Why are the Greens taking on Labour as well as the Tories?
Well…you have to beat everyone to win the seat, but the Greens seem to have sensed richer pickings in a number of traditionally Labour areas. How are Labour responding?
I’ve kept tabs on the Green Party in Brighton since 2000 – not long after I moved down there for university. The then bicycling councillor Keith Taylor (now an MEP) would regularly be seen out and about – and sometimes on campus who’s student union had just fallen under the control of a far left party. Keith doesn’t seem to have aged a single day from how I remember him in my student days. I would bump into Anthea Ballam, who stood for Parliament several times in Hove before she became an inter-faith minister (which I think is a brilliant idea and concept).
Even in those days, the Greens were a thorn in the side of Labour. It was around the time there was a very flourishing autonomous/green/left/equal rights movement across the city. Although Labour had won with a landslide in 1997 (to the extent that they won Hove off of the Tories, which until then was unheard of), Brighton would prove to be fertile ground for the Green Party. Indeed, the Greens doubled their votes at every general election until 2010 (where they were a couple of thousand short) yet by that time had secured enough votes to both win the seat for Caroline Lucas and eventually become the largest party on the city council. Although this write up of why Labour lost in Brighton provides some interesting thoughts in the few years running up to 2010, with Brighton there is a much longer and vibrant story that led to the Greens getting within striking distance that scored the direct hit.
Greens on the attack
Up until 2010, Labour were inevitably the target: They were in power. The Greens’ main target seat was held by Labour. With no one to the left of Labour in the consciousness of the general public, the Greens were able to jump into that void. While policy-wise in opposition the Liberal Democrats were able to stand to the left of Labour on some issues, recall that the SDP side of the Lib Dems split from Labour in 1981 in part because Labour was too left wing, and the old Liberal Party of David Steele and the like are represented very much by the likes of David Laws and Nick Clegg. Post 2010, any idea that the Lib Dems could be ‘left wing’ has been shot out of the water because of the decision to go into Coalition with the Conservatives.
“What signal would voting Green instead of Labour send out?”
One of the things being in power burdens people and parties with is you have a record to defend. Inevitably this involves difficult decisions – which inevitably turn people away. Voting for whoever is in power inevitably has the feel of keeping things as they are. How many large opposition parties in the past worldwide have adopted some sort of ‘change’ slogan? Very difficult to use it when you’ve been in government for many years. With the three main parties fighting over an ever-smaller piece of the centre, and for England at least, no separatist national party as an alternative, a seemingly growing Green movement felt like quite a nice alternative. Send Labour a message but not vote Tory or Lib Dem in the process.
Are the Greens to Labour what UKIP are to the Tories?
I see a number of similarities. Just as UKIP are going hard for the old Tory/Euro-sceptic vote, the Greens are now driving hard for the non-tribalist trade union vote. i.e. ‘you can still stay loyal to your union/trade unionism, but you don’t have to prop up a Labour Party that you disagree with’ sort of thing. These fault lines are interesting because they are fluid. the UKIP-Tory fault line shifts depending on how Euro-sceptic the Tory leadership is. For ‘Euro-scepticism as a movement’ arguably they want the mainstream Conservative Party to shift to the right. for UKIP as a political party, members want the Conservative Party to shift to the left and haemorrhage members to UKIP. For trade unionists, there’s an interest in Labour shifting to the left. For the Greens, there isn’t – in the hope that non-tribal trade unionists in Labour will shift to the Greens. Capturing a sizeable trade union could have a significant positive impact funding-wise for the Greens too – hence why there’s a huge financial incentive to court the trade union vote.
So…are the Greens going after the Trade Union vote?
Absolutely – they have a specific group for this. To what extent they’ll be successful is another matter. From my years as a trade union rep, a number of activists within trade unions are members of far left groups. The structuralist and hierarchical nature – lots of committees for this that and the other – within many trade unions is right up the street of those activists passionate about the tiny details of the workings of these committees. For the rest of us, spending 4 hours at a trade union AGM can feel like 4 hours of your life you won’t get back. But more importantly for me the way trade unions are structured at present doesn’t fit in easily with the more autonomous roots that the Greens had. Remember it was only recently that they scrapped the set up of ‘principle speakers.’
What are Labour doing about this?
There was a sense that Labour didn’t recognise where the threat was coming from until it was too late – i.e. when Caroline got elected. This was followed further in 2012 with the result for Jenny Jones in the London Mayoral Election, pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth. Having Caroline in Parliament doesn’t just mean having more airtime for a Green politician on the telly, but also extra funding from Parliament. This means paying for office staff, expenses and the receipt of “short money” – the last of which is around £60,000 per year (see p17 of this note).
With the Greens as the largest party (but not in overall control) on Brighton and Hove Council, there’s also now what feels like a nice little unit of Local MP + leader of council (Jason KitKat) plus team of councillors. A hive of activity. Also an ideal school of learning for the party about the challenges of running a local authority. What will be interesting to see is what impact the experience of running a local authority has on the Green Party – in exactly the same way (but on a bigger scale) the impact on the Lib Dems being in Government will be. (See here for more on this).
