unions, and equating their relationship to that of the Tories and corporations. It shouldn’t need explaining as to why comparing millions of workers coming together to improve their lives is not remotely comparable to institutions designed to protect the interests of an economic elite, while exploiting both people and planet. Nor should it need explaining that this has long been a reactionary attack line of liberals and the right.
But Molly Scott Cato wasn’t alone in spewing right wing narratives throughout the campaign. Jonathan Bartley, not once, but twice, went on publicly broadcast media and called for a ban on halal meat. In a remarkable turn of events the Green Party co-leader joined an ever shrinking pool of people with a national political profile to repeat this islamophobic dog whistle – along with Tommy Robinson and UKIP.
The comments triggered public statements from the Jewish Greens, Greens of Colour and the Young Greens – all condemning Bartley’s comments, and demanding a public apology from the Green Party. For the Jewish Greens, this was the first time they had ever released a public statement.
Inevitably anti-union and islamophobic statements from leading figures in the party once again alienated the overwhelmingly pro-worker and anti-racist membership, and further damaged the party’s reputation in the wider left. Remember those two rules above.
A campaign devoid of messaging
These diversions from basic Green principles weren’t the only communications problem the party had. The party’s messaging was all over the place.
For starters, was this the climate election, the Brexit election, or the ending austerity election? Judging from the party’s media appearances and headline manifesto commitments – it was climate. But judging from Unite to Remain (which was covered substantially in the broadcast media and had cut through) it was Brexit. Judging from austerity rarely getting a mention in Green channels, it didn’t seem to be the election in which we could end it.
This matters. The long shopping list of pledges in a manifesto are useful for journalists and NGOs to draw out themes and commitments. But for the public this is irrelevant. What really matters is the electorate being able to decipher a narrative behind a campaign.
The Tories had a clear message that most people could repeat. So did the Liberal Democrats. One of Labour’s biggest failings in the election is that it had no clear message or thread running throughout its campaign. It wasn’t clear what it stood for. Nor was it clear what the Greens stood for.
In few places is this more clear than scrolling through the Green Party’s social media channels. For some reason beyond comprehension, the party decided to embark on a baffling rebrand at the start of the campaign – a rebrand that meant virtually all social media content was unreadable without a magnifying glass – especially on mobile. Worse still, scrolling through the Green Party’s twitter feed would give you not even an inkling of what the Greens were seeking to deliver. Instead, you’d be greeted with a series of retweets from people saying things like ‘Jonathan Bartley is a sick guy’ and ‘Sian Berry did good on the debate’. Literally.
Treating activists like running water
The party’s comms was shoddy and rushed. But so too was it’s approach to the campaign. Paid organisers were recruited in the middle of an election. Staff members were kept in the dark about what resource the party was going to put into which seats. Local parties with varying levels of organisation were expected to run effective campaigns from a standing start.
This treats activists – and voters – like running water, as if by turning on a tap you can instantly mobilise them behind a campaign. The truth is that mobilising activists requires long term, targeted relationship building, training and support. It requires maintaining infrastructure and strength over time.
This was an election we knew was coming for at least six months. It didn’t catch us by surprise. Most of the seats that would be high on our target list have been known for at least two years.
Why then haven’t local parties been provided with dedicated staff support to help build infrastructure, capacity and skills for the last two years? Why were local parties in some target constituencies left with shockingly low activist bases and poor organisation? It’s no wonder that paid local organisers have reported fighting against an impossible tide when trying to run effective General Election campaigns.
More broadly, it’s indicative of a wider problem in that the party has no meaningful election strategy beyond incremental local election gains and treats movement building with disdain.
Where do we go from here?
Despite all of this, the Green Party will end 2019 with its most successful year in its history. Unprecedented European election success, a proper foothold in local government and its second highest General Election vote share ever. We’ve maintained our position as a credible and important voice in British politics. That’s a strong footing to enter the new year as the country enters major political turmoil – particularly on the left.
But whatever happens, we can’t let future campaigns repeat these mistakes. We must sort out our messaging so that there is a clear and consistent vision that cuts through to the public of tackling the climate emergency through building a new economy, democracy and society that will transform people’s lives for the better. We can’t have people in positions of power and influence in the party who throw workers, Muslims or anyone else on the front line of the hard-right’s attacks under the bus. And we can’t have an electoral strategy that relies on backroom deals with Lib Dems nor that sees movement building as a distraction.
The next few months and years are unpredictable. But there’s one thing I think I can predict – that a radical, effective and emancipatory Green Party will continue to be needed. We have to fight to maintain it.