Here’s What the Greens Should Do Next

The stage is built. Let the show begin.

by Adam Ramsay

8 July 2024

MPs of the Green Party pose for a photo in London
New Green MPs Siân Berry, Carla Denyer, Adrian Ramsay and Ellie Chowns. Claudia Greco/Reuters

I spent the night of Thursday 6 May 2010 in Norwich town hall, exhausted and dispirited. I’d spent most of my spare time over the previous months travelling there on always-delayed late night trains from Oxford to knock on doors and deliver leaflets in the hope of getting the Green party’s then-young then-deputy leader elected.

Local election results had suggested it was possible. In the final fortnight, which I spent full time in the constituency, the prospects looked good that Greens would win both of their targets that year – Norwich South and Brighton Pavillion. The streets were lined by a forest of placards in front yards, and canvassing data was full of people declaring their intention to back Adrian Ramsay (no relation).

But over the course of election day – and then the count – it became clear that many of them hadn’t. A last-minute leaflet from the Lib Dems had persuaded thousands that Nick Clegg’s party was better placed to unseat the deeply unpopular incumbent, Labour’s Charles Clarke. Ultimately, Ramsay came a disappointing fourth with 15%. Fewer people had voted for him than had put placards up supporting him, many later sheepishly confessing that they had switched to voting ‘tactically’ at the last minute: the fog of Cleggmania most soon came to regret.

That night, a handful of young volunteers stayed up to watch Caroline Lucas take Brighton Pavilion – and the horror of David Cameron’s sort-of victory. But the failure to win the second seat hurt like hell. It would have hurt even more if we’d known it would be another 14 years and four general elections before the Greens got that second MP.

Last week, the Greens didn’t just get a second MP, but a third and fourth. That one of them is the same Adrian Ramsay makes the result particularly thrilling, and the fact that the young and much loved organiser of the impressive but ultimately unsuccessful 2010 Norwich South campaign, Chris Williams, came back to be the national coordinator behind the 2024 surge makes it all the sweeter.

Yet it’s worth pausing for a minute to ask the question: why did it take so long? There are, essentially, three reasons the Green party in England was swimming upstream from 2010-2024.

First, the Tories have been in power. Many left-leaning voters are more likely to back Greens when they are disaffected with a Labour government. Indeed, after Lucas was elected in 2010, it was common for pundits to opine that Brighton Pavilion would go back to Labour now that Labour was running from opposition. While that didn’t happen, the failure to expand from there clearly had an impact. This won’t apply in the next election.

Second, voters went into each of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections unsure of who was going to win the top job. Progressives of all flavours were squeezed into voting Labour. In 2024, everyone knew Labour were going to win, meaning people felt free to vote for who they wanted. In previous elections, the Green vote dipped in the polls in the last week; this time, it went up.

Third, in 2017 and 2019, Jeremy Corbyn was Labour’s leader, and the left was largely enthusiastic about him.

While the first and third of these clearly won’t apply next time. The second could go either way, and any Green strategy will have to be flexible enough to get the most possible seats given that emerging situation. That said, I don’t want to have to wait another decade and a half to see Green MP numbers quadruple again. And so here are some initial thoughts on how the party can grow rapidly into the next election.

Find the next targets.

There are two primary ways to look at the party’s strategy: how many (and which) seats to target next, and how to grow national support (measured both by vote share and membership/activist base).

To think about the former, it’s worth looking at an obvious conundrum. Demographically, the people most open to voting Green tend to cluster in large urban areas. There are, by my count, 17 adjoining constituencies in inner-east London, and also clusters in central Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield where Greens came second, despite very little campaigning.

Credit: u/Kyng5199 via Reddit

And yet none of the Greens’ four MPs are in any of the UK’s largest cities. Instead, two are in rural areas with demographically similar nearest neighbours where the Greens did poorly – in every seat around Waveney Valley and Hereford North, the party came fourth, fifth or, in one case, sixth. And the other two are in medium-sized English cities – though Bristol is the centre of a much larger conurbation than Brighton.

To understand why, we need to look not at demographics but logistics.

The Greens have a specific model for winning a constituency: first, build a ladder from local council wards, heavily targeting one, then two, four, etc across a constituency. Then, where Greens hold most councillors over a constituency, funnel national resources in, pushing the candidate to the top of the ladder.

Across every seat the Greens won, they had already built up large numbers of councillors – and in so doing demonstrated to voters the party’s support in the area, built databases of where Green voters live, so they could be turned out on polling day, and gathered crucial skills and local knowledge.

The problem is that this model has proved extremely hard to follow in London – in particular – and also in Birmingham and Manchester, where there are just two and four Green councillors respectively.

