Bullish Greens target 'lacklustre' Labour in May local elections

Andy Fewings says that when he first started canvassing for the Green party in Burnley, they were not exactly an established force. “One person at a door thought they were being invited to a party where everyone wore green,” he recalls. “It’s definitely been a journey.”

First elected in 2018, Fewings is now one of two Green councillors in the Lancashire town, a tally he says could triple in the local elections on 6 May. “I’m very confident about a good result, it just depends how good. Last time we missed one seat by three votes, and we’re very competitive in three other wards.”

While much remains unpredictable in the elections, not least because in England they combine this year’s votes and those postponed from 2020 owing to coronavirus, the Greens are publicly bullish about their prospects, and in particular about making advances in areas that are traditionally Labour – even if some, like Burnley, now have a Conservative MP.

Polling UK-wide at up to 7%, in one poll this month scoring higher than the Liberal Democrats, the Greens believe that a series of factors could work in their favour, potentially delivering an even better result than in 2019 when they gained nearly 200 councillors.

One factor is the hope that Covid has opened the minds of voters to more ambitious policies, particularly ones long championed by the Greens such as universal basic income, which has arguably been part-implemented with the furlough scheme.

Before Covid, the idea of such a state subsidy for wages “would have been dismissed out of hand”, said Siân Berry, the party’s co-leader in England and Wales, who is also the Green candidate for London mayor.

“Alongside this horrible crisis, people are thinking about changing things more dramatically,” Berry argued, pointing also to the ban on evicting renters in arrears. “If you can do it in an emergency, why can’t it be more of a normal thing, that people are protected from losing their homes? So there’s definitely an opening of people’s horizons to newer ideas, and ones that look further ahead into the future.”

Another reason for hope is the expectation that Keir Starmer’s more moderate approach – and a sense among some that, a year into his leadership of Labour, Starmer has failed to carve out his own coherent political message – could tempt some Labour voters to seek another option.

“What we have noticed from our minimal campaigning is, I don’t think the current Labour leadership really has much to offer to working-class communities,” says Kai Taylor, one of three Green councillors in another traditionally Labour-dominated area, Knowsley in Merseyside, where he says the party hopes for four to six more wins in May.

“We’ve been at the coalface of austerity, and the opposition doesn’t seem to be offering a massively different platform from the government,” says Taylor, 23, who is combining this year’s campaign with writing a final-year university dissertation. “That’s not necessarily a criticism of Keir, it’s just what we’re getting back from our potential voters, that it’s a bit lacklustre.”

This is potentially fertile ground for the Greens, with Starmer’s personal poll ratings falling, even as Labour insiders stress the difficulty of gaining much media bandwidth amid Covid. However, Greens are eager not just to present their party in contrast to the fortunes of Labour. In Sheffield, says the Green councillor Alison Teal, they are aiming more widely.

“We don’t only get votes from Labour,” she says. “That’s not how it works around here. Because Labour are so strong across the city, we do have a number of Conservatives who will vote for us, because they don’t want Labour.”

That said, Teal accepts that at least some of the party’s previous gains in Sheffield, where the Greens have eight councillors and have hopes for more in May, have come from perceived Labour missteps, not least a long-running saga over the mishandled felling of roadside trees. “It’s not necessarily that we were so fabulous, it’s just that Labour were so terrible. That drove a number of people towards us.”

For all the confidence, the Greens face one significant obstacle: a Covid-limited campaign period. While activists are now able to leaflet and canvass on doorsteps, albeit at a distance, this has not been possible for much of the past year, a potentially bigger blow for a party richer in volunteer enthusiasm than financial resources.

Robert Hayward, an elections analyst and Conservative peer, says that while difficulties for Labour could help the Greens – and any slip in support for the SNP could benefit the separate Green party in Scotland – the lack of campaigning could hit their chances.

“If they identify a location or an issue, as they did in Sheffield with the trees, they want to build off that,” Hayward said. “And they haven’t had the opportunity to do that over the last few months. So that will hit them.”

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