The 2021 local elections already seem like so long ago. Even though they were less than two months ago, their influence and significance appear to have receded into the past.
While there is a lot of commentary in the immediate hours and days following them, the significance of the elections holds declines. Such elections can allow local issues to be raised to the forefront but often reflect how well or poorly the national parties are performing.
Nonetheless, the specific results from these elections for the different parties, not least the smaller groupings, deserves a degree of interrogation. Often, the smaller parties are reliant on strong local groups as the stepping stone to allow more success nationally. A strong showing of local councillors provides a bedrock for greater national campaigning success. Therefore, it would be unwise to dismiss the success of any smaller parties as simply being on a local level, where that can just be where national momentum is generated.
How did the Green Party do in May’s local elections?
This approach can specifically be taken regarding the Green Party, which arguably had a good performance in the 2021 local elections. Gaining 99 seats, they presently have 445 councillors across England and Wales. This election also saw them gain representation on 18 councils, meaning that 141 councils have some form of Green representation. As a party, this is significant and cannot be ignored. Even a council with just one Green councillor will have one extra voice that can shape local policies and affect the council’s powers.
Therefore, the local elections have often proved a necessary consolation for the Greens, given their often poor performance at national elections. Though the election of Caroline Lucas for the seat of Brighton Pavilion in 2010 was historic, the party hasn’t since increased its number of MPs. Often, it will lose its deposit, where candidates must pay £500 to stand, which they only get back if they get more than 5% of the vote. Being one MP out of 650 representatives can limit what a party can achieve.
Of course, the Greens would blame this on the UK’s electoral system for general elections: First-past-the-post (FPTP). Awarding the candidate who simply gets more votes than any of their opponents is simple, straightforward and easy to understand. Naturally, it benefits the Conservatives and Labour over the minor parties. The Greens would argue proportional representation is needed to determine the composition of the House of Commons. I am less relaxed about this than many progressives; one only needs to look across Europe and Israel to see the damaging impact such a system has on forming stable governments.
Therefore, while FPTP remains, the Greens have argued a progressive alliance between the left-wing parties (Greens, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru) should take place to give one party the best chance of defeating the Tories. In a sense, this has been the success of Conservative parties across the democratic world; they are far more effective at consolidating their vote around a unifying party than left-wing parties, which split their coalition among different groups. Indeed, the Greens were able to win in these local elections under FPTP, demonstrating that they can win around a large group on a ward by ward level.
Could Labour help the Green Party, and would it help them too?
Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Greens alongside Sian Berry, has argued that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer should be willing to engage in this progressive alliance. The Labour Party did not do this in 2019, standing in every possible seat as has always been the norm for the main opposition party. But questions have arisen since the local elections over Keir Starmer and the Labour Party’s ability to win an election. For example, the defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, where the Conservatives took the seat from Labour, was unprecedented for a party 11 years into government. Similarly, Labour faces a tough fight in holding Batley and Spen, where a by-election is taking place due to the incumbent MP, Tracy Brabin, becoming Mayor of the West Midlands.
Why did the Greens perform well at the local elections? There is no doubt a significant proportion of their voting support will have come from disillusioned supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. The Greens are an obvious left-wing party who shared many policy similarities and ideologies with the former Labour leader. As it happens, I don’t think Keir Starmer has moved Labour significantly to the right and, on a policy perspective, remains committed to the Corbyn agenda. But perception is crucial in politics. If there is the perception that Labour has abandoned its left-wing and that the Greens can better represent them, people will naturally tilt towards them, not least in a local election.
How the Greens benefited from Brexit
Similarly, the success of the Greens may have, counterintuitively, been thanks to Brexit. I admit that this seems illogical at first. The Greens were staunchly supportive of remaining in the European Union. The enactment of Brexit defeated the Green Party’s political aim. Still, it meant they lost their political representation in the European Parliament, which was an important voice for them on the international level. However, even though numerous issues around the consequences of Brexit remain, they are not wholly dominating the public discussion. This gives the Greens the opportunity to forge their identity elsewhere and not simply be seen as obsessed with Brexit above all other issues.
The Greens have struggled to find a clear voice and purpose during the Covid-19 pandemic along with all opposition parties. All attention has been on the government giving an announcement about the introduction or removal of different restrictions. Parliament has largely been sidelined, meaning that opposition parties don’t enjoy much of a say. Apart from the Liberal Democrats opposing the introduction of vaccine passports, most opposition to the government has been that action was not taken harder or quickly enough.
The local picture for the Green Party
That being said, the Greens enjoyed success in predominantly Tory areas on a local level. According to The Guardian, 45 of its gained seats were from the Tories, while 49 came from Labour. The Greens made gains on Cornwall Council, East Sussex County Council and Suffolk County Council, containing many Conservative Parliamentary seats. This demonstrates that the party, despite its left-wing credentials, can win around several voters on the right. Of course, voters can change their ballots from local to general elections; a Green surge locally does not mean Caroline Lucas will become Prime Minister tomorrow. But it does represent the Greens are not the anathema to some voters that Labour undauntedly is and always will be.
There is a significant question over how the Greens choose to spend most of their time on these councils. Naturally, so much of city and county council policy is linked to planning development. If they are a sizeable group, the Greens could generate public support from their Nimbyism towards different policy issues. For doing what is right and necessary, Nimbyism is nearly always wrong. For example, housing needs to be built urgently alongside infrastructure projects like HS2. But from a partisan, political perspective, individuals are often very resistant to change. The Greens capitalising on this could allow them to perform significantly well.
Is Extinction Rebellion benefiting their public image?
Similarly, the Greens must be cautious about their links with Extinction Rebellion. Though the organisation, along with David Attenborough, initially managed to capture the public conscience on the environmental challenge facing the world, I think that has faded away.
Publicity stunts may go viral online but are not sustainable, like the continued use of fossil fuels. Such a movement requiring widespread economic and social change can only be successful if the public is included in the discussion and brought to the debate. While the Greens say they want to do this, an alignment with Extinction Rebellion would make this tricker.
Overall, the Green Party’s challenges are similar to those facing all progressive movements: stark and structural. While the pandemic has perhaps provided the catalyst for an environmental future, the Greens must develop convincing arguments about why societies should not just want to return to the ‘old normal’.
Similarly, the Greens must recognise the value of other progressive parties and try to ensure they can work together, rather than splitting their votes apart. Although the next general election is not for a couple of years, it is these times between those democratic exercises which will determine whether the Greens have what it takes to win a significant proportion of the electorate around to their vision.