Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay co-leaders of Green Party enagland and Wales Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay co-leaders of Green Party enagland and Wales. Source: Wikicommons / shared under license CC BY 2.0

Kevin Crane analyses the significance of the Green Party’s victories in the local elections

The most significant outcome of the English local elections this May has been the greater-than-expected losses for the Tories, but it is arguably the striking gains by the Greens that have been the most intriguing. It’s not just a question of numbers, although the numbers are significant: the English Greens have doubled their total number of local councillors and actually made greater gains than the traditional party of the protest voter, the Liberal Democrats, in multiple regions. No, what really matters is where they’ve been winning and by what margins. The Greens have won big in areas where they were historically marginal and achieved the largest party status in multiple local authorities, nowhere more dramatically than in the very unlikely hotbed of political excitement that is Suffolk.

Suffolk has had Green councillors for a while, but these results were a tidal wave for the party. They doubled their number of wards to seize total control of the Mid-Suffolk district and finished as the largest council groups in the Coastal and Babergh (southern Suffolk) districts. In this ultra-rural county – which has no actual cities – it was only in Ipswich and relatively urbanized West Suffolk that the party failed to break through. This places the Greens in control of most of the administrations in a corner of the country that has never not been run by the Tories. I grew up in the area, and quite frankly if I had been told even a couple of years ago that our local Knight-of-the-Shire Conservative establishment would one day be swept out in favour of a party routinely labelled ‘loony left’ or even ‘extremist’ in Tory newspapers, I’d simply never have believed it. 

So, what happened? How did residents of remote villages so True Blue that Labour had historically not even bothered putting council candidates up suddenly perform such an apparent dramatic shift? Suffolk was far from the only place it happened, either: there were other waves of Green victories on the South Coast and in the Midlands. 

Viewed in conventional terms of a ‘spectrum’, it really doesn’t even seem to make sense. The Greens are often characterised as a left-wing party; indeed, people often think of them as being well to the left of Labour. Even if exactly what that means may vary, it would seem far more logical for a staunchly Tory population to drift to the more obvious alternative of the Lib Dems than to any party which could be classed as radical.

The So-Called Surge Last Time

The extent to which supposed anti-capitalist clothing can be ascribed to the English Greens, just like any similar party in any other country, has always been a bit dubious. It did, however, used to be the case that Greens could claim left-wing credentials. The last time they were making headlines, during the 2015 ‘#greensurge’ the party was still affiliated to Stop the War Coalition. They had been quite active in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. They’d had a single MP for just five years, and Caroline Lucas had a reasonably radical image. They were seriously eating into Labour’s popularity in a number of cities, particularly the cosmopolitan university-type places. Large Green votes went on to cost Labour at least nine Westminster seats because the Miliband leadership could not keep hold of them.

None of those things are really true now though. The popularity of the Greens in that year did not survive their failure to get a second MP and then the unexpected rise of Corbyn to the Labour leadership. By Christmas, some serious repositioning had happened. The Greens downplayed support for public services, rationally calculating that they would not be able to compete with a socialist-run Labour on those grounds. Less reasonably, however, the party generally, and Caroline Lucas in particular, joined in with the liberal-centrist opposition to Corbyn. Lucas publicly distanced herself from Stop the War Coalition and criticised Corbyn’s anti-war policy from a military interventionist position. Advocating military action in Syria began the Greens on their journey to where their foreign policy is today, in firm support of Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine.

The Greens’ shift toward the absolute mainstream of English politics was basically complete in the 2019 general election, which saw them join an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, ostensibly to support European Union membership. This was disingenuous, however: Labour had come out for Remain at this point and the deal with the Lib Dems was essentially an anti-Corbynista pact. Pathetically, it did not actually benefit them electorally, of course, and they again did not gain any MPs, quite apart from having failed to achieve their stated goal of stopping Brexit and indeed helping to ensure that climate change barely featured in the election as an issue. The perception of the party had, however, significantly changed.

Getting Energised Locally

The Greens may not have made any progress in national politics for a decade but they had been making slow local political advances prior to this year. Much like the Lib Dems, regional branches of the party have been seeking parochial issues to organise around, and in a time of genuine environmental emergency there have been plenty of these to choose from: Suffolk happens to have a particular convergence of them.

Since the 1960s, Sizewell, a small fishing village balanced precariously on a picturesque but erosion-ridden cliff on Suffolk’s coastline, has been home to nuclear power generation, and it has never not been controversial. The story is a familiar one of locals’ anxiety about potential radioactive dangers as well as resentment that their out-of-the-way homeland is having to put up with it because no one cares what they think, a gripe that is not completely unreasonable. The third-generation powerplant, Sizewell C, caused yet another wave of local backlash when plans toward commissioning it moved forward around 2020. This prompted a spasm of oppositional activism, and some of the people and energy of this moved into the Green Party as an organising vehicle. A number of Green councillors were elected in various wards around the county. It should be pointed out that there is also a current of pro-nuclear political opinion around Sizewell. This is, however, very much centred around the unions, notably Unite, which don’t have any traction to speak of in sleepy villages, even if they may do in the towns of Ipswich and Felixstowe.

