When time is not on our side, can we afford to keep the same strategy?

This article by Rupert Read and Joe Eastoe first appeared on Green World here.

In 1991, some bold souls in the Green Party including Jonathon Porritt launched the ‘Green 2000’ initiative. The aim was to get the Greens in government by the year 2000. 

Regardless of what anyone might think or not think about the precise proposals of Green 2000, theirs was for sure the kind of level of ambition that was required, if we were successfully to take a parliamentary road to ecologism. We needed Green Governments in place early in this new and critical century. 

Obviously not only was the ambition not achieved, but now, a generation later, the Green Party of England and Wales is still a long way off from entering government, whilst global climate- and ecological- breakdown has dramatically escalated. 

Is it time perchance for a real rethink in political (including communications) strategy?

The Green Party (or more accurately, the group PEOPLE which later became the Ecology Party, then the Green Party) began 50 years ago this year. To mark this occasion, the Green Party has been in constant contact with members, for example sending us all an email detailing the fascinating origins of the party in Coventry, noting the new home of the Green Party archives at the London School of Economics, and teasing that the party is organising events designed to allow its members to reflect on what they have achieved in a mere five decades. 

The accomplishments of the Green Party are certainly not to be sniffed at and are well deserving of celebration. The Green Party is now a major force in council elections across most of the country, offering a much-needed departure from the dominant parties whilst also being part of a collective national group in a way that (for better or worse) independent councillors cannot be. Against all the odds that a small party faces in the first-past-the-post system, we still manage to have an MP, Caroline Lucas, who often receives awards for being one of the best MPs in the country – or indeed, THE best. 

We have some reason to be proud of what we have achieved, electorally, against the grain. 

But, and it is a fairly substantial, the discrepancy between the Green Party’s accomplishments and the enormity of climate breakdown is now terrifyingly obvious. For all the wonderful things the Green Party has achieved, it hasn’t achieved nearly enough to ensure what must surely be the Green Party’s fundamental goal; to protect and safeguard a sustainable environment for us and our children. Moreover, to what extent (if any) can we confidently say that the Green Party will be in a position to achieve these aims before ecological degradation becomes too great and the Party’s fundamental aim will be irrefutably unachievable? The Green Party has advanced, yes, but the advancement of eco- and climate-crisis has significantly outpaced it. We must now be honest about this, if we want to reap the rewards from what comes of authentically facing the truth about our predicament (rewards which became obvious with the breakthroughs into the public consciousness of XR and of the youth climate strikers in 2019).

If we accept the key point here — that it is now effectively impossible that the Green Party, following the same trajectory it has followed for the last 50 years, or even speeding up a fair bit, will be able to seize enough political power quickly enough to prevent the very worst outcomes of climate breakdown — then we must question why the party has not changed tack. So it is high time to ask this uncomfortable question: Is it wise to chase electoral success directly through conventional routes as a primary strategy, or should we seek alternative routes for achieving the fundamental aim of the Green Party? 

Currently, the leadership of the Green Party is focusing on electoral success and is committed to trying to get 5 MPs at the next General Election. We yearn for this strategy to succeed, and we are personally committed to directly helping in the objective of getting new Green MPs elected, especially in the couple of seats where Green contenders are up against Conservative incumbents who will now be unprecedentedly weak. But, and it is another substantial but, we must be permitted to critically assess the suitability and credibility of this strategy, which we think is flawed for two substantial reasons: it is unrealistic, and (much more important still) it would still drastically fail to embody the scale of change needed even if successfully carried out in full. 

On the first point, how confident can one be that the Green Party won’t get 5 MPs elected in the next election? Well, the Green Party has never managed more than 1 MP, and the flawed first-past-the-post system that the UK uses makes it very difficult to make political gains. Yes, the Conservative Party is wildly unpopular, and most polls indicate that they will get trounced in the next election, but that doesn’t mean that the Greens are in poll position to cash in on this Tory exodus. When the last Government was thrown out, that is, when the Labour Government suffered defeat in 2010, the Greens were of course not the main benefactors. Indeed, the Green Party did poorer as a percentage share of the total vote when compared to the 2005 election; the seizing of Brighton Pavillion went against the tide. One might be encouraged by that historic victory: if we can beat Labour to gain a seat in 2010, then why not in 2024? But that ignores the crucial difference: that beating Labour when they were exiting Government was a hell of a lot easier than beating Labour will be when they are on the up, entering Government. Often the places where Greens are particularly strong (Norwich, Lancaster, Bristol, Sheffield) are Labour-held, and so in most cases with Labour resurgent in the polls, potential or actual Green target seats wouldn’t realistically be in a position to move to Green. 

