Comment

Significance of the Green Party in the U.K.

Pritam Singh  

The noticeable increase in Green vote in the 2015 general elections in the U.K is significant from a comparative perspective. It suggests that behind the big story of Conservative victory and Labour defeat, there are smaller stories, suggesting an ongoing shift in U.K. voting behaviour. Before the elections on May 7, too, there was constant talk of the possibility of a ‘Green surge’ in voting behaviour. Most opinion polls predicted that the Green vote was likely to rise from 1 per cent in 2010 to 6 or even 8 per cent in 2015, that the Green Party might win two or even three parliamentary seats, and in a hung parliament the Party’s support to Labour might be of critical importance for government formation. The results show that the Party’s rising popularity has not gone as far as was predicted, but there certainly has been a noteworthy rise.

Nationally, the Green vote has increased by 2.8 per cent. Caroline Lucas, the first Green to enter the British parliament in 2010, won again from Brighton Pavilion seat by increasing her vote share by 10.5 per cent to 41.8 per cent. Green Party was hoping to add Bristol West to its seat tally this time. It finished second there, but its candidate increased his vote share by 23 per cent, taking the Greens’ vote share in the constituency to 26.8 per cent. The upswing of 23 per cent in any election is truly of historic proportion. The Greens secured second place in three more constituencies: Sheffield Central (16 per cent), Hackney North (15 per cent) and Norwich South (14 per cent). They also outpolled the Liberal Democrats in 135 seats. This is significant when compared to 2010 when they beat them in just one.



In the midst of competitive nationalisms, the Green Party kept the focus on social, economic and environmental issues

The Green’s vote gain of 2.8 per cent nationally is clearly more than 0.8 per cent increase in the Conservative vote and 1.5 per cent increase in the Labour vote. The Scottish National Party got a vote gain of 3.1 per cent, only slightly more than the Green’s gains. It is the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (a decline of 15.2 per cent) that has led to a rise in the vote of all the other parties including that of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party. Over 1.1 million people voted for the Green candidates.

The Conservatives’ 11.3 million votes and Labour’s 9.3 million give us a comparative view of the significance of the Green vote. The number of seats won tells us very starkly the unfairness of the first-past-the-post electoral system. According to this system, the Greens with 1.1 million votes get only one seat and the Conservatives with 10 times more votes get 331 seats. In a fully proportional representation system, the Greens would have got 25 seats and the Conservatives with their vote share of 37 per cent would have got 240 seats. This election highlighted the need for proportional representation on a reasonable scale at the least. The Green Party has, understandably, planned to mobilise other smaller parties and the wider public for some dose of proportional representation.

The relatively better vote share rise for the Greens is significant also in the context of the polarisation of competitive nationalisms. The Greens have been advocating a socially progressive agenda of anti-austerity beyond these competitive nationalisms. The defeat of the SNP in the referendum vote for Scotland’s independence last year led to strengthening of the party instead of weakening it, as might have been expected. Many Scots, especially the old, felt guilty for having voted against independence in the referendum vote due to the fear spread by the Conservative campaign that they would incur losses in their pensions if Scotland became independent. Many of those voters rallied behind SNP this time. A Scottish friend of mine who had voted against independence told me that he joined the SNP only because he could not bear the sadness of his 14-year-old daughter who had campaigned vigorously for independence.

The Conservatives, in stark contrast to SNP’s Scottish nationalism, donned the mantle of English nationalism. They launched a concerted attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband, saying voting him to power would put SNP into power in Whitehall. In a nationalistic polarisation, Mr. Miliband’s denials that he would not form any government with SNP support did not cut any ice with wavering English voters. Labour lost in both England and Scotland — in England to Conservative-led English nationalism and in Scotland to SNP-led nationalism. In the midst of these competitive nationalisms, the Green Party kept the focus on social, economic and environmental issues. National issues such as Scotland’s independence and Britain’s relations with EU were articulated in the larger framework of centralisation versus decentralisation. In such a polarised campaign, the fact that the Green Party had a better vote rise than the mainstream parties suggests that slowly and steadily a progressive change is under way in British politics.

Anecdotal evidence after the election results indicates that more and more progressive people are veering towards the Green Party as the party of the future, beyond the narrow market fundamentalism of the Conservatives and the directionless Labour Party.

(Pritam Singh is a Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, U.K. and was the Green Party candidate from Oxford East constituency in the 2001 General Elections).


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