What's Green, idealistic and not a serious party? The Green Party. At least, that’s the way voters tend to view the latest political party in British politics attempting to break into the mainstream. As they gather for their Spring conference in Liverpool this weekend, we assess how the Green Party are doing.
Many claims have been made about an apparent “Green surge” in recent weeks and months. Suggestions of a surge were then replaced by suggestions of an outage. The Green shoots felt the destructive effect of leader Natalie Bennett’s weed-killing media appearances around their “pre-launch”. However, in the same way that reports of a “surge” for the Greens were exaggerated, so were any suggestions that a disastrous interview on LBC would end the Green’s campaign before it had begun.
The fact is that the Greens in general, and Natalie Bennett in particular, came from a low starting point and therefore the crash landing from the Leader’s “brain fade” wasn’t a disaster simply because there wasn't far to fall.
Yes, the Greens certainly ought to improve their lowly 1% vote share in 2010. But it is easy to get carried away with just how well they might do. They are currently averaging around 6 points in the polls, with the occasional higher score, but even pre-2010 they achieved the odd 8% high.
There is certainly the climate for the Greens to ripen further: just look at the opposite side of the political spectrum and how well UKIP have done in this anti-politics atmosphere. UKIP have capitalised on the moment in British politics when many voters are fed-up with the status-quo, a lack of differentiation between the main contenders, and no effective, appealing opposition. With a Labour Party only recently ejected from office, a leader with a public image problem, and the only other party on the left of British politics in an unpopular Coalition with the Conservatives, the conditions ought to be near perfect for a Green storm.
There are, however, two key differences which point to why the Greens have not managed to emulate the success of UKIP. They lack a strong, charismatic leader who can capture the mood, and they don’t have a strong policy niche on a politically salient issue. The Greens may be about being, well, Green, but UKIP have the more powerful and popular issue – immigration, having moving sideways from the European Union.
UKIP’s success – winning the European elections, becoming the third most popular national party in the polls – is based heavily on both the popularity of Nigel Farage to a specific group of voters, and their effectiveness in becoming the party most trusted on one of the key electoral issues – immigration. Voters don’t yet know much about the Green Party, but what they do know doesn't suggest a Party on the verge of greater electoral success. Idealistic (41%), amateurish (35%) and fluffy (26%) are the commonly associated labels while just 9% think they are a “serious party of government.” On leadership they fare no better: a mere 6% of voters think the Greens have a strong leader, compared to 25% who say the same of UKIP.
The Green Party therefore suffers, still, from a lack of profile and awareness. Although Natalie Bennett’s poor media performances may not have been fatally damaging, they did place the brakes on any attempts to grow any momentum and were a missed opportunity to make an effective appeal in the way that Nigel Farage rarely misses. Remember, UKIP got to where they are now in the polls before they had even one single MP in the House of Commons.
The TV debates therefore are probably more important for the Greens than anyone else. Without them they are likely to struggle to make any breakthrough into an already crowded national picture.
Whereas UKIP can look realistically to eye gains on their two seats (setting their sights at around 10 though more likely to finish on nearer 5) the Greens will have to work hard to defend their only seat in Brighton Pavilion and the most they can realistically hope for then is a handful of second place finishes and thus build for the future. In the same way that UKIP are benefiting from an unpopular Conservative led government, so the Greens may be in a better position to push on post-2015 if Labour are in government.