Bottom line: it is very hard indeed to imagine Greens actually beating a resurgent Labour Party in target seats, at the coming General Election. Even in Bristol, it is going to be very hard.

‘So what if it is highly unlikely’ you may say, ‘does that make it not worth aiming for?’ 

Incredibly ambitious targets might still be argued to be worth setting (though they risk incredulity and/or burnout), but not only must we be realistic about the likelihood of them being achieved, but we must also be realistic about the subsequent effect they can have even if achieved. Even if the fairly unrealistic target of 5 Green MPs was achieved in the next election, without wider societal change the difference this will make to the ecological predicament would probably be relatively small. Increased representation and a louder voice in parliament are by all means a good thing, but let’s not forget that other parties have been far bigger and still been fairly unsuccessful in the Westminster arena. The SNP now boasts 45 MPs, but still cannot push through their central policy of a vote on Scottish Independence. The LibDems have had more than five seats for decades; they still haven’t achieved electoral reform nor a great deal else. Thus, even the unlikely scenario of increasing the number of Green MPs 5-fold would do relatively little to safeguard a survivable common future. 

Perhaps 5 MPs would make the Greens a more attractive party to form a coalition (or a confidence and supply arrangement) with, and thus the Greens could make it into government, which is presumably the most plausible method of seizing some real political power centrally in the UK. However, it must now be obvious that the possibility of reaching government by being the minority party won’t be a silver bullet in protecting the environment. Recent coalitions in the UK have seen the smaller party unable to safeguard their most central issues (first the Lib-Dems in 2010, and later the DUP in 2017), damaging their image to their voter base and resulting in a poor performance at the next election. Thus, the Greens entering government under a minority coalition may end up hurting the Green Party’s image, as has been the case in Ireland. The Irish Green Party is currently in coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, having won 12 seats in the 2020 election and receiving 7.1 per cent of the vote. However, many within the party were dissatisfied with the decision to enter a coalition, voicing concerns about sacrificing serious climate action, tackling homelessness, and improving healthcare for the sake of being in government. The party infighting worsened and significant members, including councillors and the leader of the Young Greens, left the party. Due to having to compromise on key issues, the image of the Greens has been tarnished, and they are currently polling at 4 per cent, meaning they stand to make losses at the next election. 

For those who follow Irish politics, this may seem like déjà vu. The last time the Irish Green Party was in government was in a coalition with Fianna Fáil between 2007 and 2011, in which they failed to challenge the gas refinery and pipelines in County Mayo or introduce carbon levies on high-emitting fuels, worsening their image. After a falling out with the then Taoiseach (Head of Government) Brian Cowen, the Greens decided to withdraw from the coalition, before suffering a terrible election performance in 2011 which saw them lose all TDs. 

We are using the situation in Ireland as a little bit of evidence to suggest that the idea that the Greens could achieve their aims if only they made it into government is flawed, and often being a minority party in a coalition hurts the smaller party over the medium to long term.

We have seen that in the last 50 years, the Green Party has achieved some wonderful things, but the discrepancy between these achievements and the scale of the threat of climate breakdown is huge.

Again, and just to be clear, we absolutely don’t want any of this to be misconstrued as an attack on the Green Party, of which we are proud members. The Green Party is likely to make significant gains at the May elections this year; that is exciting and important. Nor should any of this be taken as an attack on the current Leadership, Carla Denyer and Rupert’s long-time friend and colleague Adrian Ramsay, who have both performed and will continue to perform their roles as co-leaders with passion and integrity. Our aim here is simply to raise some questions and be honest about the answers. What change do we now need? Are our current strategies realistic? How can we play to our strengths to give us the best shot at achieving our aims?

Similarly, we certainly do not want to be taken as defeatists. This piece should certainly not provoke a resigning shrug; we do not want you to think ‘oh well, we gave it our best shot’ before giving up on pushing for change. On the contrary, the tenor of this piece is one of (dark) optimism, one that believes that profound change is still possible and that the Green Party can and quite likely will play a vital role in shaping that change. And in fact, what we believe is that the only way that the profound change that is coming can positively involve the Green Party is by means of the approach that we will offer.

