The Green Party has seen a significant rise in party membership and voting intention. Sarah Birch investigates where the Greens’ new support is coming from and what accounts for the rising popularity. She finds that the Greens may now be attracting voters from across a wider spectrum of the population, which should give MPs looking to retain their seats in 2015 cause for concern.
In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, Britain’s established trio of parties are all manifestly exercised by the purple threat. Predictions are swirling about the number of seats UKIP is likely to place at risk, as parties across the spectrum are scramble to find a means of averting this eventuality. So frenzied are they in their efforts, that they seem to have lost sight of other-hued challenges.
On 3 October 2014 the Green Party of England and Wales announced that its membership had just surpassed the 20,000 mark for the first time, having trebled over the course of the past decade. The previous week, the Scottish Greens had revealed that their membership had in a single year trebled to 6,000, in the wake of the party’s campaign strongly for a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum.
Recent surveys have provided evidence that this increase in Green party membership has a parallel also in likely vote decisions. The May-June 2014 wave of the British Election Study found that 4.8 per cent of those surveyed intended to vote Green. Polls by YouGov, Ipsos Mori, Comres and others have also discovered Green party vote intentions to be several percentage points higher than they were a decade ago. A YouGov poll in late September even found as many people prepared to vote Green as Liberal Democrat.
Figure 1: Green and Liberal Democrat Vote Intention, May-October 2014
Source: YouGov polls
With parties in decline across much of the democratic world and party memberships in the UK following a seemingly inexorable downward trend, what accounts for the rising popularity of Britain’s twin ecological parties?
There are a number of factors that can potentially explain the increasing attractiveness of the Greens at the present time. Firstly, climate change is back on the global agenda, with the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discovering that the planet is warming ever more rapidly. Secondly, the general disenchantment of voters across the political spectrum has benefited smaller parties, such as UKIP and the SNP, as well as the Greens.
Thirdly, the Greens are now better represented in our elected institutions. At the 2010 General Election, the Greens won their first seat in the House of Commons when MEP and party leader Caroline Lucas took Brighton Pavilion on 31 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 29 per cent. Overall, the Greens won only 1.0 per cent at that election and an average of 1.8 per cent in the 335 seats they contested, but the victory in Brighton provided the party with a huge psychological boost. The 2014 success of the Green Party of England and Wales in beating the Liberal Democrats and adding a third MEP to the two who had been elected in previous European polls further consolidated the party’s upward trajectory.
This trend prompts investigation of where the Greens’ new support is coming from. The party has traditionally done well in university towns and large cities. People who have said they might be prepared to vote Green have tended to be slightly younger than average, more highly educated than most, more likely to work in the public sector, more left-wing in their self-placement and policy preferences, and more likely to have intended actually to vote for the Liberal Democrats in recent elections. The question is whether these patterns have been affected by the recent surge in green support, or whether a new sort of Green has emerged.
Analysis of the May-June 2014 British Election Study data helps us to elucidate this question. Examination of the characteristics of those who said they ‘liked’ the Green party in 2014 reveals that the age, education, ideological and policy preference effects are still evident. However, public-sector employment is now no longer a statistically significant marker of Green support, suggesting that the Greens are now attracting voters from across a wider spectrum of the population.
Moreover, affinity for the Greens now has a distinctly female tinge. Gender was not a significant predictor of Green party support at the end of the last decade, but now those who are attracted to the party are more likely to be women, perhaps because so many prominent Greens are female – Green Party of England and Wales leader Natalie Bennett, two of the Greens’ three MEPs (Jean Lambert and Molly Scott-Cato), the Green’s sole member of the House of Lords, Jenny Jones (also a London Assembly Member), and of course Caroline Lucas. It is possible, therefore, that whereas disaffected men are more likely to favour UKIP, disenchanted women tend to be drawn towards the Greens.
With the Greens planning on contesting 75 per cent of General Election seats in 2015, UKIP may not the only cause for concern among MPs seeking to keep their seats; the traditional parties should also be on their guard for a Green surge.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Blue Square Thing CC BY-NC-SA
Sarah Birch is Professor of Comparative Politics at Glasgow University and a Fellow of the British Academy. She specialises in the study of ethics and misconduct. Her current research has two main foci: attitudes toward public ethics and electoral integrity.