Chesham is the litmus test of how serious the Greens are as a party

Chesham is the litmus test of how serious the Greens are as a party

Almost unnoticed last weekend amid the spectacular Tory win in Hartlepool, the constitution-shaking SNP-led victory in Scotland or the dismal outcome for Labour – compounded by a botched reshuffle – another party did very well: the Greens.

Across the country, the thin Green tide advanced. Highlights included:
– An increase in MSPs and pushing the Lib Dems into a clear fifth in Scotland;
– Finishing fourth in Wales by vote – though no MSs, unlike the Lib Dems, who polled fewer votes;
– A clear third in the London mayoral election on nearly 8%, with Sian Berry the only candidate other than Shaun Bailey and Sadiq Khan to retain their deposit;
– Almost 12% in the London Assembly elections, again finishing third;
– A net gain of 88 councillors across England;
– Significant gains in Bristol and Sheffield, costing Labour control in both councils;
– Reaching the run-off round of the Bristol mayoral vote, losing only by 56-44;
– Vote shares of 10%+ in six of the seven PCC elections contested;

Why the success on such a broad scale? Scotland has its own story, and some of the more dramatic results in England can be put down to local factors, whether specific issues or pre-existing organised strength – or both – but that cannot explain the solid performance in the large-electorate polls. For that, we should probably point in part to the salience of climate change as an issue over the last few years but more, to the unusual weakness in both Labour and the Lib Dems. If voters don’t feel confident in either of the two traditional parties of the centre/left that they’d naturally look to, then it’s unsurprising if they opt for the other established one in that part of the spectrum.

The Greens have been here before. Their initial, surprise, breakthrough came in the 1989 Euro elections, when Labour was only just recovering from its 1987 hangover and the (Social and) Lib Dems were virtually on the floor after their bungled merger but the Greens couldn’t make that stick as the larger, older, parties sorted themselves out – both then and following later Green bounces.

In no small way, they bear a significant share of the blame for that, having always struggled to move beyond the mentality and culture of a pressure group with a sideline in electioneering.

What do I mean by that? Well, politics is a ruthless, competitive business and the Green movement seems to have a visceral antipathy to both ruthlessness and competition, preferring collegiality where possible. What that’s meant in practice is a series of withdrawals from elections in favour of parties on the left seen as better-placed, sometimes unilaterally (as in 2017), sometimes with minor concessions elsewhere (2019) but always tending to hit the smaller or less-established party harder.

The problem with that is that it doesn’t really advance the Green cause much, if at all; indeed, it very much submits to politics as normal. In reality, as UKIP showed, a smaller party can sometimes achieve a lot more by bringing pain to others notionally on their own side than by co-operating with them.

Which brings us to Chesham & Amersham. The top-line contest ought to be a classic straight Con-LD fight in the manner of any number of Lib Dem gains over the years. Indeed, it’s the sort of by-election they’ve probably been dreaming of in the (almost certainly vain) hope that they can not only repeat the glory days of Christchurch and Winchester and Orpington and Newbury but that doing so will mask the fact that their party is invisible and irrelevant for all practical purposes at a national level.

(As an aside, even if they throw the kitchen sink at it, the Lib Dems still have an uphill task. Those famous victories of the past came when the Tory governments were struggling badly. By contrast, the current one has overseen a successful vaccine roll-out, is around 10% ahead in the polls and is likely to be removing restrictions further as polling day approaches – the Indian variation is unlikely to affect much as long as vaccines offer protection against it. In addition, while C&A did vote Remain, it was probably only by about 55-45: that still gives the Tories a big Leave vote to go at.)

But there’s also a secondary battle to be fought. If the Greens are genuine about staking a claim to being thethird party, then helping the Lib Dems overturn a 29% Tory majority isn’t a great way to go about it. Even more important though is their own performance. After the excellent – by their own standards – results a week ago, the Greens have a realistic chance of pushing Labour into fourth, especially as the Lib Dems will be squeezing votes as hard as they can and Labour is going through a rough patch itself.

Clearly, fighting hard to potentially deny a centre-left candidate a win and so return a Conservative goes very much against the Green cultural grain but in the big scheme of things, one MP here or there doesn’t matter much when the government already has a majority of 80. On the other hand, proving that the Greens, and their voters, need to be taken seriously would change how the other parties think and act, and may influence their policies. UKIP, after all, achieved their primary aim with barely an MP to their name.

Politicians can’t be too picky about the chances which come their way. Chesham and Amersham might not be ideal Green territory but they had a solid set of local election results there. If they want to create a virtuous cycle with the media of coverage generating support generating election results generating coverage, they need to deliver. That not only means standing but fighting hard. Whether they do or not will tell us whether they’re ready to take up third-party status or whether it’s dropped on them by happenstance and will roll off as casually.

David Herdson

p.s. After twelve years, around 600 articles and something like half a million words, this will be my last regular weekend piece; I need a bit of time and space to do other things for the moment. I don’t expect this to be my last ever – I’ll still submit articles when I think I’ve something useful and interesting to say. Still, I’d like to place on record my thanks to Mike, Robert, TSE and all those who do so much to keep PBC going and make it the successful and enjoyable community it is.

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