Green Party conference backdrop

It’s been three years now since Green Party members in Wales voted against the party becoming independent. This has left an inconsistency that while Scotland and Northern Ireland have independent and successful Green parties, with their own identities and policies, England and Wales remain joined as one party, headquartered in London.

In those three years, much has changed. Firstly, there has been a growing movement towards Welsh national independence, which the Greens have declared their support for. Secondly, Wales had a national election in 2021 and once again Greens failed to gain any seats.

Recently we have watched the formation of a co-operation deal which has seen the Greens enter parliament in Scotland. This momentous event puts Greens into a national government for the first time anywhere in the UK. This provides the inspiration needed for a bold leap to create the right conditions for a breakthrough in Wales.

There are, of course, differences between Scotland and Wales. And there are very well rehearsed reasons behind the lack of Green success in Wales, which we need to look at and scrutinise.

The Scottish Green Party broke away from the party in England in 1990 and became independent. This was prompted because of the growing seriousness of the Scottish devolution debate.

By all accounts, by 1998 the party was struggling. At some meetings, just a handful of people were turning up. This followed a period of failed election battles and the resulting lack of enthusiasm and energy. Some members started arguing that the party should fold back into the English party it had devolved from.

However, one person in particular who saw the potential of the party was Dr Caroline Hoffman. As an ecologist, passionate feminist and LGBT campaigner she was determined and respected. Her passion and ability to inspire was key to what happened next.

Crucially, Dr Hoffman understood the need for electoral strategy and was an advocate for the ‘Second Vote Green’ approach. This saw the Scottish Greens decline calls to run in every constituency seat, and instead focus on taking ‘second votes’ from supporters of other parties, using the proportional representation system to the party’s advantage. In the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999, Robin Harper achieved 6.9% of the vote in the Lothians Region and was elected as the sole Green MSP.

In 2021, eight Green MSPs were elected. Becoming independent in 1990 can’t be claimed to be the sole cause of this electoral success, but it’s definitely part of the story. Without it, the party would not have gone through the period of party building, and necessary bumps along the road. This has resulted in the Scottish Greens having their own distinctive party identity and respect from a growing number of voters within Scotland – even those loyal to other parties who will continue to receive their constituency vote.

The identity and political priorities formed by the Scottish Greens has been crucial to their success – and this is what the Wales Greens need to start to build. This is unlikely to happen without independence.

In 2018, party members in Wales voted in a ballot by over 60% against becoming an independent party, with a 20% turnout of the party’s 1,500 members. This has left Wales as one of very few nations around the world to not have its own Green Party. This is despite the Greens being generally supportive of Wales’s nation building activities since devolution in 1999. In 2020, the party even became fully supportive of Wales becoming an independent country, following a vote at conference.

It’s now ten years since I last wrote an article for Bright Green about the Wales Green Party. I was part of the election team in our target region of South Wales Central and I wrote that we had a really good chance of winning our first seat in the Welsh National election.

Unfortunately that did not happen. In the region we got 5.2% of the vote, while the Liberal Democrats had the lowest winning percentage of 7.9% – meaning we missed by quite a long way.

The truth, however, was that the whole campaign was fueled by hope and hype. At that point the Green Party had very little money, staff or members. The entire Wales membership was 400 and there was no permanent staff member. The Greens spent £57,000 across Wales compared to the Liberal Democrats who spent £114,178.

The Green Party now is a very different machine. Ignore the 2016 election where the Greens did terribly, and fast forward to now – 2021.

This year the Greens were proud to have their most successful ever election in Wales – but only actually got 5.6% in South Wales Central. That’s an improvement of less than half a percent in ten years, despite the membership being much bigger and a general higher awareness of Green issues among voters. Despite the huge amount of work from members, celebrations are somewhat muted.

