The Greens’ Rise Seems Unstoppable. How Are They Doing It?

Slow and steady wins the race.

by Aaron Bastani

3 July 2024

Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. Isabel Infantes/Reuters

Over the last 15 years, British politics has been a volatile place. Labour saw its share of the vote rise by 10% – its largest single increase since 1945 – only to record its worst result since the 1930s two years later. Boris Johnson, the Caesar of Brexit, came and went like a bit-part figure. Liz Truss? The shortest serving prime minister in history. 

But amid all this tumult has been the slow – and comparatively boring – emergence of a new political force. The Green Party of England and Wales won its first seat in 2010, with Caroline Lucas representing Brighton Pavilion until seven weeks ago. Yet over the last five years, the party has started to build a truly national profile.

In May, the Greens passed 800 councillors – a fivefold increase since 2019. In Bristol, the party now has 34 councillors. “The Greens are popping up everywhere” was how the BBC put it when charting the party’s rise in that unlikely hotbed of political radicalism, Suffolk. 

Besides retaining their seaside heartland, the party’s target is to win three more parliamentary seats in the 2024 general election. Having as many MPs as there are fingers on a KitKat might sound trivial, but a number of polls have them not only winning more seats, but competing in dozens of others too

But how are they doing it? And what’s the relationship between the party’s increasingly expert local efforts and national polling?

The best person to ask isn’t either of the party’s co-leaders, Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, or even parliamentary stalwart Lucas. No, to really understand what’s happening with the Greens’ campaigning operation, I spoke to Chris Williams, its head of elections and field. 

Williams has been trying to get Greens elected for two decades. He was first drawn to climate change activism in 2003, whilst still a student, and decided to join the party after a series of conversations with a German friend who was a member of the Greens back home. Later that year, Williams attended an event in Strasbourg which saw the convergence of Greens from across Europe. “I had found my people,” he tells me. 

In 2008, Williams helped cause an upset in West Midlands politics, getting a Green councillor elected in Solihull, and dethroning the Labour council leader in the process. At the time, there were just four Green councillors across the whole of the Midlands, and that campaign – which centred around the conservation of green space and regeneration – meant others in the party paid attention. Not long after, a far-sighted member offered to fund the party’s first ever full-time field organiser, effectively underwriting Williams’ salary. Today, he heads a team of around 30. 

Williams discusses campaign strategy in a dispassionate, analytical way – befitting someone with a background in science (he studied microbiology). I ask him about his inspirations in his approach, expecting, perhaps, the ‘Bernstorms’ of 2016, or maybe Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. These are, after all, the meat and drink of progressive millennial activists. 

“We’ve got a bit of a scientific brain,” Williams replies, to my initial surprise. “We are constantly looking at other people’s campaigns elsewhere […] constantly improving what we know and finding out what works.” 

I quickly discover that Williams’ approach is anything but ‘vibes-based’. “We will gradually build up our knowledge bank and share that – we keep on reviewing and learning”, he explains. Listening to him, I’m reminded of the OODA Loop in US military strategy. Am I speaking to the Dominic Cummings of eco-socialism?

In any case, and most importantly for this week,  Williams believes this iterative approach could reap dividends soon, with the party winning all four of their target seats. That would mean not only keeping Brighton Pavilion and taking Bristol Central, but seizing Waveney Valley and North Herefordshire too – both of which are traditional Tory strongholds.

If the Greens do win all four, questions will be raised about the stability of their electoral base. After all, urban, progressive Brighton is strikingly different to Herefordshire – a place so rural it has its own breed of cattle. Does this underscore a certain opportunism? Are the Greens simply the Lib Dems, just with straws that disintegrate in soft drinks and rubbish dishwasher tablets?

Williams pushes back on these questions, insisting differences between constituencies are often overstated. 

“People generally want similar things regardless of where they are… [and] there are far more progressive voters in these two seats [North Herefordshire and Waveney Valley] than people might realise,” he says. “It’s just that until now, nobody bothered to try and reach them.” 

