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Can the Greens secure devolution dominance?

2 September 2016

This weekend, the Green Party is descending on Birmingham for its Autumn Conference, which includes the unveiling of a new leadership team and the potential return of at least one familiar face.

Alternative political parties have found new ways to capture the public imagination in recent years, capitalising on public discontent with politics as usual, and using digital technology in agile and innovative ways to reach out to voters.

The Greens are a prime example of this trend, with Natalie Bennett leading the party to achieve support from 3.8 per cent of the electorate – by far the party’s best performance on the national political stage. Indeed, the Green candidate came second in a number of constituencies, notably Bristol West and Liverpool Riverside.

After achieving new levels of media prominence in the 2015 General Election debate, the party comes together to discuss its next steps at a time when some of its political territory appears to have been usurped by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

Mission

Having successfully defined itself as part of a wider anti-austerity movement that incorporated nationalist parties from Scotland and Wales, the Green Party can no longer rely on votes from leftists discontented with Labour. Instead, it will need to find a new galvanising message for a different political landscape.

This might come from a renewed focus on the original raison d’être of the party, the quest for clean energy and environmental sustainability. In the wake of the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Conservative Party’s apparent retreat from the Coalition-era commitment to cutting carbon, the cause of eco-friendliness is looking somewhat neglected.

Alternatively, the party might opt to take up the anti-Brexit mantle – an area where Jeremy Corbyn is widely perceived as weak. With his ambivalent contribution to the pre-referendum debate sparking the mass Shadow Cabinet resignations that led to the 2016 Labour leadership contest, Mr Corbyn has failed to convince anxious opponents of Brexit that he is the man to embody their political will.

Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have already sought to position themselves as the natural home for pro-EU voters, with Leader Tim Farron sensing a political opportunity by promising to fight the next election on a pledge to prevent the country leaving the bloc.

Shortly after the shock referendum result, the Green Party composed an open letter to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru proposing an “anti-Brexit alliance” in any snap election that might follow.

This calculated appeal demonstrates both the political opportunities the Green Party senses around Brexit, and its increased interest – given a continued absence of electoral reform – in opportunities for collaboration and coalition.

However, as in the other political parties, the question of Brexit retains a capacity to divide the Greens. Some prominent party figures were notable proponents of a Leave vote, including Green peer and former London Mayoral candidate Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb.

Electoral reform

As the calls for a cross-party anti-Brexit coalition reveal, one of the party’s biggest political bugbears remains the need for wide-reaching constitutional change. Outgoing Leader Natalie Bennett has recently repeated her belief that British politics is “stuck in a rut” and “broken” – a theme sure to be explored during a Saturday Electoral Reform Society drinks reception themed around how to “build alliances for electoral reform”.

Ms Bennett has expressed an interest in pursuing new forms of coalition – ones that, presumably, would not prove as damaging to the parties involved and the flexibility of the national electoral cycle as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat 2010-2015 pact. What’s more, this strategic confluence of interests need not confine itself to whole-of-UK politics.

Citing the need to focus on “progressive alliances, which might operate on the basis of a county, a city or even a single seat”, she appeared to gesture towards one of the biggest political themes preoccupying speakers across all party conferences this autumn: devolution.

It could be that the Green Party sees its future in an expanding local politics focused on its areas of traditional strength – prosperous, liberal university-influenced areas where a cosmopolitan public is open to pursuing radical solutions more suited to a local perspective.

Reflecting this, the conference weekend includes a session on Progressive Alliances: The case for cross-party working and why it could be a game-changer for the Green Party which includes a guest appearance by Labour MP Lisa Nandy.

Leadership

Indeed, as the party moves to select a new figurehead, its most successful politician looks set to return as part of a quintessentially green alternative model of leadership.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, who previously led the party between 2008 and 2010, stood for the contest on a joint ticket with her colleague Jonathan Bartley, a former Conservative researcher who went on to found a Christian think tank.

Spurred on, perhaps, by this unusual cross-party background, Mr Bartley and Dr Lucas ran together to propose “a less tribal politics” driven by “the power of working together”. “Co-leadership is […] a way in itself of communicating what we stand for – sharing responsibility and distributing power”. “It's about hope, co-operation and the future”.

The Green Party Conference runs from 2-4 September at the University of Birmingham Edgbaston Campus.

Anna Haswell, Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer
Anna Haswell
Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer

As Senior Political Analyst at DeHavilland, Anna Haswell leads on financial services policy, as well as covering media issues. In her capacity as Content Marketer, she is also responsible for DeHavilland's briefings and analysis output, working across teams to ensure relevant messages reach current and prospective clients alike. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and Goldsmiths, University of London.