Factor in that this time Wales allowed 16 and 17 year olds to vote, and polls tend to suggest this age group is more likely to vote Green, and that narrow increase looks even less impressive. Although vote share increased in all regions, South Wales Central remains the only region where the Greens have ever surpassed 5% and retained the election deposit.

Over the years the Greens in Wales have had plenty of great and talented people. I don’t want to take away from the massive amount of work that has gone into the party over the years, but I think it’s only right that we ask challenging questions about why success has evaded the party – and how to stop the current pattern of repeating the same mistakes.

Wales has 22 unitary authority councils, overseen by 1,253 councillors. Of these, just one is currently Green – Councillor Emily Durrant in Powys. Wales also has a national Senedd (Parliament) formerly known as the Welsh Assembly which has existed since 1999, the same year that Robin got elected to the first Scottish Parliament. So far the Greens have failed to take any of the 60 seats, which are elected using a form of Proportional Representation.

There are plenty of reasons why success hasn’t happened yet. The electoral system in Wales, although proportional, sets a higher bar than in Scotland simply because there are fewer seats. Having said that, Wales has never matched the 6.9% which got the first MSP elected in 1999, so it’s misleading to argue that this is the sole reason we have failed to get anyone elected in Wales.

The party landscape is very different with Labour consistently the largest party in Wales followed by significant Conservative and Plaid Cymru parties – and there was even a period where UKIP had a lot of success. Some argue that Plaid Cymru often takes in Wales the electoral space that the Green Party takes in England. In fact, I have often seen voters confuse the two parties. I would suggest this is why an independent Wales Green Party should focus on building its own identity and policies.

With ‘all-out’ council elections every five years, elected using the first past the post system, it’s extremely hard to break through at the council level. I expect there will be councillor gains in 2022, but even if over 20 councillors are elected to give the party a similar level of representation as on English councils, it still won’t guarantee success in the next national election in five years time.

An independent Wales Green Party isn’t just about being more effective electorally. It’s about practising what we preach when we say we believe in devolution.

Every nation should have its own Green Party. It feels extremely uncomfortable, and contrary to the spirit of our values about devolution, that Welsh members do not have complete control over the destiny of their own party.

There will always be opposition from within the party. Some will claim that the English party is subsiding Wales. But, if this is true and is being used as a way to retain control over Wales. That is highly inappropriate.

Some will proclaim an independent Wales Green Party would collapse. Indeed there is a chance, for a period, an independent Wales Green Party may be smaller and have to concentrate on developing its own people and image, but from that base will have a better chance of growing and winning. Let’s face it, the current situation isn’t leading to any success so what do we really have to lose?

Others may say that Wales doesn’t deserve independence as it has to date been unsuccessful. All of these arguments within the party are remarkably similar to the excuses used against Wales and Scotland becoming independent nations over the years. We should think about whether these arguments really stack up and what they tell us about the relationship between the party in England and Wales in terms of control and appropriateness.

The most popular argument, which I have heard so many times, is that now isn’t the right time. ‘Wait until after the next Senedd election; wait until after the next council election; wait until we get more people elected.’ My fear, and suspicion, is that the right time will never come unless someone with really bold ambitions steps forward, makes some hard decisions, and builds this new party. This will need very strong leadership.

Sadly I don’t live in Wales any more, but it’s still my home country and I would love to see a strong Green Party achieving electoral success and helping to prevent the ongoing climate emergency.

Ten years ago I didn’t really believe that Wales needed an independent Green Party. But also I would never have believed that ten years later we still wouldn’t have any Greens elected to the Senedd.

Sometimes I think that when you are in the middle of something it’s harder to see the strategic issues with clarity. Having a bit of distance has helped me see the need for major change.

Like many Greens in England, I love to see our parties in Scotland and Wales succeed and want to celebrate success. I hope the Wales party will have the confidence soon to do something big and take its future into its own hands, and over the next couple of decades use the Scottish Green success as a roadmap for a Green Welsh future.

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Image credit: Jwslubbock- Creative Commons