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Green Analysis of the 2005 General Election

Peter Cranie
Elections Co-ordinator, Green Party

 

 

Local and General Election Summary

 

As my initial reaction to the results indicated, Greens were awaiting the County Council election results to truly measure our progress on the night. In Oxfordshire we gained 4 seats to take our total to 5 (compared to 9 for Labour). We also gained a seat in Norfolk and in Hertfordshire, while holding our seats elsewhere. Good progress was made in terms of vote share and the Greens now have 69 local authority councillors.

 

The General Election may have grabbed the headlines, but our steady progress towards the psychologically important 100 councillor mark continues. We will expect defections during the year to add to our existing totals and in London and other large cities, we expect further gains in 2006. This is not an overnight success and has been built up over time, with hard work on the ground and increased credibility with local voters.

 

We fought the General Election knowing that for the first time ever we had an outside chance of winning a seat in Brighton. However, even if we had repeated our 27% Euro vote in 2004, we would have fallen short of winning the seat. Yet to achieve 22% is a major improvement and reflects the ongoing progress of Greens on Brighton's council, something that is set to continue. In other target areas such as Norwich and Lewisham, we also registered a substantial increase in the vote. 

 

I think it is fair to say that the Greens have attracted considerable criticism for the arrangement we have in Leeds with the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Some have argued that this is why our share of the vote in Leeds went down. It would be easy to blame this local arrangement for a 0.5% drop but my feeling is that there are a number of factors involved.  Leeds opted for a locally run campaign ahead of our national freepost scheme. Judging by the success we saw in constituencies such as Liverpool Riverside, where we did an addressed freepost, this is a much more plausible explanation for the failure to translate local success of Leeds councillors to a national level.

 

Many of us are uncomfortable with the situation in Leeds but the decentralist nature of the Green Party does mean that we allow local parties to make these decisions. If Leeds Greens were to contradict national policy or vote through Tory policies, then we would have a major problem, but this just hasn't happened. Many of us will remain uncomfortable, but no more so than many Labour party members in Hackney (2000/01) or Perth and Kinross (1999), where they were forced by local circumstances into a Labour-Tory coalition. I expect us to go on attracting criticism and for many of us to remain uncomfortable but the fact is that the Leeds factor did not have a negative impact on our national vote.

 

We were successful in retaining 24 deposits, compared to 10 in 2001 and none in 1997. This steady progress continues and the Labour Party is on notice that Greens will stand in even more constituencies in 2009/10. The current debate on fairer voting is important. At this election Labour benefited from UKIP/Veritas votes, which prevented a Tory victory in 27 seats. At the next election a similar effect on the left, with Green and socialist candidates in an increased number of seats, Labour will be putting at risk a number of marginal seats. The argument used by the Labour hierarchy this year, that a failure to vote Labour will let in the Tories, will ring very hollow after 12 or 13 years in power and a systematic failure to reform a voting system that allows a party to govern with little over a third of the popular vote. If such a government had been established in Iraq by our occupying forces, there would have been a massive outcry.

 

I will be arguing in the coming months for a sophisticated targeting strategy that will push Westminster towards a hung parliament at the next election by picking off key Labour marginals. UKIP, having lost a huge amount of deposits, are likely to do the same but in a way that curtails the number of marginal seats the Tories can successfully win. The influence of significant "Other Parties" on our First Past the Post system increases with each election. I expect that any hung parliament in 2009/10 would have Green MPs from Brighton and elsewhere who would play a vital role in implementing voting reform. What is true for the Greens is equally true for other parties on the left. Proportionally, we are likely to take votes from Labour (or arguably the Liberal Democrats) and unlikely to take them from the Tories if we stand in marginal seats.

 

This year the Greens did not stand in 13 Labour seats where a swing of less than 1.5% will now hand the seat to the Tories or another challenger. I can guarantee that in we will have candidates in at least 4 of these seats next time, and that number is set to grow. Nor did we stand in a further 13 seats where a swing of less than 3% will unseat the sitting Labour MP at the next election. In 25 out of these 26 constituencies, UKIP and/or Veritas candidates stood, damaging the Tory vote. There is no guarantee these right wing parties will stand next time. This dual effect renders these seats particularly vulnerable. We could also carefully ensure that we avoid seats that require a larger swing (say 5% - 10%) and that will help limit the extent of any Tory advance in seat numbers. This is not a precise science and Greens cannot rely on UKIP to have the political intelligence or motivation to mirror this tactic. All the more reason for Labour to take note of the 280,000 Green votes in less than one third of all the constituencies, and to implement some form of electoral reform.

 

 

Greens and the Left

 

As I stated in my initial reaction to the results, I felt that Respect did really well in their target constituencies. George Galloway's victory in Bethnal Green and Bow was the surprise of the night, but there were very good votes in Birmingham Sparkbrook, West Ham, East Ham, Preston and Tottenham. Respect are to be congratulated on their excellent targeting work and securing the generosity of a few individual contributors who made very substantial donations. The next chapter for Respect will focus on its political direction, one which Greens are observing with keen interest.