While this is happening, of course, other things are going on. The first is that from the late 2010s onward, climate change became much less abstract as a threat: huge heatwaves, flash floods and wildfires suddenly became a common summer occurrence throughout the country. Suffolk itself was affected very dramatically by the heavy heat of last year: the normally verdant fields and forests had taken on an eerily Serengeti-like earthy tone, and there was really no way to ignore it.

Other, more distinctively British factors also came into play, none more so than the massive scandal of the privatised water companies dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas, for no reason other than that they had been lining their own pockets rather than investing in infrastructure. Despite a well-publicised campaign led by the likes of former rockstar Fergal Sharkey, the Tory government responded to popular disgust with what has become a trademark shrug. A party made up of MPs and members who selected Liz Truss to be their leader is not one that cares about the environment, nor does it care what anyone thinks about it not caring about the environment. What so many of these Tory politicians and party members don’t seem to realise is that this is not necessarily how their voting base feels. The deplorable environment minister Thérèse Coffey, herself the MP for Suffolk Coastal, with her casual dismissal of issues such as sewage dumping, chemicals poisoning bees and other insects and so on, has rightly become a public-hate figure.

But there’s another factor to consider here, which is that Suffolk isn’t just a backwater by accident: its population grows at a snail’s pace in no small part because powerful political forces have been preventing it from doing so faster. For as long as I can remember, there have been long, drawn-out bureaucratic battles on the frontiers of Ipswich and Felixstowe to try and build more housing. Both towns are in fact much smaller than economic development would suggest they should be. This is especially the case for Felixstowe, which has somehow ended up as Britain’s largest container port with a curiously time-warped minuscule seaside resort attached. The inhabitants of idyllic-looking villages, however, will not support policies that would see those villages become suburbs. Developments around Ipswich have, however, begun to go ahead, and that is going to raise a certain Nimby anger.

Conservation with a Small ‘c’

It seems most sensible to me to view the Green Party’s eastern rising as a successful adaptation that they have made to a collapse in the confidence that the rural middle classes have had in the Tory Party. They’ve done this by appealing to those middle classes with a combination of environmentalism and economic conservatism. In so far as any of the wider issues on which the Greens have historically professed radicalism, such as LGBT rights, it is very unlikely that these have been factors (except perhaps a certain exhaustion many middle-class people may feel with right-wing culture war). It may well be that many Greens might have interesting criticisms of capitalism, and indeed that we may remember them playing up to these critiques in protests past. We can be very sure, however, that no such thinking made it to the doorsteps of places with names like Wetheringsett-cum-Brockford, Grundisburgh and Rickinghall Inferior.

The other parts of the country where the Greens have made the big breakthroughs are also ones with similar serious environmental grievances, such as the South Coast with the biggest sewage dumping problems, or the Midlands where HS2 is murderously unpopular with inhabitants. These too, though, are tending to be heavily provincial areas, probably also those most fundamentally opposed to housing developments and whatever ‘levelling up’ actually was.

A sign that the Greens are not making gains with the more metropolitan demographic that was flocking to them in 2015 comes from Caroline Lucas’ own seat: the Greens lost control and almost all their wards, for a second time in fact, in Brighton. Brighton’s very specific demographics do mean that a large chunk of the population is attracted, even loyal, to the Greens, but these ties are rather cultural. Ultimately, the party’s failure to act as ‘progressive’ in government as it supposedly is meant to wear the enthusiasm of its radical liberal base rather thin.

The Green administrations that now have to form are faced with pretty serious challenges to consolidate their gains. It’s really not for the socialist left to try and work out for them how they do this, not least because the basis on which they’ve formed really doesn’t have anything to do with our project. I think it’s very unlikely that this vote translates into a wave of Green MPs being elected. What is likely that it does demonstrate is some deep pathologies of the Tory Party, losing as it has a core demographic that has simply not wavered from it in the history of universal suffrage before now. It could be these are the early signs of a major realignment, though I would argue it is not that realignment yet. Certainly, do not expect the English Greens to start revisiting their anti-systemic past any time soon; they will most likely be dragged to the right (even if they do not wish to go) by their new responsibilities.

From a left-wing point of view, the most hopeful outcomes from the local elections were the all-but unprecedented election of formerly Labour councillors in cities who had, one way or another, been purged by Keir Starmer’s ruthless witch-hunting machine. This is on a much smaller scale than the Greens’ victories, so it’s not such big news. It’s also true that many of these councillors did not run explicitly socialist campaigns (indeed, one was returned as a Green) but, as it is based on a recomposition of the Labour vote in working-class communities, it raises far greater possibilities.

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