Green Party’s vote has ballooned, but can it retain new support and stand out among pro-EU competitors?

Green political parties achieved unprecedented success across all four Home Nations and much of Europe during elections last month. In the UK, France, and Germany, Greens earned large gains in European Parliament seats, while they also made historic breakthroughs in local elections across England and on both sides of the Irish border. Elsewhere, the Canadian Greens finally elected a second member of parliament after many years of trying, while the provincial Green Party in Prince Edward Island formed official opposition under the arduous first-past-the-post voting system.

But will this international “green wave” persist through to the UK’s next general election?

Looking at recent British results, Greens in England almost quadrupled their number of local councillors among seats contested this year, while the party in Northern Ireland doubled its tally. In the subsequent European elections, the Green Party of England and Wales’ popularity increased by 71 per cent, producing a stronger showing than the governing Conservatives.

So which UK political parties did the Greens pull support from, and which aspects of their manifesto resonated with the electorate? A recent Ashcroft poll suggests the Green Party took support primarily from Labour at the European election, attracting almost three times as many voters who chose Labour at the 2017 general election as those who voted Green that year. The Greens also managed to pull a healthy amount of support from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The Green Party’s position on Brexit, specifically remaining in the European Union, was its most popular issue; however, the Liberal Democrats were much more effective at acquiring pro-EU votes. The Greens’ policies on matters other than Brexit came a close second in garnering support, as the party also campaigned prominently on climate action. Additionally, many voters admitted to choosing the Greens as a protest vote, either to express dissatisfaction specifically with the government’s current Brexit negotiating position or with political parties generally.

Will the Greens be able to retain their historical level of support gleaned last month? The answer to that question may depend largely on the actions of the country’s two largest parties. The considerable number of Conservative voters who went Green likely had more to do with climate change becoming a burgeoning political issue than the government’s mishandling of Brexit, as most Leave voters opted for the Brexit Party, while the Lib Dems were a better fit for right-wing Remainers than the left-leaning Greens.

Conservative strategists will already be plotting how to pull the environmental vote, remembering the success of their “vote blue, go green” slogan from the 2010 general election. But it’s unclear how British voters will judge the Conservatives on climate change after nine years in power. Will the Tories be able to concoct a convincing narrative of climate leadership, or will their next election campaign remain transfixed solely on the European Union?

Perhaps more importantly for the Greens is whether Labour can move beyond its equivocation on Brexit. Labour’s official position of leaving Europe is not only unconvincing in its timidity, but it’s also overshadowed internally by prominent voices for Remain – the party is highly divided. Further, Jeremy Corbyn is unwilling to take a decisive stand on a second referendum, neither ruling it out nor supporting it resolutely. Making declarations during an era of parliamentary deadlock that a second referendum could follow a Brexit deal is akin to asserting that bay windows should be an architectural feature of castles built from digestive biscuits.

Greens should be concerned that retaining new-found support may be largely outside their control. The aforementioned Ashcroft poll suggests the Greens may lose almost half of the votes they earned during the recent European contest when the next general election is called, bleeding support mostly to Labour and the Lib Dems. The latest YouGov party preference poll concurs with that prediction, hinting that the next election may be a four-way split between the Lib Dems, Brexit Party, Conservatives and Labour, with the Greens trailing a distant fifth. For the Greens, priority will be to retain as much of its vote from the May elections as possible.

The Greens should now contemplate strategies to prevent new supporters from returning to their usual loyalties at the next general election. Here are five possible tactics.

1) Differentiate from the Lib Dems on Remain. The number of parties explicitly supporting Remain has ballooned, and Greens have been frustrated by Remain voters being enticed most effectively by the Liberal Democrats. The Greens should identify a strategy to become the most appealing party to Remainers, such as proposing a “fix the UK-EU relationship” manifesto that goes beyond remaining in Europe by articulating how to improve Britain’s connection with Europe and other socio-economic challenges that galvanised Leave support. If effective, this strategy could even appeal to Conservative-leaning Remainers and a healthy slice of 2016 Leave voters.

2) Highlight Labour ambiguity on Brexit and a second referendum. If leaving the European Union dominates yet another general election campaign and Labour hasn’t clarified its position by then, the Greens should highlight this apprehension. Although the Lib Dems have been more successful at acquiring disgruntled Remainers, pro-EU voters on the left of the political spectrum may be a more natural fit with the Greens than the centrist Lib Dems.

3) Speak to issues beyond Brexit. Many voters have grown weary of incessant disagreement and lack of progress about leaving Europe. Other Britons are dismayed that important topics such as crime and health have earned scant discussion in recent years. According to the Ashcroft poll, issues other than Brexit were a major factor in the Green surge at the UK’s recent European election – more than for any other party. The Greens would be wise to build on this. And in the unlikely event that Labour’s focus on Brexit causes it to neglect articulating solutions for austerity, the NHS, housing or transportation, the Greens stand to make tremendous inroads if they offer clear alternatives.

4) Expect tough competition on climate policy. With climate change now as prominent as the economy as an election issue (according to Ashcroft), the Greens should anticipate that every other party will give greater emphasis to climate change in their next election manifestos. Greens should re-evaluate their offerings accordingly.

5) Contend that Greens aren’t a wasted vote. The Greens will remember being hit hard by fears of voting-splitting in 2017. The siren call of strategic voting may reach deafening levels at the next election, especially with the Brexit Party polling in second place according to YouGov or possibly becoming the country’s favourite choice as reported by an Opinium poll, while the Greens remain a distant (albeit greatly improved) fifth. But the Greens can point to large gains at recent local elections to convince voters that the party can elect more than one member of parliament, especially in areas such as Brighton & Hove, Mendip, Folkestone & Hythe, and Mid Suffolk. The party may also wish to rethink ceding the Brighton Kemptown constituency to Labour.

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Freelance political commentator. Master's degree in politics. Former civil servant. Follow on Twitter at @DevonRowcliffe. Writing can be found at https://www.devonrowcliffe.work/

- Devon Rowcliffe