The truth behind the Greens’ performance in the General Election
The election is over. Social media is filled with rancorous debate – unpicking Labour’s defeat. But what of the Greens? How was this election for us?
2017 was still a disaster
It’s hard to understate how difficult the result in 2017 was. We fell back in almost every single seat. Instead of being a whisker away from winning in Bristol West we suddenly were a mile away. No second places. Very few third places.
That has a legacy. Winning First Past the Post elections is slow and incremental work. It involves convincing the voters that you can actually win. Distant 3rd or 4th places do not do that.
It’s easily forgotten but winning in Brighton Pavilion took 13 years and 4 elections to breakthrough. Rome/Brighton wasn’t built in a day.
Sadly that political reality isn’t always conveyed by the party’s spokespeople. The frank truth is apart from Brighton Pavilion, there was not a single seat we could realistically claim we could win, based on 2017 results.
It would have taken record breaking swings for us to win in Bristol West or the Isle of Wight.
I understand the leadership has to talk up our chances of winning – to raise money, to give hope and to get media coverage. But it doesn’t help the shattered expectations of member’s raised hopes.
In 2015 we promised we were seriously contesting 12 seats. The fact is we weren’t. Our leadership knew that wasn’t the case. It surely contributed to the number of members who left us post Green surge.
Going forward we have to get the right balance of being optimistic and realistic about our target seats.
Being a third party
Stephen Bush has written a number of excellent columns detailing how the Liberal Democrats political fate is tied to the Labour Party. It seems evident that we have a similar problem.
When the Conservatives are in power it is simply harder for the Greens to take seats off Labour. When Labour is unpopular it’s difficult to get Conservatives or Liberal Democrats to lend us their vote. Fear of the opponent and tactical voting make it harder for us to win.
We won Brighton Pavilion on the tail end of an unpopular Labour government. Our Green vote grew most when it was a safe Labour seat. The context is very different now.
Our colleagues in the Australian Greens and Canadian Greens have very similar problems. They both operate under First Past the Post. They have more money and are arguably more established than we are. Both found it impossible to win a second seat whilst their Conservatives were in power.
Target to win
Target to win is our all hallowed manual for winning council elections. Frankly there were some choices this election that makes me wonder how much we’ve internalised it.
When choosing a target ward local parties are asked to consider:
The size of majority – marginal seats are often closely fought by other parties and therefore harder to win
Can we show we are one of two top candidates? – Often people vote for who is their preferred candidates between the two perceived potential winners
Quality of competition – This is the most important factor and relates to both the incumbent
councillor (are they well-liked and very active in the ward?) and other parties’ activity in the ward (if LibDems and Labour are both doing lots of leaflets and doorknocking, it will be much harder for us to win)
Under those criteria how on Earth were Vale of Glamorgan or Stroud considered target seats and therefore Unite to Remain seats? Both are heavily contested marginal seats – where inevitably the Green vote was crowded out.
For those activists who poured their hearts into these seats it’s not a direct attack. I know so much hard work was done. But strategically activists deserve better than poor decisions on targets.
Decisions on national targets need to be made on empirical data. On our electoral strategy. Not where candidates live.
Red and blue walls
Under First Past the Post, across the globe, only 5 seats have ever been won by Green Parties. Three in Canada, one in Australia and one in the UK.
What do these seats have in common?
Four out of five were won whilst Labour or the Liberals were in power, with only the first Canadian seat having been won when the Conservatives were in power.
Another is that they were nearly all initially held by a progressive party – but they all had a substantial Conservative vote. That meant that the winning margin was around 30%-40%, instead of 50% or 60%.
Our current challenge is that in our best performing seats (Bristol West, Isle of Wight, Dulwich and West Norwood, Bury St Edmunds) – the winning party is getting 60%+ of the vote. We seem to have given ourselves seats where the margin to win is much more challenging.
The fact is we can’t be afraid to ask challenging questions about where is most winnable. A seat like Bristol West may only become winnable after five years of an unpopular Labour government.
Finally all five Green won seats were won where the Greens had a history of growing electoral success in state or local elections. It took years of winning council seats to become competitive in Brighton or Bristol. Only in Bury St Edmunds do we have a similar councillor base.
Seats like Exeter and Isle of Wight have to demonstrate better success at the local level to be deemed truly competitive at a national level.
Unite to Win?
Was Unite to Remain an absolute failure? That seems to be a prevailing view. My own personal view is that (on purely electoral measures) it’s too early to tell.
As I said before, from the 2017 results, there wasn’t a winnable second seat in the country. We were too far behind in any target seat. Off the back of Unite to Remain we have three strong seconds and thirds (Dulwich and West Norwood, Bristol West and Bury St Edmunds), but in each of them we are still 35%+ behind the leading party.
We may be able to turn the seats into Green gains, but with First Past the Post it could be after the next election this happens.
The Tories implementing boundary reviews could complicate matters further. Whilst smaller seats in general might make the work of campaigning more manageable (especially in the Isle of Wight) it may also entrench Tory incumbents in places like Bury St Edmunds. We will have to see how brutal Boris’s imminent attempt at gerrymandering is.
Internally I think we have to have an honest conversation that our next set of Green wins may be two elections away. From that we have to embrace how we keep members enthused about council elections and gains in elections held under a more proportional system (like the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly).
There’s currently lots of debate about what policy should look like and whether a more centrist or radical approach may pay more dividends. When it comes to winning seats I’d simply argue it’s not as relevant as people think it is. If we can’t convince voters we’re in contention locally with vibrant local campaigns and clear marks of electoral progress – then policy falls on deaf ears.
We have the luxury that we know the next election will be four or five years away. When the Canadian Greens were trying to win their first seat they did an extensive data analysis before building up a winning campaign from scratch on Victoria Island. Their national party proactively identified a winnable seat – then worked with activists to build a campaign there.
It maybe that this is the approach we have to take going forward. It may be that a local party needs proactive support to become the election winning machine of tomorrow. Regional parties will need to think about how they offer support to these places so they’re hitting benchmarks of regular door knocking and leafleting across the constituency. We know what a winning campaign looks like – we can support volunteer led parties to help hit that mark.