Sian Berry, Cala Denyer and Amelia Womack raising their hands in the air

Since Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, the Green Party of England and Wales has added 20 Councillors to its tally through defections. Of these, the overwhelming majority – 16 – were previously Labour Councillors. In a significant acceleration, five of those defections have taken place since July 2022. Of the other defections, three have come from the Liberal Democrats and one from the Tories.

This is a significant trend. Defections of elected public office holders are rare. Defections to the Green Party – until 2019 a minor player in local government – were once almost unheard of.

As significant as the defections themselves though are the reasons the party-switchers have given for leaving. Those leaving Labour for the Greens – either directly, or after a stint as an independent – speak of an authoritarian culture within the Labour Party in local government, of increasing disaffection with the party’s rightward shift since Starmer’s ascension to the leadership and a heightened recognition that the Greens offer a radical alternative to the other political parties.

Writing for Bright Green, Jo Bird – who was a Labour Councillor in the Wirral before becoming independent and finally joining the Greens in March 2022 – said the Labour Party is “increasingly centralised, authoritarian, dysfunctional and disconnected from organised workers”. She added that “lefties are welcome in the Green Party”, and that Labour Councillors had joined with the Tories to vote to close libraries and leisure centres.

Ekua Bayunu, a Manchester City Councillor who defected to the Greens in July 2022, said she felt her ability to serve her constituents was “hampered” by Labour and that, she “felt constantly at odds with the culture of the Labour Party”.

In Peterborough, Heather Skibsted – another July 2022 defector – said, “Labour no longer reflects the values and principles that attracted me to the party in 2015”. When she explained her decision to defect in an article for Bright Green, Skibsted wrote, “I joined Labour originally to fight for a fairer society and I can continue to do this through the Green Party and its excellent policies.”

Lorna Russell, who was deputy mayor of Camden when she jumped ship from Labour to the Greens in 2021 said, “My principles and core values of social justice, equality, and environmentalism have not changed, but I have found myself in a party that has changed a lot.” She went on to say, “I am proud to now represent a party that believes in building a truly fairer society and protecting the planet for future generations.”

Some of those who joined the Greens when in office have since lost their seats in either the 2021 or 2022 local elections. Others have since stood down. A big challenge for the party therefore is to ensure it keeps hold of those seats where rosettes of the sitting Councillors change colour, and to use the momentum behind defections as a springboard for further electoral success.

One place where this challenge will be put to the test is Lancaster. In July 2022, three Councillors defected to the Greens – all of them from the ‘ecosocialist independent’ group, which comprised left wingers who had previously been in the Labour Party. Two of the three intend to stand for re-election on a Green Party ticket.

Lancaster is made more interesting politically by the fact that the Greens currently lead the Council, as part of a coalition with a number of independents. In May 2022, the Greens gained a seat from the Tories in a by-election. As a test case for a strong local Green Party, with momentum from both recent electoral success and the credibility of defections behind them – they don’t come much better than this. In 2023, Lancaster will be one the key Councils to watch to get a sense of the Green Party’s fortunes.

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