Greens on the defence, Labour on the attack
Remember that bit about defending a record? The Greens now have to do that. When you try something for the first time, you inevitably make mistakes – it’s part of the learning process. Just don’t expect your political opponents to be understanding about it. One person who knows just where to kick the Greens in Brighton is former Brighton Councillor and Council Leader, now Labour’s Chief Whip in the Lords, Steve Bassam of Brighton. Steve follows Puffles on Twitter - the first member of the House of Lords to follow a dragon fairy! That was before Puffles became known to MPs – at that time only two followed Puffles. At the time of writing this, there are 12 MPs and 2 Peers (the other being Crossbencher and dragon-fairy-tamer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson). Steve regularly attacks the Greens on their record in Brighton – doing what most politicians do by linking actions with values. i.e. ‘They cut funding for school buses – what does this show about how Greens value young people!??” As the Greens are finding out, it’s one thing gaining power, but quite another thing to hold onto it.
And tank – to – tank on the lawn?
The New Labour pressure group Progress published an article about how to respond to the Green threat. It might have made sense in the Campbell-Mandelson peak of the mid-late 1990s but on the ‘how to campaign bit, for me makes no sense at all today. Identifying where the Greens’ strong geographical areas of the country is fair enough. Demographics? I’ll let you be the judge.
“The potential pool of votes for the Greens is quite easy to define demographically. All the places where they have made progress share similar features: Brighton, Lancaster, Norwich, Oxford, Stroud, and in London the Stoke Newington part of Hackney, parts of Deptford, and similar individual wards in Camden, Lambeth and Southwark.
What these areas have in common is a high prevalence of the Mosaic codes who read The Guardian and Independent: students, recent graduates, and older people who would view themselves as part of the urban left intelligentsia.”
The campaigning bit that follows strikes me as one straight out of Alistair Campbell’s book of political spin: All about ‘getting a message out.’
“We can, however, out-campaign them. We have to be local – hyperlocal – producing street-by street leaflets and locally produced direct mails talking about the issues in those streets and estates. This is effective but it is hard work and requires candidates with local credibility and knowledge.
In terms of our message, we need to ensure Greens are no longer seen as harmless idealists but as dangerous cranks who will seriously damage your local council and local economy, and impose authoritarian measures on your daily life in the name of environmentalism.”
More than a few of Puffles’ Lib Dem followers might have issues with a New Labour blogpost talking about authoritarian measures, but I’ll leave that to them. Producing leaflets for people to read, talking to people getting them to listen, our message, our message, our message…this no longer washes in social media world – a world that more and more people are becoming familiar with and getting used to.
What did Steve say?
“I know that when I tweet about the threat posed by the Greens, some of my colleagues are – at best – bemused. But then again some friends in Brighton felt that way when I said the Greens could win their first parliamentary seat or run the city council. Those same friends don’t think that now.”
Both Steve’s post above and the earlier one mentioned on why Labour lost Brighton make for better and more interesting reading on the challenges the Greens pose to Labour – not just in Brighton but elsewhere.
The more the Greens continue to gain, the greater the scrutiny will be – and rightly so – especially if they end up in positions where they are spending public money. It’s not just a “that is a bad policy – boo!” sort of scrutiny but a “hang on a minute – let’s just check the numbers behind that again!” sort of scrutiny. The same fact-checking actions that are used against mainstream political parties will now also be used against the Greens as far as their policies are concerned.
This perhaps is why new Green Party Leader (and dragon-fairy-watcher) Natalie Bennett made it clear in her leadership campaign that she would be reaching out to a whole series of left-of-centre campaign groups and think tanks, as well as charities that specialise on particular causes and issues. (See Breakfast with Natalie for more.) This could be one of the most significant decisions on policy-making the Greens make. But it’s not without risks. While it’s good to bring in experts on specific issues, experts don’t know everything. Thus it’s important to ensure such gatherings are transparent and that publications are linked to, fully referenced and are scrutinised by willing party members. Otherwise you run the risk of having policies made by Westminster and Whitehall thinktank type people (I met LOADS during my years in London), thus alienating members and turning the annual conference into a rubber stamping process.
And finally…the social media battle
It’s only just begun.
The Conservatives – in particular Iain Dale – really got things going in the run up to the 2010 General Election. During my civil service days I red his blog regularly and found it to be compulsive reading, even though politically I often disagreed with him. It took time for Labour to catch up, and it was only after the defeat and after significant trade union money was invested in a couple of high profile operations that the ball started rolling institutionally.
Yet at an individual level, there are a number of superb Labour social media users who, in my view ‘get it’. Tom Watson, Stella Creasy & Kerry McCarthy are the three MPs that jump out quickly in their willingness to use social media in a manner that’s more than another broadcasting outlet. Through interacting with social media I feel I ‘know’ them. I made that very same point in the local council elections when casting my vote for Labour’s George Owers earlier this year when I took Puffles to the polling station. But not long after, he and his counterpart Cllr Adam Pogonowski deleted their Twitter accounts. This for me was a huge shame because I found the two of them to be hugely entertaining, engaging and informative. The debates that they had online with councillors and activists from other parties and none I felt were forming the start of something greater around Cambridge politics – one that would get more people involved.
While Labour have the numbers (of both people and money), the inertia of ‘command and control’ from the Campbell-Mandelson era will inevitably have an impact on the willingness and ability of some. For the Greens, their autonomous roots are far better suited to social media use, but do they have enough activists who are knowledgeable about party and policy, confident enough to engage and social-media-savvy enough not to fall into elephant traps?