I recall hearing similar arguments from Labour canvassers in Worthing and Bournemouth in 2017, which were mocked whenever I relayed them to journalists in legacy media. Labour simply shouldn’t bother in such places, I was told. And yet both true blue seats could go red on Thursday. If Keir Starmer can lead a coalition of former coal mining communities and Dorset solicitors with tennis club memberships, why can’t the Greens achieve a less unlikely alchemy? The fact is that few voters agree with everything any party or political figure stands for, whether that’s Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, or Starmer. And if the denizens of Weobley plump for Ellie Chowns this week, that doesn’t mean they universally favour a four day week. Rather, Chowns could win because of a select group of issues – such as protecting the local River Wye.

Indeed, the focus on four seats – and these four in particular – belies the party’s unique approach to campaigning. Williams tells me this focus is because the party has four outstanding candidates in these areas who have demonstrated credibility at a local level. ‘Grassroots’ and ‘bottom up’ are used like confetti amongst progressive movements, but that’s the only way to describe how the Greens intend to grow. Williams explains how North Herefordshire only became a target because Chowns was “incredibly determined” and “had a vision”. She made the case that winning the seat was realistic, and backed it up with years of organising and wins on the local council (she won her own council seat in 2017).

That’s why it’s hard to offer a number for how many targets the party might have a decade from now. But where the party wins councillors over the next several years would be a good indicator. After all, there are 34 Greens on Bristol council (including Denyer), 16 in East Suffolk (Ramsay is a councillor in nearby Norwich), and nine in Herefordshire (including Chowns). 

For Williams, the Greens’ strategy is entirely different to Labour’s, which he says fails to “give space to their people on the ground”. Perhaps that’s because the party wants to “disempower their grassroots”, he muses – “because they might do something the party machine doesn’t like”. The downsides of this are clear: Williams says local Labour parties are less able to run election campaigns and engage in deep organisation under their own steam. With the Greens, however, local groups are empowered to build outstanding campaigns, and there isn’t a presumption that London always knows best. This approach feels closer to the anti-Westminster zeitgeist than sending suited Oxbridge graduates to all four corners of the kingdom. 

Yet I’ve encountered local Labour parties that behave in a similar fashion – with Worthing being the stand-out example. Until 2017, Labour hadn’t had a single seat on its council for 47 years. Today, by contrast, it enjoys majority control – and could be about to win the constituency of East Worthing and Shoreham for the first time ever. All of this was down to deep organising by local activists – many of whom were enthused by Corbyn’s politics. 

Despite this success, Worthing Labour has repeatedly rubbed up against the national party in recent years – especially its centralising regional directors. It was no surprise, then, when two local councillors were blocked from standing for the seat. Instead, the parliamentary candidate will be London councillor and PPE graduate Tom Rutland

But not only do the Greens differ from Labour here, but Reform too. I often encounter frustration at the lack of progress made by the Greens in setting the national agenda like Farage, with the party’s deep organising in places like Suffolk and the Forest of Dean less captivating than going viral on TikTok. Besides anything else, Thursday’s vote will test the relative merits of two types of campaigning: national media and celebrity with Reform, against the slower, hyper-local approach of the Greens; broadcast in 4K versus village fête. 

Still, I try to pin Williams down on a number for constituencies by, say, 2035.

“If we win four seats [this week] […] there will be confidence and ambition,” he says. “People might be talking about 20 MPs or something” – a number he thinks “could be doable”. But that depends on parties performing well in local elections in the meantime.

“Let’s assume it [the next general election] is in 2029. We need to start really early, […] have lots of workshops and conversations, building our understanding of what worked and what didn’t.” 

Williams is excited about what might happen on Thursday, but he seems even more enthused about analysing the campaign in the days, weeks and months to come. Green activists tend to think in decades, not years. They are, after all, trying to build a national party from the ground floor – but additional seats in Westminster this week would be a massive step forward.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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