Across London – and to some extent all of these cities – Labour has a huge and highly mobile membership, most of whom live in safe Labour wards and constituencies. When Greens target a ward, Labour can persuade enormous numbers of activists from across the city to hop on the tube and show up in vast numbers to see off the threat. Greens do have councillors in nine different London boroughs, but in most cases, it’s just small groups of two or three, often representing the same ward. Each of these victories was hard won.

This is compounded by the fact that urban wards tend to be much bigger than rural wards. In Herefordshire county council, the average ward has 3,600 people, meaning candidates get elected on a few hundred votes. One active and charismatic member, working cleverly, can get themselves elected and build a base from there. In Islington, it’s about 13,000 to a ward, in Birmingham, 30,000 – meaning each ward there is about a quarter of a constituency. Winning a rural MP means climbing just as high up a ladder, but the rungs are significantly closer together.

I suspect there is also some deeper sociology going on, too. Lots of people in a big city like London will, for example, live in one ward – or even borough – work in another, and socialise in others still. For a small party to win under first-past-the-post, you need to create a strong sense that you can win in one specific place. In rural areas or smaller cities – where people are more likely to live, work and hang out within one electoral boundary, that’s much easier than it is when people are regularly hopping on the tube, bus or Manchester’s tram and crossing three different constituencies.

The flip side of this, however, is that constituencies in larger urban areas have much bigger spillover effects: that is, where Greens win a constituency (or a ward) within a larger city, Greens tend to do better in the neighbouring ward or constituency, even without a campaign.

Brighton was never really big enough for this effect to take hold – the constituencies either side of Pavilion rapidly stretch into wealthier areas much less demographically aligned to Greens.

Bristol is a bit bigger. Here the strong Green campaign in Central helped secure enough votes that demographically similar East and South constituencies are now both within reach of Green victories next time, and North East and North West perhaps the time after that. But because Bristol is relatively small, you rapidly reach suburban constituencies around that potentially Green core, which are much less likely to vote for the party.

The big prize is central-east London. Here, there are the 17 places the Greens came second; another six where left-leaning independents did; Islington North, whenever its incumbent chooses to retire; and, for Greens, the tantalising question of whether Faiza Shaheen can be recruited to run under the party’s banner in Chingford and Wood Green. Among these, there is the obvious question of how to ensure a brilliant Green woman of colour succeeds Diane Abbott, when she chooses to stand down.

I’m not suggesting that all of these seats can be won next time. I am suggesting that it’s time for the party to start thinking seriously about how, over the next decade, it can turn east London – and other major urban expanses – Green.

Greens have developed a model for winning MPs in rural areas and in medium-sized cities. Now, they need to do the same in big cities. Or, to put it another way, it’s time for the Greens to march deep into the territory Keir Starmer is taking for granted, and steal one of the biggest prizes in British politics.

Have no fear.

If Greens have struggled in major city centre seats because it means going toe-to-toe with Labour on its home turf, then this election taught the party its own strength. Labour poured enormous resources into Bristol Central. Every performative lickspittle hoping for a peerage from Starmer went to canvas for Thangam Debbonaire as a way to demonstrate their repudiation of any former leftwing ties and their absolute loyalty to the leader. Vast numbers of canvassers were set to block Siân Berry and Carla Denyer from winning their seats, because Labour was terrified that Greens winning in both Brighton and Bristol would give voters across urban England the idea that something better is possible than Starmer’s thimble of cold weak tea.

It didn’t work. Once voters concluded that they could get a Green MP, they were clear that that is indeed what they wanted. Resource mobilisation matters enormously in elections. But voters do ultimately have agency. And most people in Britain are to the left of the current government.

Organise in Muslim communities.

To win over major urban areas will require some rapid demographic expansion of the Green coalition.

Since the end of the cold war and collapse of the Communist party, two clear electoral traditions have emerged within left-of-Labour politics in England. As the UK went into the 2010 election, these two strands were led, on the one hand by Caroline Lucas, standing in Brighton Pavilion, and Salma Yaqoob, then the Respect leader, running in Birmingham Hall Green.

Ultimately, while Lucas won by 2%, Yaqoob came second by 8%. I sometimes wonder where we would be if those relatively narrow margins were reversed. George Galloway might have won by-elections on the back of the same demographic as Yaqoob, but while Galloway is in my opinion a political parasite, Yaqoob would have been capable of building a movement.

Shortly after the 2015 election, the Green party’s two main committees held a joint strategy day. They asked me to dig through the national results and present thoughts on the way forward. The party had won its biggest national vote share ever, by far, but failed to get a second MP. At the time, I argued there were three main demographics open to switching to the party: millennial renters, Muslim communities and rural progressives. Ultimately, I suggested, Greens should focus on uniting the former two.

Almost everything I said became irrelevant a couple of months later: Corbyn was elected Labour leader, winning those first two demographics back to his party. The next year, the Brexit referendum upended British politics again.

