New Internationalist

New leader, new challenges: what next for the Green Party?

Caroline Lucas with grassroot campaigners November 2011

Caroline Lucas with Robin Hood Tax supporters outside the Houses of Parliament, November 2011. Photo: Robin Hood Tax under a CC Licence.

Former Guardian Weekly editor Natalie Bennett was this week confirmed as the new leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, replacing Caroline Lucas who has served in the post since its creation. The new leader has set her party some ambitious goals: six MEPs by 2014, and a Green councillor in every area by 2020. At their Conference this weekend the party will no doubt debate how to make this happen. A look to history might provide some pointers.

When Caroline Lucas won the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the Greens in 2010, she became one of only a handful of candidates from parties to the left of Labour to be elected to the UK Parliament since the Second World War. The first was the legendary Glaswegian trade unionist Willie Gallacher, who risked prison and British tanks for helping organize the Clyde Workers Campaign for a 40-hour week, after which he was elected for the Communist Party.* In 1945 he was joined by Phil Piratin, who had helped lead the campaign against Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts in the East End of London. There wasn’t another Left breakthrough in England until 2005, when RESPECT won in the same part of the capital following Britain’s biggest ever anti-war campaign.

Caroline Lucas’ historic election in Brighton in 2010 was undoubtedly the result of unparalleled door-knocking and strategic targeting of resources, as well as support for local campaigns. But it also followed the largest ever national campaign on climate change, which included marches and direct actions in which she played a prominent role. This mirrors the Greens’ previous electoral breakthrough, in the 1989 European elections, which followed the first-ever civil society campaign in Britain on climate change.

Lessons learnt

The lesson that can be drawn is that electoral gains for radical parties almost exclusively grow out of participation in broader social movements. Perhaps this was most plain to see in the case of the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, when 13 leftwing candidates (seven 7 Greens, six Scottish Socialist Party) were elected, in part due to their prominent role in the campaign against the war in Iraq.

One part of the equation may be that the Labour Party has a notoriously bad record for supporting civil society campaigns, even when they are in opposition themselves. Labour’s present support for cuts to public services and condemnation of public-sector workers who resist is just part of a longer story. In the face of the last Conservative government, the Labour leadership failed to support the National Union of Miners during the Miners’ Strike (1984-85), spoke out against members who participated in the (ultimately successful) civil disobedience campaign against the Poll Tax (1989-90), and provided no opposition to Margaret Thatcher on her decision to enter the Falklands War (1982) – an act that contributed to the doubling of her poll ratings.

Once elected, small radical parties can make a difference, as pressure from the Left shifts the political centre – indeed, some historians argue that this was a major reason for the creation of the welfare state in the post-war era. Similarly, radical MPs can use their position to speak out about human rights abuses against movement participants, highlight information about potentially damaging plans by government, and attempt to shame other parties into accepting progressive reforms or amendments – all roles that Caroline Lucas plays at present.    

A word of warning

But all of this comes with a warning: small leftwing parties often don’t last long in parliament. As movement activists become parliamentarians, the mass support can fall away as attention begins to centre around process and minutiae, meaning it is difficult to mobilize support for re-election. Worse still, one-time progressives can lose sight of the bigger picture and see fit to support unconscionable policies in return for minor concessions, as demonstrated by the Irish Green Party’s disastrous spell from 2007-11 as junior coalition partners to the rightwing Fianna Fáil. On occasion ,one-time radicals have found themselves condemning direct action, as Green Party London Assembly Member Jenny Jones did following the student occupation of Conservative Party headquarters in 2010 (she later apologized).

But worst of all, political parties – whether Labour, Green or otherwise – can serve to subvert radical movements once elected and steer them towards exclusively reformist ends. If an elected Green Party sees the role of a movement as being only to provide potential supporters for their work within the system, they will have a short political life. The best way of ensuring support at election time is to support the movements on the streets all year round.   

The Green Party has more than doubled its membership in the last 10 years, to 12,000 across England and Wales. Yet this is still less than the number of voters that would be needed to win a single constituency. Compare that to the 500,000 people who attended the last major march against cuts, or the millions being hurt by the current government’s policies, and the challenge becomes clear. If the Green Party focuses exclusively on electoral campaigning, as some branches would wish, it faces a pathway to oblivion. If it focuses entirely on broader movement work, the unique role that the party can play is lost. But if the Greens can provide a voice inside debating chambers for a growing movement outside, the party has a bright future indeed.  

* He was initially elected in 1935

Tim Gee is the author Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011

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  1. #1 EddieRMean 06 Sep 12

    No mention of the Militant Tendency? 3 MP's and dozens of councillors. i know they were part of the Labour party, but still, the most successful far-left grouping in 20th century british history.

    Personally I think we need to make a new Indepedent Labour party to the left of Labour, kind of how Melanchon dragged Hollande to the left.

  2. #2 ruckun 06 Sep 12

    Has New Internationalist suddenly become the party magazine of the Green Party then? Shame. I thought it above narrow party political concerns

  3. #3 Tom Chance 06 Sep 12

    Interesting stuff, especially about the ways in which minority radical politicians have influenced things in the past.

    You go a bit over the top when you suggests that the GP's electoral success almost exclusively grows out of participation in broader movements. It depends on the voting system... Euros, Scottish and London (GLA) elections are proportional so a radical party can mobilise a dispersed movement vote, get 5 or 10% across the board and win seats. Parliament and councils need a highly concentrated vote that will always be far larger than the number of people even loosely connected to social movements. Council seats can only be won by all the electoral door knocking stuff. Caroline's win came off the back of a growing councillor base (who now run a minority administration) and loads and loads and loads of door knocking.

    Everyone has their own preference on where they personally want to focus their energies, somewhere on the spectrum from just getting someone elected to just discussing the concerns of a social movement. As you say, it's about ensuring a political party can remain responsive to, perhaps even rooted in, social movements while achieving the electoral success that is so important.

    Also, your off-hand comment about Jenny Jones is a bit of a mythological smear. She never condemned direct action, she condemned vandalism against property (which is an interesting and old debate in direct action circles) and violence against people (since the Green Party has non-violence direct action written into its constitution). She initially made her criticisms in a tactless way, or one that was misinterpreted, take your pick, and later clarified her views. She has consistently been the only widely heard voice on a police authority and in the national media to criticise the police for their tactics at protests, to successfully push for changes in their tactics, and to take up casework from protestors. The treatment she has received since that controversy, and since she backed Ian Blair after the de Menezes shooting while heavily criticising the police generally, shows the tight rope that radical politicians walk when so many in social movements who are outside of electoral politics can be so purist, so unaccommodating of others with slightly different views. Such a narrow approach ultimately undermines social movements.

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About the author

Tim Gee a New Internationalist contributor

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Prize for radical nonfiction. He has campaigned with Occupy, Climate Camp, the Traveller Solidarity Network and the National Union of Students amongst others. He works as a grassroots trainer and has an MA in politics from Edinburgh University.

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