A photo of Green Party campaigners in Bristol

At Bright Green, we’ve given thousands of words and dozens of hours of discussion to why this year’s local elections are important and interesting for the Green Party of England and Wales. There’s one area we’ve not yet touched on though – the fact that this year, there are a large number of Green Councillors who are seeking re-election who were first elected wearing a red rosette.

One result of Labour’s rightward shift under Keir Starmer has been a wave of defections from the Labour Party to the Greens, defections which have included over a dozen councillors. Defections of elected representatives are rare in British politics, and defections to the Greens are rarer still. As such there is little past evidence to rely upon to judge the likelihood of these newly Green councillors getting re-elected.

Do they have sufficient personal support in their patches to get over the line? Have their constituents also been on a similar political journey? Does the local party have the resources and capacity to mount a large enough campaign in an area they haven’t necessarily been active in previously? These are the questions we will get answers to on Thursday, when 7 ex-Labour councillors will be seeking re-election as Greens. Bright Green understands that if they are successful, they would become the first Greens who re-elected who were first elected as Labour councillors.

The most high profile of these is Jo Bird, a now Green Party councillor in the Wirral. A socialist who was expelled from the Labour Party, she is a hate figure among many on the Labour right. So keen are Labour to ensure she doesn’t retain her seat, they’ve even sent the party’s general secretary to campaign in her ward to try and remove her.

But that level of opposition isn’t intimidating her. She says that there are many former Labour members now delivering Green Party leaflets along with her and claims that local residents are supportive of local campaigns the Greens are running around protecting public services and securing fairer rents.

That local support is bolstered by a fierce election machine Wirral Green Party has enacted. Bright Green has spoken to activists who have helped in the campaign, one of whom described it as one of the most organised election operations they’ve seen in the Green Party. They’re hoping to defend the three wards they currently hold as well as win in at least two others – one of them Jo Bird’s.

Bird herself is not taking anything for granted though. She told Bright Green: “I hope to become one of the first former Labour councillors in England to be re-elected as a Green councillor. I’m very impressed by [how] hard my Green colleagues work on behalf of residents and how positive our campaign has been. Whether I win or lose re-election, I’m very proud to be standing as a Green candidate in these elections.”

Also among those seeking re-election is Lou Cunningham. She was elected to Leeds City Council with a hefty majority in 2019. The Greens came second, but a distant second. Indeed, the ward in question – Armley – has been solidly Labour for almost forty year (in the 1980s, the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats held it).

Nevertheless, Cunningham is seeking re-election in the same ward. She says that she is “grateful” to the residents in her community that have been supportive of her decision to defect to the Green Party in December 2019.

Like Bird, Cunningham doesn’t make any bold claims about the likelihood of her re-election, which is undoubtedly a tall order. She told Bright Green: “The Green team have been working hard to communicate the message to the residents of Armley that change is possible. My work in Armley is not done and I would love to be given the chance to continue to work with and for my community.”

Further south, Peterborough Green Party is in an interesting position. Two former Labour councillors are seeking re-election as Greens.

Heather Skibsted was elected to Peterborough City Council in 2019, narrowly pushing the Tories into second place. While the Greens came fourth in her ward – Orton Longueville – that year, they picked up 16.5% of the vote and came around 300 votes short of Skibsted.

She acknowledges the challenges of trying to win in what has historically been a Labour/Tory marginal ward. However, she describes the campaign so far as being ‘very positive’. She told Bright Green: “The campaign in Orton Longueville is going really well with a positive response on the doorstep even with many that voted for me as Labour previously and Conservative voters looking for an alternative. I have worked hard in the ward since 2018 and with neighbouring Green councillors in Orton Waterville, we are all really giving it our best shot to make the whole of Orton Green- bring it on.”

It’s a similar situation in Imtiaz Ali’s ward. He was elected in 2021 in a tightly fought race between Labour and the Tories in Fletton & Woodston ward.

Saying he has a “good chance” of getting re-elected, Ali claims the response from voters has been more positive towards him now he’s with the Greens. He told Bright Green: “I’m really enjoying it, I always enjoy the buzz of the campaign. And in a way this is a win-win for the Greens. Either I win and get elected or I don’t and I’ve developed the ward in 2 months with a view to win next year. So very positive about the campaign so far”

Given the fact that both these seats in Peterborough have historically been battlegrounds for Labour and the Tories, they are likely to prove particularly interesting case studies for the Greens. Can defecting councillors retain their seats under the Green banner even in patches which are being heavily fought by other parties?

The same is partially true for Ben Gray, a Labour-Green defector on Rushcliffe Borough Council. His ward was a Labour/Tory marginal as well in 2019, the last time there were elections in the borough. However, boundary changes mean the profile of the ward has changed a little.

As with the others, he certainly isn’t excessively confident about his chances, describing his re-election as “in the balance”. Despite this, he told Bright Green that he continues to feel the campaign is going well. He said: “The response on the streets has been more positive than I remember at the last election. The support I’ve received this time round has been a cut above in terms of organisation and professionalism. The biggest difference though is that I feel the Green Party is looking out for me, I’ve had people check in and ask how I’m going rather than how the campaign is going. That makes a real difference and confirms I’ve made the right choice as to which party I want to put my efforts into supporting and growing.”

Alongside these five, Patrick Kitterick in Leicester and George Wheeler are the final two Greens Bright Green is aware of that were last elected on a Labour Party ticket and are now seeking re-election as Greens.

Their success won’t be the biggest news story on election night. It is unlikely to even be the biggest story for the Green Party. But it will tell us a lot about the state of the Green Party and its electoral strength.

It’s one thing to get councillors elected (far from easy for Greens!) It’s another thing altogether to successfully persuade other councillors to jump ship to your party, set up a campaigning infrastructure and fight to keep them in office against a much more well resourced Labour machine. If the Green Party can pull it off in even one of these seats it will be historically significant and will be an important step on its journey from being the largest of the minor parties to becoming the smallest of major parties.

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Image credit: Matthew Phillip long – Creative Commons