As Starmer sheds Labour’s leftwing image, can the Greens fill the progressive void?

On the surface, the political context has never been more favourable for the Green party of England and Wales. 

Public awareness of the climate emergency ranks higher among the concerns of ordinary Britons than ever before, with 2022 one of the warmest years ever recorded and the issues of energy security and sustainability frequently topping the news agenda.

There is also the matter of the Labour party’s shift to the right under Sir Keir Starmer. From 2015 to 2019, the leadership of socialist Jeremy Corbyn posed difficult questions of the Green party’s place in the UK political landscape. Under Corbyn, Labour siphoned off the young, climate-conscious, left-wing voters that the Greens had been trading in for many years. The Greens performed poorly in every election versus Corbyn until mid-2019, when their pro-EU stance catalysed a brief revival. 

But following the Labour party’s disastrous defeat at the 2019 general election, Starmer has worked to shed his party’s leftwing reputation in favour of a triangulating, less economically radical platform.

In this new political landscape, the Greens are happy to present themselves as the natural home for marginalised progressive voters, marched up a radical path by insurgent Corbynism and unhappy with Starmer’s rapid retreat. The party wants to capitalise on the disenchantment of many Labour voters feel with their party.

The Green Party of England and Wales is led in its current guise by co-leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, elected in a contest consumed by the gender self-ID debates in October 2021. Since taking office, the co-leadership team have been determined to put the party’s culture-warring days behind it — and there have been some signs of success. In the May 2022 local elections,  the Green Party won 156 seats, with a net gain of 81. It was a result hailed as “phenomenal” by co-leader Ramsey.

But almost a year on from these results and a “Green surge” is yet to really take off. Recent polling has the party at around 5%, which places the Greens in joint fifth with the SNP, behind Reform UK (7%) and the Liberal Democrats (9%). 

For some commentators on the British left, the Green party is not adequately pulling its weight. Guardian columnist and Starmer-critic-in-chief Owen Jones recently called out the party for “doing a very bad job at putting pressure on Labour”, providing no electoral or political incentive for Starmer to make left-wing concessions. As Jones sees things, Labour has been given free rein to march ever-rightward — in lieu of substantive left-of-Labour opposition.

Although in fairness to the Green party, this is not for a want of trying. 

The party’s deputy leader Zack Polanski told “I’m really proud that we’re a leftwing, progressive party that in recent months has been leading the way on speaking out about the need for well-funded, publicly owned public services, standing with striking workers and putting forward proper plans to tackle the climate emergency”.

“Keir Starmer and Labour have long left the pitch on these issues — but we’ve always been consistently there and will continue to be”.

Crucially, the party’s actions match Polanski’s words.

At its Autumn conference in 2022, the Green Party became the first parliamentary party to formally endorse Enough is Enough, the campaign fronted by the RMT’s Mick Lynch. Growing out of the social anger building against the Conservative government and the political anger that Labour was not providing a radical enough alternative, Enough is Enough boasts an unmistakably leftwing policy platform.

By no means immune to acts of political theatre, delegates at the party’s conference then marched from the conference centre to join a picket line of striking rail workers from the RMT and Aslef unions. It was another clear rebuke of Sir Keir, who has been embroiled in a political row on the left over his decision to ban frontbenchers from attending picket lines.

Among the party’s radical policy commitments are:

  • A £15 an hour minimum wage;
  • Repealing the UK’s anti-strike laws;
  • The permanent nationalisation of the main energy supply companies;
  • Taxing wealth and “dirty profits” to finance the transition to renewable energy;
  • A carbon tax on “the most polluting industries”;
  • As well as insulation and renewable energy for every home. 

Why the failure to cut through?

One problem for the Greens is that they have arguably lost their political niche. All the major parties are committed to climate action, with the Green’s main leftwing partner and rival in the Labour party viewing decarbonisation as a key battleground issue come 2024. 

Honing his party’s electoral pitch at its annual conference in September, Starmer debuted a new slogan: “fairer, greener future”. Some party insiders were puzzled. Why was Labour getting bogged down by green politics — bolstered further by the newly announced state-funded, green investment company GB Energy, when the Conservatives were imploding under Truss?

Ultimately, Labour’s green-themed conference underlines that the party still fears being outflanked by the Green party. In fact, Sir Keir was directly borrowing the language of the Greens who campaigned in the May 2022 local elections with the slogan: “fairer, greener country”. 

The Greens’ conference a month later called out Starmer’s sly sloganeering: “It’s interesting to see Labour take up recycling — our slogans!”, the party’s chief executive Mary Clegg told delegates. “That won’t make them Green”.

But while party figureheads may call out what they see as an unconvincing shift to green terrain from Labour, Starmer’s climate pivot plainly poses political problems for the ecologist party. Despite Labour’s environmental pledges being less ambitious than the Greens, Starmer’s minimum necessary level of activism on the topic may prevent Corbyn-sympathising, climate-conscious voters from abandoning the party come 2024. Of course, Sir Keir can argue that as a government-in-wait, the Labour party has realistic means of delivery on climate action — it is persuasive pitch against a party which only has one MP.

Silent or silenced? 

A consistent Green complaint is that they get little media coverage. 

Polanski told “We’ve now got more councillors than UKIP ever had at their peak — yet they were never off the TV. We haven’t had a party leader on Question Time since 2019. Even though we know that when people do hear from us and what we stand for — it’s really popular”.

The only Green politician with any serious media presence is Caroline Lucas, because of the legitimacy conferred upon her by her repeated elections to the commons. She is well-loved by her constituents in Brighton Pavilion, and there is no sense that she is in any danger of losing her seat. 

The big task for the Green party is to threaten more constituencies like Brighton Pavilion, further challenging Labour’s domination on the British left. Right now, however, this looks to be a tall order. After 13 years of Conservative rule, the polls suggest that anti-Tory feelings have coalesced around Sir Keir, the man now widely presumed to be Britain’s next prime minister.

Good local election results in May may provide a short-term boost in national media coverage — so too might good showings in target constituencies like Bristol West in 2024, but with progressive feeling largely united around Sir Keir, the Greens’ political pathway is narrow indeed.

But in practical political terms, a government headed by Sir Keir Starmer may be the Greens’ ideal scenario. 

Like UKIP from 2010-2015, the Brexit party from 2018-2019 and Reform UK now, the party would have real opportunities to shape the government’s headline agenda. It is also the case that the media found Nigel Farage and UKIP so interesting, in part, because of their potential to embarrass David Cameron. As a “UKIP of the left”, the Greens may prove equally tricky for a Sir Keir-headed administration. 

The party’s recent leftwing positioning means that if Sir Keir fails to deliver on his promises in government — especially on the Green agenda — then it will be their party which will prove the natural receptacle of progressive discontents.