Ever since winning their first seat in Brighton Pavillion, the Green Party has been talking about a “Green Surge”. Caroline Lucas has gained national attention and favourbility among the left for her stances on the environment and Brexit, among other things. But the question is, has this actually materialised in a real surge? In the time that the Green party won their first seat till now, the SNP went from six seats to 56 seats, down to 36 and then back to 48. UKIP came, claimed two seats in by-elections, and held one of them in the general election before collapsing. Nigel Farage has been retired on and off numerous times and we have had 3 other general elections, so we have to ask, has there really been a “Green Surge”?
2015 General Election
2015 was the first election following their first seat win, in Brighton Pavilion, and had then-leader Natalie Bennett, who now sits in the Lords. The expectation was this was going to be the big break for the Green Party, after winning a seat, and seeing insurgencies of other political parties. The hype around the Greens, coming from the leadership, was incredibly large. They were at televised leadership debates, and had multiple radio interviews that were not simply about green issues. There was a real momentum with membership increasing, and even I, myself, was catching the Green Party bug, though that did not last. The polls were showing the Greens to get 4%-6% of the national vote, but not increase their seats, this was consistent throughout the general election, with sometimes going higher, and sometimes going lower, but generally consistent within this margin.
On election night, it seemed to be getting off to a positive start, with the exit poll projecting a gain in Norwich South. In reality though, it was only an exit poll, and the Green Party only achieved 13.9%, putting them in third place and ahead of outgoing MP, Simon Wright. Their other target, Bristol West, was more triumphant going up to second on 28%, an increase of 23%, which made it seem that perhaps next election they could make a charge on the seat, but that was a share shining light in their performance. On a night where the SNP were making tectonic shifts in politics and UKIP were making massive vote share gains around the country, it appeared underwhelming.
Their overall vote share did jump to 3.8%, an increase of 2.8%. This may appear good, but there is one massive influence that changed this, and was likely a key factor in how they were able to increase their vote share, the fact that this time, the Green Party stood in 538 seats in Wales and England. Scottish Greens being separate means that they have separate candidates, vote share and MP’s, though the Scottish Greens have never won in Scotland via First Past the Post in either the Holyrood or Westminster elections. This attributes the increase in vote share to the more seats being stood in, and some gains in vote share in the seats they already had been standing in, but not really enough to be the surge that was being anticipated by pundits and the leadership of the party.
2017 General Election
The 2017 general election was a completely different fight, with two leaders now: Jonathan Bartley and the sole MP for the Greens, Caroline Lucas. The Green Party was looking to make a greater impact on the political agenda. After the 2016 Referendum of whether the United Kingdom would stay or leave the European Union, the Green Party wanted to do whatever they could to ensure that the Conservatives did not have their way to an easy majority and have what was known as a “hard Brexit’” To do this, they decided to stand down in certain seats so that there was less competition between left wing parties, meaning that either Labour or the Liberal Democrats would be able to go against the Tories to win more seats.
Polling coming into the election was not looking good for them, and they were unable to really get the ground running after the 2015 election, which further dipped once the snap election was called. They were generally predicted to keep their one seat, but not make any advances they argued they had made in the last general election. This is partly due to the fact that they had stood down in 81 seats, but it can also be attributed to the party not really being able to gain to prominence like they had done. Though again, they had the same amount of coverage, no one was really paying much attention to what they were saying, and they ended up falling by 2.3%, which is nearly as much as they had gained in 2015. Most disappointingly, they were not able to capitalise on their good showing in Bristol West, as they went down 13.9% and 3rd place in that seat. This shows that there was a dramatic failure in the Green Party campaign strategy, message and general inability to catch the headlines and draw any attention to them, as Jeremy Corbyn seemed to take most of the limelight, whether that was good press or bad press.
2019 General Election
The lead up to the 2019 election was incredible. After Theresa May’s Brexit had been defeated multiple times, Labour were similarly trembling in the polls, and the Extinction Rebellion had created more mass news on the environmental issues, it looked like the Green Party may make come inroads in the political sphere. Lucas, no longer leader, had made headways in the press. At the low point of May’s Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour respectively, the Greens had peaked at around 11% in the polls, something somewhat overshadowed by the Brexit Party’s very short-term win in the European Elections. In those elections, the Green Party achieved 11.9% of the vote, a 4% increase; this was their best-ever showing in what would be the UK’s last European elections. This also followed a good showing in the 2019 local elections, with an increase in councillors of 198.
With a new Prime Minister in Boris Johnson and further deadlock in Parliament over Brexit, there was a vote on whether to call a snap election in Parliament, something the Greens and Lucas were against, as they believed that they were close to a “people’s vote”. This time period was also seeing a reduction in the polls, as after their peak, it was apparent that they were returning to their usual form in polling, with some outliers. There was also another progressive alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, the same parties as last time. They called for Labour to join them, but the political giant rejected them. Every poll going into the election stated they would hold their one seat, and not get more than that, and as expected, that was the result. After standing in 472 seats, more than last time by 22, they increased their vote share 1.1%, giving them an overall percentage of 2.7%, which was still short of their record 2015 vote tally. Once again, a reduction in seats standing needs to have some attribution towards why they were not able to reclaim the same amount of vote as 2015. Though looking at their main target, Bristol West, they increased their vote, but their overall vote share was still lower than what they had achieved in 2015.
So why has the Surge failed to occur?
One of the main issues I believe the Green Party appear to be having is that they have too much of a niché ideology to be able to appeal to the grand scheme of politics. Looking at the other non major parties that had success, the SNP campaigned on a greater voice for Scotland. They broadened their already widespread appeal (large amounts of independence voters) to encompass a wider voter pool and reach out beyond their independence supporting base. UKIP also had an appeal that was widespread, unlike the SNP, because of their single issue being appealing to both the left and the right. The Green Party appears to be based on hard left ideologies on the economy among other things, which likely eliminated many of their voter base, Natalie Bennett claims that you cannot be a right-wing Green Party supporter because the policies that the Green Party promote run parallel to a right-wing person, and in many cases, centrist and centre-left people.
One aspect of the Green Party that must be mentioned is the electoral challenges that a smaller party faces. First Past the Post is not the best electoral system when bringing in new parties into the political fray, and tactical voting may factors in to why the Green Party has failed to have much general election success The counter-argument to this, though, is UKIP. UKIP received 12% of the national vote in the 2015 General Election, when the “Green Surge” was meant to first begin, and had the same amount of seats as the Greens. First Past the Post clearly had a great impact on them rather than the Greens, so I cannot be certain of the extent of which First Past the Post has hampered the Green Party’s challenges in General Elections. Of course it has an impact, but when another single-issue party did not face the vote share issues that the Green Party appear to be having, it questions to legitimacy of the argument that the electoral system is a main factor in why the “Green Surge” has failed to properly materialise more than 3.8%.
With an election that was coined the “environmental election” by some, it should have been a time where the Green Party’s key policies should have risen up higher. But a decrease in percentage of votes says it all. There appeared to be an appeal to the Greens, but they were never able to capitalise on it. Perhaps they need to expand their appeal to a larger number of voters, or now that Keir Starmer is leader, appeal to the disenfranchised Corbynites who are dismayed over the whip being removed from the former Labour leader.
One positive note for the Greens is that they are currently polling around 8% and had a very successful 2021 local election. But with a general election likely to be in 2023/2024, the history of the latter half of this decade suggests that it’s unlikely they will be able to hold the buzz and make much ground when it comes to general election time.