Nearly a decade later, though, the basic point is now truer than it was then – with we millennials approaching middle age, Gen Z can also be added to the former group. Two of the four new Green MPs were elected, largely, by the same category of voter. The other two were elected, mostly, by those from the third group. Meanwhile, four independent MPs were elected – mostly – by the middle group.

In the weeks before the election, polls did show a significant shift from Labour to the Greens among British Asian and Muslim communities. But the party didn’t have the capacity to organise this last minute surge of support into any kind of electoral victory. Now, it has five years to do so.

Explore routes other than local government.

All of this will probably require some re-evaluation of how target constituencies are chosen.

Look at the recent Westminster results and you see that a staircase of councillors isn’t necessarily the only way to win an MP: set aside Corbyn, and there were four MPs elected who are what you might call ‘pro-Gaza independents’. In a number of other seats in the big cities, similar candidates came a reasonably close second.

What this implies is that there were huge electorates in the centre of England’s major cities willing to break out of the two-party system and vote for broadly anti-establishment candidates who are – at least on the main issue on which they focussed – to the left of Labour. The Greens – the main national party on that part of the spectrum – had chosen for strategic reasons not to target these seats. Independent candidates stepped into the vacuum.

I’m not suggesting this was a mistake: breaking through from one to four MPs required intense strategic focus, and that worked. I do think it posed an obvious opportunity for next time, however: alongside the seats where Greens came second, how many of those in which left-leaning pro-Gaza independents came in strong positions in 2024 could the Greens win next time?

What it also implies is that voters are more willing than ever before to back last-minute campaigns, to forget former loyalties and to make up their minds in the polling booth. They were swayed by an issue which emerged over the last nine months, rather than by five years of door-knocking. This creates greater chances for light-footed opportunists and fast-moving strategic interventions than ever before.

Of course, the risk of any kind of last-minute flexibility is that it eats away at discipline: Greens have succeeded through intense focussing of national resources into one place over many years. How you take advantage of political moments and opportunities without just returning to the free-for-all that meant the party failed to win a second seat in 2015 – or any seats before 2010 – is a difficult question, but it’s one Green strategists should think about.

Build a national profile.

Delivering a bolder electoral strategy will require the Green party to have many more resources than it currently does: more money, more staff and more activists across the country.

Partly, that’s down to everyone who wants the party to succeed actually joining it and working to build it. But partly it will come down to what the current organisation does. Caroline Lucas getting arrested at a fracking protest in 2013, for example, enormously boosted her profile and the party’s support.

The Green parties in the UK were founded on four pillars: social justice, ecological wisdom, radical democracy, and peace. There is immense anger in the country about each of these areas: poverty, inequality and the clear failures of British capitalism; the climate and nature emergencies, the sewage in our rivers and the pollution in our air; the deep sense that our whole democratic system is broken, and needs a radical overhaul; and the genocide in Gaza.

With four MPs, it seems to me that these would make a powerful set of briefs – and each should aim to establish themselves, within the next year, as prominent spokespeople for the correlating social movements. Of course, that will involve being engaged in the hard work of parliament. But it also means working closely – as Caroline Lucas always did – with those outside. Four votes in the lobbies only changes politics so much. Four MPs raising their voices can make much more difference. I’ve been a Green member for 23 years now, and the most consistent mistake the party has made in that time is being afraid of controversy, ducking Daily Mail attacks rather than provoking them, facing them down, and so showing voters which side you’re on.

After all, the opposite of being controversial is being ignored. And we’ve had enough of that.

Four MPs are just the start – even in this term. Starmer’s persecution of the left, and the Greens’ success across the country, surely leaves enormous potential for a few defections from Labour, and the party should be actively seeking them and working out how it will manage that process.

Similarly, every party that has successfully broken through in recent decades has used by-elections to do so. It is surely time for a Green by-election squad. Even without them, there is a chance for the party to use the electoral cycle to build momentum. Before the next Westminster elections, there are Welsh Senedd elections – with a new voting system that is more likely to finally secure Green seats. There are also metro mayorships and (if they aren’t scrapped) police and crime commissioners up for grabs. Could Jamie Driscoll be persuaded to run as a Green – and helped to win – in the North East?

Alongside the slow, methodical work of building up local bases of support, at which the party has become so good, the Green parties in these islands are now big enough to bring some panache to proceedings: to shock pundits, and create momentum among a population that is increasingly fed up with the two main parties. Beyond its electoral strategies, the party needs an ambitious plan to grow the membership, using the best techniques of the digital age. The post-election surge looks like it will take the party past 60,000 members. Is 100,000 by the end of 2024 possible? Let’s find out.

Green party members have put in extraordinary effort to build their party a stage. It’s time for the show to begin.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

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