The English Greens are surfing a wave of popular discontent. Can they keep going?


The English Greens have been celebrating big wins in local elections. Yet tensions are emerging as they try to reconcile their commitments to conservation, social justice, and new electoral opportunities. James Dennison explains how the party’s strategy is shifting.

Teaser Image Caption
Extinction Rebellion taking part in a Biodiversity March London protest on Earth Day 2023.

If this year’s local elections in May were anything to go by, the Green Party of England and Wales is on the up. The party—one of three branches in the UK, alongside the Scottish and Northern Irish Greens—doubled their councillors to 736, winning six per cent of all seats on offer and a majority in one local council, the first by a Green party in the northern hemisphere, as well as becoming the lead coalition partner on seven other councils.

Such gains suggest the Greens, the UK’s only party to make the climate emergency their priority, have finally built up enough critical mass to overcome a disproportionate and demotivating majoritarian electoral system that had long cast them as a “wasted vote”. Estimates suggest that the Greens won around 12 per cent of the vote, a similar figure to that in 2019 at the UK’s final—and proportional—European Parliament elections.

More curiously, many of the party’s most prominent gains came in historically Conservative areas, offering a stark contrast to the Greens’ image in Britain as a left-wing, protest party. By contrast, the party lost 13 seats to the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove, which was once their stronghold—and still the seat of their only MP. This, coupled with their broader success, has led to considerable media interest in unravelling what is driving the growth of the party, including its internal strategic choices. Moreover, observers are questioning the Greens’ current role in the British political system, which has endured a tumultuous decade but may be settling into a new and potentially surprising political geography.

How has the Greens’ strategy changed?

The Greens’ council victories in rural areas underscore a conscious internal strategy to target districts, if not voters, that have traditionally leaned heavily Conservative. However, their triumphs were not overnight sensations. In Mid Suffolk—the seat in which they won their first council majority—success followed two decades of Green representation on the council and, in a third of seats there, they were the only non-Conservative party running. Their local success reflects greater ongoing geographical concentration of votes—vital in majoritarian contests—and this was by no means lost on the party leadership. Indeed, the party achieved its most substantial progress in areas where they had already performed well in 2019.

However, strategic behaviour by voters was also key to the Greens’ success. It appears that left-of-centre and anti-government voters are swiftly re-evaluating their tactical voting options among the three progressive parties. The last decade saw massive political uncertainty stemming from the entry of the Liberal Democrats into a coalition government, the rise and fall of UKIP, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party, and the “Brexit realignment”. Out of this volatility, the Liberal Democrats have recently refocused on affluent, commuter areas—where their pro-European centrism gives them a boost over the Conservatives—and Labour are making up lost ground in post-industrial and urban areas. This has left a gap in non-wealthy rural constituencies that the Conservatives may have once taken for granted but whose voters are searching for an alternative after 13 years of—by most metrics—poor governance.

The fact that so many voters are now turning to the Greens reflects the numerous electoral footholds they have managed to secure in the past decade, including party membership surges, heightened environmental concern among the public, and their own conversion into a fully-fledged pro-European outfit. The ability of anti-Conservative voters to behave tactically also bypasses the need for any (thus far) futile attempts at electoral alliances.

New opportunities, new tensions

The Greens now have new areas to exploit. They include sewage and water pollution, a cost of living and housing crisis, underfunded public services, climate change, and echoes of the 2015 election in terms of immigration politics and Labour's ambivalent opposition. But these also create tensions among their widened electoral coalition.

Although the party’s voter profile has been relatively centrist and socio-demographically broad since at least 2017, local government and increased media scrutiny may make its internal contradictions clearer. Notably, the party has been criticised for its considerable local campaigning against large-scale housing developments. Green leaders will need to navigate and balance conflicting demands skilfully and manage media interactions adeptly prior to next year’s general election. This is particularly true when reconciling their stance on state intervention in the economy, redistribution and social provision, and their simultaneous emphasis on environmentalism and conservation.

Greens in government: working with the SNP in Scotland

Whereas the Greens in England and Wales are strictly an opposition force, the independent Scottish Greens have upheld the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) devolved government in a “confidence and supply” arrangement since 2021, whereby the Greens also provide two junior ministers.

The last year may have seen some degree of stability return to Westminster politics. But Scottish politics has been entirely transformed as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, resigned before being arrested along with her partner following allegations of fraud in the SNP. Her unpopular replacement, Humza Yousaf, has overseen shrinking support both for his party and for Scottish independence. This may represent a double-edged sword for the party should pro-independence voters wish to move away from the SNP to the only other—for now—significant pro-independence force, the Greens, at the next Scottish Parliament elections in three years.

However, by that time, there will likely be a Labour government in Westminster which, although currently flying high in the polls, could already be suffering a backlash from disillusioned voters. The other problem is that entering government on the back of their most successful Scottish election has allowed the Greens to play a role in legislation on equalities, housing, and conservation. But with the SNP under pressure, its members are increasingly pointing the finger at the Greens for Scottish government failings.

The pitfalls of tactical voting

The Greens have an unprecedented opportunity to prove themselves in local government, but they may also struggle to impose their agenda on impoverished councils whose powers have been eroded for decades. Meanwhile, the first past the post voting system, so unfavourable to smaller parties, is more entrenched than ever. Tactical voting can help the party when the conditions are right, but it could also work against them as a high-stakes general election grows closer. The trajectory of the Greens' success remains tightly intertwined with the dynamics of competition between the two predominant parties. If Labour manages to uphold its substantial lead, it is plausible that the Greens could secure additional seats as voters feel free to express their Green preferences. On the other hand, should the contest tighten, progressive voters will move back towards Labour.