 

On the one hand, Respect can quite legitimately continue to target constituencies with a high Muslim population. In Birmingham Sparkbrook, West Ham and East Ham, Respect can go to the next election in these constituencies positioned as the main challenger to Labour, and if successful could establish a small but vocal group within Parliament. This is a "narrow" focus approach and has some merit within our existing First Past the Post system as a way of gaining representation for a party on the left. However it also poses a whole range of difficulties in maintaining the support of the vast majority of a non-homogenous Muslim vote in these areas and pursuing progressive socialist policies with regards to health and education.

 

Alternatively, Respect may use George Galloway's presence in Parliament to build a real left of Labour presence nationwide. This would involve reaching out to those currently involved in the Socialist Green Unity Coalition and other groups on the left. It would involve compromise and considerable reform of Respect's internal structures. Respect would hope to mirror the success achieved by the Scottish Socialist Party. At this point, there would be a real opportunity to engage the Green Party. Many reading this article might be disappointed that my response is not more immediately positive but my local experience typifies why many rank and file Greens are highly sceptical of engaging with the left while it remains fragmented.

 

In my constituency in Liverpool, Greens spoke with Respect in 2004 about who should stand, and on the basis of our results in the European and Local Elections, it was clear that the Greens were in a much stronger position to do so. I also spoke informally with a number of members of other socialist groups in Liverpool that year, making them aware that we were standing and that there would be a progressive anti-war alternative. Shortly before close of nominations, I learned that we would have a socialist candidate on the ballot paper as well. Local members were quite rightly critical of the time I had spent engaging with socialist political groups. For them, this effort had been wasted, and explaining the finer points of differences between socialist groups is something that is entirely lost on the vast majority of Green members and supporters.

 

At a national level Greens and Respect face a similar difficulty. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind now, following the election of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, that Respect will stand a list of candidates in every region of England in the 2009 European Elections. This is a political must and in their position, I would be planning to do the same. Similarly, Respect strategists must know that the Green Party is not prepared to do hasty deals or contemplate a partnership unless it is in the interests of the Green Party who will once again contest every region in the 2009 European Elections, with a view to adding to our existing MEPs. I cannot go to our members arguing for a major engagement with Respect in their current state or argue that we would benefit from such an engagement. This is the reality of the situation we are in for the next three to four years. The Green Party and Respect will be political competitors, despite our common view on some policies.

 

 

Prospects for Local Co-operation

 

I am aware that there is a suggestion that in London, Greens and Respect somehow carve up the capital as a means to challenging Labour at a local level. Clearly, I am not expecting the Green Party to win council seats in Bethnal Green and Bow, but it would be damaging for the Greens politically to pull out of areas of the capital where up until now we have been standing increasing numbers of candidates, and steadily improving our vote share. I also think that it is clear from the General Election results that the core Green vote is unlikely to shift to Respect (the Green vote went slightly up in Bethnal Green and Bow) if we are in direct competition.

 

The thousand pound question is how much is the potential overlap in Green/Respect votes? Are Green voters all middle class ABC1s who would otherwise vote Lib Dem? I think many Green voters are on the left (and more Green activists) but it is uncertain how Green votes would be "distributed". I'm yet to see any political research on this and without it, the idea that we can simplistically add the results as follows is absurd:

 

Green vote + Respect vote = Total vote for Green/Respect candidate

 

At this point, my advice to our activists and local parties has to be that we continue to contest seats we planned to contest, whether Respect are standing or not. As someone naturally at home on the left, this is a tough position to be in, but I feel it is the correct one. Decentralist decision making in the Greens still leaves local parties able to consider local factors. It also makes sense for local Greens and Respect members to continue to communicate with each other. Duplicating non-target candidates in wards without a progressive alternative is something we should seek to avoid and I would encourage us to come to that arrangement locally with any left leaning party. Where that left leaning party is unlikely to contest the European Elections (eg Mebyon Kernow), then it may make strategic sense for the Greens to be prepared to cede a little more than just duplicate seats.

 

The Greens are nothing if not long term planners, and every decision made nationally is looking towards the 2009 Euro Elections. Respect should not expect Greens to concede ground on a territorial basis as this would affect our potential to make gains in the 2009 poll. I must also point out that Greens have had to fight hard to win every council seat we've gained so far. No larger local party has ever ceded seats or wards to us voluntarily, nor did we expect them to.

 

The biggest potential for future co-operation is the next General Election where I have already outlined that parties on the left can have a profound bearing on the election result. Whether the party is Green, Respect or part of the SGUC, where we stand candidates will have the potential to significantly affect the overall balance of the next Parliament. As no progressive party is likely to be able to field 600+ candidates in 2009/10, this is something that should be discussed sooner rather than later. In the meantime, dialogue should continue but on the basis of an honest and open understanding that we are political competitors despite being campaigning allies.

 

I know for many that this will fall short of very high expectations for change but the political realities of 2009 demand clarity about Green / Left relations, which can only develop in the context of political honesty. The Green Party will continue to fight elections on a progressive agenda and socialist voters can judge us on our policies, locally and nationally. Progressive forces within the Greens are growing in strength and reshaping our social policies, and we will continue to make electoral gains. We remain a radical alternative to the three major parties and for that reason I hope to see other socialists voting for us, joining us and campaigning with us for a fairer and sustainable future society.

 

 

May 2005

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