As 2005 turned into 2006 in London, journalist Natalie Bennett did what many of us do at New Year’s. She cast a critical eye on her life – and the world around her. She didn’t like what she saw.
“I looked at the state of the world and said, ‘this doesn’t look very good, I should do something'”.
Bennett’s response was far from typical, however. With more time on her hands after finishing working nights, the 39-year-old Australian made a New Year’s resolution to join the Green Party of England and Wales.
Less than a decade later, Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Greens in Britain. Her party is party riding high in opinion polls. Membership has more than doubled in the past year.
“I never would have predicted it would end up with this,” says Bennett with a laugh as she recalls her 2006 New Year’s pledge.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been the big insurgent political story of British politics this year. UKIP‘s stridently anti-European Union message and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have attracted countless column inches and record levels of support.
But, quietly, the Greens have been making inroads at the opposite end of the British political spectrum.
Having polled barely 1 percent in the 2010 general election, the Greens have consistently been registering 5-6 percent ever since this summer’s European elections. One recent poll put the party on course to win 8 percent when Britain goes to the polls next May. Party membership stands at more than 30,000 and growing by the week.
|Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Natalie Bennett on the right [Getty Images]|
Bennett says the party is fast becoming an accepted part of the British political landscape.
“About a month or so I got a phone call [from a British morning television show] at 11:30 in the evening asking if I could do a pre-record in the next hour for their morning programme. I thought ‘this is a step forward in recognition for the Green party.'”
While UKIP is doing particularly well among older working-class Britons, the Greens draw support from younger, university-educated middle-class voters attracted by the party’s commitment to social justice and the environment.
“Our message is there is a need for real change. Our current neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite approach, greed is good, don’t worry about inequality and assume that the planet’s resources are infinite. That’s now clearly dead, and failed. We need a new kind of approach,” says Bennett, who took over as party leader from the Greens’ sole MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.
The Greens are profiting from the further decline in the Liberal Democrat vote since the party went into coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives in 2010, and are also attracting some Labour voters, says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university and a researcher on UK political polling.
“The Greens are the only game in town for disenchanted voters on the left. They are profiting from those who are looking for something a bit more radical and don’t believe the Labour party can deliver it,” says Curtice.
The Green party in the UK was founded in the 1970s but has long been a marginal concern. In 1990 the party split into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland.
So far the Greens have enjoyed their greatest success in Scotland. In 2003, the Greens won six seats in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, and while that number has dwindled, the party has been transformed following its support for a “yes” vote in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.
In the early hours of September 19, as it became apparent that Scots had voted to stay in the UK, the Scottish Greens’ computer systems collapsed under the weight of new members trying to register. The party’s membership more than quadrupled in a matter of weeks. Meetings that were once held in back rooms of bars now take place in conference halls.
“We have the green surge [in England], they got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland],” says Bennett.
Last week, the Green leader met with her Scottish and Welsh nationalist counterparts to discuss the possibility of joining forces in a future coalition government after the 2015 general election. The Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru have all said they will oppose the austerity policies of the three largest UK parties.
“The SNP says – and all their actions indicate – that they are an anti-austerity party, they are roughly opposed to Trident [Britain’s nuclear deterrent], and they want to get rid of the Tories. We roughly agree on all of those things,” says Bennett of Scotland’s largest party.
But while the SNP is on course to make significant gains next May, the Greens face a major challenge if they are to build on their solitary member of parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post system overwhelmingly favours the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative.
Major party decline
That duopoly is crumbling, however. In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives combined won nearly 97 percent of the overall UK vote and all but nine MPs. In 2015, less than two-thirds of British voters are expected to vote either Labour or Conservative.
This shift away from the major parties and a wider sense of disillusionment with mainstream politics could help the Greens, says Bennett.
“In 2010, the basic feeling was ‘oh, we’ve had a financial crash but capitalism has financial crashes, things will go back to how they were at the start of 2007 and things will continue on much as they were before’. Whereas now, practically nobody thinks that where we are is economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”
The Greens have identified 12 potentially winnable seats from York and Cornwall to Sheffield and Liverpool, says Bennett. The party’s best chances are in Brighton Pavilion, which they hold, Bristol West and Norwich South.
Professor Curtice, however, says while the Greens are on course to win a record share of the vote, they are unlikely to take enough seats to become kingmakers in a potential coalition government.
But Bennett says September’s Scottish referendum could provide a template for a new, more engaged form of politics that could radically change the electoral map of Britain.
“If we had a general election in May where we had a turnout of 85 percent of eligible voters turning up to vote – we had a whole environment of strangers at bus stops talking politics to each other as they were in Scotland -then there is a real potential to blow politics utterly wide open.
“We might wake up the next morning in an entirely different political world.”