Defensive Voting: The Greens And The Slightly Nicer Flipside

Caroline Lucas
Caroline Lucas

Our adventures in sell-out electoral Machiavellianism continue now, with a look at the Green Party, and places where our rubbish Defensive Voting idea actually lets you vote for them. Unfortunately, there aren’t many.

Having argued that even dyed-in-the-wool left-wingers should reluctantly vote Lib Dem in places like Wells, this time we turn to places where Defensive Voting is less shudder-inducingly horrible.

The Green Party’s emergence as a genuinely left-of-centre force with increasing public exposure is about the only good thing to have happened on the political front in the last five years. They’ve embraced ideas we never thought we’d live to see talked about in a mainstream context. Now you can turn on the telly and see Natalie Bennett or Darren Johnson endorsing the Citizen’s Income scheme and the need to end economic growth. And they’ve grown at a mind-boggling rate. At the peak of the much-trumpeted ‘Green Surge’, the party gained 13,000 new members in one week.

And yet, despite all that, the Greens will win hardly anywhere on May 7th. That’s the wonder of our spectacularly dismal First Past the Post electoral system.

The least worst realistic outcome we can expect from May 7th is a minority Labour government, pulled leftwards by an anti-austerity voting bloc made up of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.

The ideal outcome, of course, would be a crushing landslide victory by the Happy People’s Socialist Party that annihilated the Tories, the Lib Dems and the feeble, supporter-forsaking Labour Party in one fell swoop, while enacting a programme that made the Greens’ look like it was drawn up by the Pincochet Fan Club. But that’s not going to happen.

If you can accept that, and are willing to help bring about the least worst option, it requires frankly unpleasant levels of pragmatism. Despite them being vastly better than the modern-day Labour Party, it means voting Labour rather than Green in most of the places the two are standing.

That’s with an eye to the short term – to the next five years, by the end of which, if we continue on our present course, there won’t be a society left. There’s more chance of there being a society left after a half-decade of a Labour-led government than a Tory-led one.

But with an eye to the medium and long term, we need to begin the delicate process of replacing Labour with the Greens as the principal non-Tory option – or at least using the Greens to drag the mainstream centre ground back leftwards. And that means getting more Greens into Parliament – without giving power to the Tories.

So how do you go about that? You try and get people to vote Green in a select few constituencies. The party’s first and only MP, Caroline Lucas, narrowly won Brighton Pavilion in 2010. If you’re fortunate enough to live there, vote Green this time without a second’s hesitation. She’s not quite the one-woman anti-austerity bloc she’s made out to be by her most hysterical acolytes, but Caroline Lucas is an excellent public servant and certainly one of the foremost critics of the abysmal Westminster status quo in the Commons. Substantial political change is only ever going to come about through popular organisation putting pressure on parliamentarians from outside the Westminster machine. But we still desperately need supportive figures like Lucas working from the inside.

Brighton’s worth examining in detail for what it can tell us about Green prospects elsewhere. When you look at how the constituency voted over the past few elections, what’s most striking is how quickly Green support shot up. In 2001, they came fourth with 3,800-odd votes. In 2005, they won 9,530, beating the Lib Dems to third place. And just five years later again, Caroline Lucas pulled in 16,238, winning by 1,252 votes – and overturning the sitting Labour MP’s 5,030-vote majority.

Now look at Norwich South, number one on the Greens’ list of target seats, and you see similarities. In 2001, they came a distant fourth, pulling a thousand or so votes in an election in which the winning Labour candidate won 19,000 (and in which the Socialist Alliance pleasingly beat UKIP). In 2005, they were still fourth, but received 3,101 votes. And in 2010 they came fourth yet again, but with 7,095 votes.

If long-standing Green candidate Adrian Ramsay can pull a Caroline Lucas-style leap on May the 7th, he might be in with a chance. Over the past two elections 10,000 or so Norwich South residents have voted Lib Dem. If the Lib Dem vote collapses this time around, with a lot of ex-Libs going Green, Ramsay may have the fuel he needs to rocket himself into Parliament.

Bristol West, Green target seat number 2, is a much bigger ask. In the past three elections, the Green vote hasn’t really done much – 1,900 in 2001, 2,163 in 2005, 2,090 in 2010. The only real chance candidate Darren Hall is if the constituency’s massive Lib Dem vote collapses – the Lib Dems won 26,593 votes last time around, nine thousand or so more than second-placed Labour – and enough of those voters go Green.

Of course, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that the Brighton result wasn’t a fluke, and not something the Greens can replicate elsewhere. Undoubtedly, Brighton’s somewhere the Greens have always done unusually well – even in the ‘90s, Green candidates were coming fourth and fifth, pulling in around a thousand votes at a time when then were virtually non-existent almost everywhere else.

What’s more, Caroline Lucas herself may well struggle to keep her seat. In Brighton, the Green dream has gone a bit sour. In 2011, the Greens took Brighton and Hove City Council, the first local authority the party has ever controlled. But led by distractingly named Jason Kitkat, the Green council has been left to carry out serious Coalition cuts to local government budgets. That included cutting some refuse worker salaries by £4,000 a year. A week-long strike resulted, with some of the strikers memorably denouncing the Greens as ‘Tories on bikes’. With characteristic principle, Lucas came out on the side of the workers. Her keeping her seat depends on how many Brighton voters distinguish between her and an unpopular council, with the ever-hypocritical Labour Party on hand to remind them of the connection.

Regardless, we think it’s very worth trying to nurture some future Brighton-style Green breakthroughs in the constituencies where the party performs the strongest – places like Bristol West, Norwich South, St Ives (although Andrew George, sitting St Ives MP, is the Lib Dem who has rebelled against the Coalition more than any other) Sheffield Central, Liverpool Riverside, Oxford East and Reading East.

We’ll be surprised in any Green bar Lucas gets in next month. But strong Green votes in key target seats – as opposed to just blanket-voting for the Greens everywhere they’re standing and giving the Tories an easier ride to five more years in power – could leave the party in an excellent position to make a proper, consensus-buckling breakthrough in 2020.

Vote Defensively (But Voting Isn’t Enough)

Defensive Voting: A West Country Case Study