Thursday, 28 May 2015

2020 and the Greens: renewing the energy

What to make of the Greens' performance on 7 May? Despite far more publicity than in previous election campaigns, they took no new seats. They strengthened their hold on Brighton Pavilion and came a clear second in Bristol West, but went backwards in Norwich South.  On the surface, they did not do much better than standing still - a disappointing result for a party that had attracted so much coverage in the election campaign.

Look a little deeper and the Greens have made some progress. Thanks to AndyJS, whose masterly work in processing election data is criminally overlooked all too often, we can look more closely at this progress.

Here are the Greens' results from 2010, ranked in order of vote share:

And here are the Greens' results from 2015, again ranked in order of vote share:

(Both of these tables are AndyJS's.)

In 2010 they contested 335 seats and won an average of 1.81% of the vote in those seats.  In 2015 they contested 573 seats and won 3.77% of the vote (even including the constituencies they did not stand in).  They saved their deposits in 131 seats, up from seven seats in 2010.  The Greens exceeded 10% in only two seats in 2010, but 18 in 2015.  They now have an estimated membership of 66,500.  This is a very substantial number and gives the Greens the ability to undertake a proper ground game.  This is all positive for them.

But let's not get carried away.  UKIP also took only one seat.  But they got more than 10% in 451 seats.  As yet the Greens have nothing like the breadth of support that even UKIP have.

Green strengths

Where are the Greens taking votes?  They are largely an English phenomenon.  They buddied up before the election with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the price of doing so seems to have been to ruin their chances in Scotland and Wales.  They saved their deposits in just three seats in each of Scotland and Wales.

If you look at the seats that the Greens did best in, three trends stand out. First, the Greens did well in London.  Ten of their 30 best vote shares are in the capital.  All ten of these are rock solid Labour seats in inner city London.

Next, the Greens have built up significant regional strength in the south west.  Seven of their top 30 vote shares are found in this region.  You should also note that the Greens did not contest Devon East, where a Green-friendly independent scored an impressive 24% of the vote.  With the Lib Dems having lost much of the progressive vote and Labour organisationally weak in this region, the Greens have opportunities to advance further here.

The third trend, which overlaps with the other two, is for the Greens to have done well in areas with high student populations.  This report lists at the end the English constituencies with high student populations (using the 2011 census):

It does so in a not particularly helpful way, so I have reorganised this into a more useful table:

Ten of the Greens' top 30 seats by vote share had a student population of 20% or more.  Many of the others also had a substantial student population.  The Greens lost their deposit in only three of the constituencies with a student population of 20% or more: Coventry South, Birmingham Ladywood and Loughborough.

One drawback about being popular with students is that they don't usually hang around the same constituency for two elections running.  But if the Greens can embed themselves more firmly in student politics, the meme of students voting Green could transmit itself from student generation to generation.

So the Greens have three possible strands to pursue in the coming years: inner city London, the south west and student-heavy constituencies.

Green targets

Given the Greens' low vote shares, it does not make sense to prepare a list of targets created exclusively by swing required - as we have already seen with the Lib Dems and UKIP, such lists will be dominated by constituencies where the winner had a low share of the vote, regardless of whether there is any base level of support for the minority party.  Having seen that effect with both the Lib Dems and UKIP, I have decided to create a 30 seat target list based on the 30 seats where the Greens had the highest share of the vote.  (There is no right way of drawing up such lists.  By confining myself in this way, Green prospects in seats like Cambridge, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport and Portsmouth South are excluded, though the swings that they require are considerably lower than the swings in most of the seats on this list.)  Anyway, here's the table:

This is a daunting prospect for the Greens.  A uniform 15% swing would bring them just five seats from this target list.  A uniform 5% swing (which in itself is a fairly chunky swing) would get them just one seat.

Once again, it needs to be noted that we may well get boundary changes in this Parliament, so this list should not be taken too seriously.  We should be looking at this list as a general indication of where and how the Greens should be focussing in 2020, not as a precise list of named target constituencies.

The south west

The list is illuminating, however.  Three of the top four are Bristol West, Bristol South and Bath. Bristol East, while having a lower Green vote share than the top 30 targets (it's the constituency with the 32nd highest Green vote share), also requires more a modest swing than most on the top 30 list.  A Green focus on this area is automatic.

While most of these seats are currently Labour-held, organising them by reference to swing rather than Green vote share results in the six Conservative-held seats all rising to the top half of the table.  This reflects the fact that these seats have more parties contesting them;  for example, the Greens are in fifth in Truro & Falmouth but it is their seventh most promising seat in their top 30 vote shares as measured by swing required.  The south west is shaping up for a big battle on the progressive side to see who can establish themselves as the primary challenger to the Conservatives.  The Greens are reasonably well placed for this battle if they focus on it.  Will they?

Inner city London

The bottom end of the table is dominated by those inner city London seats.  If the Greens are to make progress here, they need to pull off the same trick that the SNP managed in Scotland - persuading the traditional Labour vote to defect en masse.  Right now that doesn't look remotely likely.  But those London activists will want something to do, so it's more likely than not that the Greens will pour their energies into what looks like a futile endeavour because it's more popular with a large part of its membership.

If the Greens are to try hard to break through in inner city London, they need to consider carefully what their pitch is to the typical Labour supporter in such seats.  It will not be enough to win over right-on urban professionals: the Greens will need a persuasive pitch to the urban poor as well.  They haven't managed that so far, but if the Greens can take the mantle of the anti-austerity party, they may have opportunities.  Much may depend on the Labour party leadership election and the fall-out from that.

Student constituencies

The decisions for the Greens in student constituencies are more straightforward.  They need to embed themselves into student life and make themselves the default progressive choice.  With the implosion of the Lib Dems and the vagueness of Labour's anti-austerity credentials to date, the Greens have made headway.  Labour look set to head further rightwards following their leadership election, so the opportunities for the Greens may well improve further this Parliament.


It would be surprising if the Greens were able to make a big breakthrough in 2020.  They have too much ground to cover and they can hope to make sizeable gains only if Labour donates them its left wing.  That is unlikely.

But the Greens do have opportunities to progress further.  In the south west they should be fighting hard to become the single biggest progressive party and right now that battle looks well worth fighting.  More widely, they can appeal to the anti-austerity left to pick up support on university campuses.

With its army of members, the Greens could step forward in 2020 - but only if they focus on the task at hand.

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