The Greens Won Because They Were Disciplined

Hard graft gets the goods.

by Matthew Butcher

8 July 2024

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

The Green party’s record-breaking result at last Thursday’s general election was easy to miss. Despite more than doubling their previous best vote share, and quadrupling their number of MPs, the Greens found themselves in a familiar position – overshadowed by other parties. But as the dawn broke over the UK on Friday morning, we woke to something entirely new – a party to the left of Labour with a record vote share sending a record four new MPs to parliament on a bold manifesto and a promise to hold the new government to account. 

The Greens’ success was built on a bedrock of discipline. Ask any old Green hand why the party has done so well, and you’ll find a familiar tale – of the increasingly forensic approach to elections which starts with building a base with communities in local council seats and then pouring resources and people into a few genuinely winnable parliamentary seats. This focused campaigning took place in a favourable context, too: with a Labour party they were able to accuse of drifting rightwards on matters from the child benefit cap to Gaza, and an electorate that not only cares deeply about climate change, but now sits further to the left on most issues than it has in any time in recent history. 

These are exciting times for the Greens, but challenges lie ahead too. Their electoral coalition – which now spans previous Tory heartlands (Waveney Valley and North Herefordshire) and two of the most leftwing constituencies in the UK (Brighton Pavilion and Bristol Central) – will be hard to bridge. In the two rural seats where the Greens won, they had strong candidates, had built an extremely effective electoral machine, and had worked hard for a very long time – but it’s safe to say that many people in those places voted for the party because they wanted an alternative to the Tories rather than necessarily backing unilateral nuclear disarmament or a sizeable increase in national insurance for higher earners. 

But it would be an error for the Greens to slide to the centre because of their new electoral base. Instead, they should take a three-pronged approach to keeping their coalition together. Firstly, as one senior Green said to me recently, they just must work harder as constituency MPs than any other party. For this, they can take inspiration from Caroline Lucas, who can’t walk more than a few metres in Brighton without bumping into someone who she’s helped out in some way. Secondly, the Green group should focus on issues that cut across the rural/urban divide, like the crumbling NHS, access to the dentists, cleaning up the rivers and cuts to local authority budgets. Thirdly, the MPs should be cautious of nimbyism, especially when it comes to green infrastructure. While smaller parties are often tempted to join local campaigns, the Greens would do best to avoid boxing themselves in by opposing projects that the UK needs to rapidly decarbonise.

It’s worth noting that despite the spectacular results in Waveney Valley and Herefordshire North, the Greens continue to be much more popular in cities. In rural areas, the average vote share went up by 2.8%, whereas in urban seats it was 5.8%. The data shows that the Greens’ best bet for winning more seats lies in large towns and cities where the party offers a left alternative to Labour (indeed, all of their second places are to Labour) – so they should be ruthless in exposing the shortcomings of the government while also supporting progressive policymaking when it happens. 

The Greens must also avoid doing what the left does best: spending too much time focusing on internal division or policy fights. The short, sharp election campaign was a blessing in that sense – there was no time for too much navel-gazing. In remaining steadfast in communicating their policies – and especially on Labour’s weaknesses – the Greens won’t just keep themselves relevant and build their base, but could also counter the poisoning of the political well by Reform. This parliament will see Nigel Farage and his followers attempt to drag the discourse rightwards. The Greens can counter this, not just in standing resolutely in favour of migration and multiculturalism, but by advocating for serious government intervention in the economy to force Labour to address the petri dish of despair in which the far right flourishes.

To keep growing, the party must urgently address a serious lack of racial diversity in its elected ranks too. The Greens are now clearly making inroads into communities of colour – but those advances might well grind to a halt while it is still an overwhelmingly white and middle class party in its upper echelons. Perhaps a first step in addressing this should be a generous approach to new pro-Palestine independents, the left of Labour, and candidates like Faiza Shaheen and Leanne Mohamad who narrowly missed out on being elected this time. The Greens can now confidently say they are the parliamentary home of the left, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they could recruit from this pool of talented, mostly non-white politicians. 

The final piece of the jigsaw for the Greens going forward is to remember what got them here; discipline. A relentless focus on winning seats, successful articulation of radical policies and an understanding of the hard graft of politics have been combined to great effect. The best hope for the country is that the next election takes place after five years of transformational policymaking by a government that understands the urgency of this moment – but the reality is that even a bold Labour government would slip up and have serious shortcomings. That presents the Greens with a huge opportunity – and they should be ambitious in turning the 15 seats where they received over 20% of the vote into Green parliamentary strongholds for the 2030s.

Matthew Butcher is director of communications at NEON.

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