But the way that we can now midwife transformative change is not as direct and straightforward as we had all hoped it might be. 

If we were to cast a truthful shadow of realistic doubt over the suitability of the current party strategy, what could possibly take its place? How can we best utilise the Green Party’s assets to make the biggest difference? Let us first assess the key weaknesses of the Green Party when compared to its ballot-box competition, before highlighting its unique and significant strengths. A good strategy would be one that seeks to best utilise these strengths. 

What assets is the Green Party lacking (compared to other parties)? 

  • Funding.
    In 2021’s fourth quarter, the Green Party reported a total of £150,373 in funding, compared to £5,055,082 for the Conservatives, £3,875,700 for Labour, and 1,034,137 for the Liberal Democrats.
  • Strong voter compactness (beyond Brighton). 
    Having voters geographically spread out hurts the party in a first-past-the-post system. The Green Party’s best performance at a General Election was in 2015 where they received 1,111,603 votes representing 2.9 per cent of the total votes cast, but still only returned 1 MP. 

What assets does the Green Party have that others dont? 

  • Trusted voice on an identifiable and crucial moral problem (the problem of climate- and eco-breakdown) – this is the closest we have to a super-power, in the sphere of party politics.
  • Generally popular with the public. 
    According to recent YouGov polls (see below), Britons are the most favourable and least unfavourable towards the Greens than any of the other main four parties. In fact, the Greens are the only party of the top four that at least half the population is not unfavourable towards.
Greens YouGov poll
  • Fairly large (spread out) member base. 
    The party has over 54,000 official members, whilst also receiving over 850,000 votes in 2019 despite the vicious electoral system, suggesting again that the number of people sympathetic to Green Party values is much higher than just the membership (or even than the pool of Green voters).  

What if we were to parlay our popularity and trustiness into something unprecedented? What if we were to come clean that it is too late to stay in the semi-safe zone below 1.5 degrees C, that it is too late to avoid centring endeavours now on adaptation, resilience-building, preparedness, and disaster-response, as much as in mitigation and prevention? What if we were to really act as the trusted messengers that we are?

What if, that is, we were to come clean that it is no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’, and that the world has run out of time to get things sorted and safe by electing Greens – that that needed to happen a generation or more ago if there was to be any kind of smooth transition… The ‘five minutes to midnight’ messaging and hopes that the Parliamentary road to environmental protection (and the long march through the institutions) was going to be enough to save us were appropriate 30 years ago, maybe still even 20 years ago, and to that end, the Green 2000 programme certainly made basic sense. But we needed Green governments across the world at least a generation ago. The fact that we have not had them and are virtually certainly not going to get them this decade (certainly not in this country) has to have consequences.

We are not alone in such an outlook. Indeed, the indefatigable Michael Benfield, who co-founded the Green Party of England and Wales way back in the early 1970s, has gone further than us, when, as reported by the BBC, he recently admitted that he believes ‘the battle for the world’s environmental survival is, at this moment, lost.’ 

Benfield’s take should be viewed as the not unreasonable valediction of someone who has earned the right to be listened to. More importantly, it should be seen as the opening of a conversation. 

For: Either there will be a slow death of optimism accompanied by the kind of doomism that Benfield might be heard as proclaiming (though he leaves a crack open in the doorway if one listens carefully to his words), or there will be a more creative response. The latter is what we see this as opening the door to. Now that the taboo on contemplating potential – likely – collapse is ebbing away, now that major figures in the Green Party’s history have begun publicly recognising it as looming (many have expressed such sentiment in private), it must be time for our strategy to reflect such truth: that at present we are headed for eco-driven collapse. That the Green Party is not going to stop this via the parliamentary road if we carry on just asking people to turn to our policies as, together, we run out of road. And that a mighty power will now be needed to facilitate a massive course correction and possibly prevent complete catastrophe.

It’s #fivePASTmidnight. What if we were to actually be courageous enough to admit this…

What happens after the next General Election (which may not be until 2025) if the Green Party still returns 1 MP? We are now of course in a crucial decade for mitigating the worst effects of climate breakdown, and doing it through the ballot box alone will be impossible with one 1 MP (and still impossible with 2, or 5). 

This realisation is the basis of the GreensCAN strategy. Sooner or later, the Party will probably adopt something like this strategy: the strategy of telling the whole truth, and acting accordingly, outlined in the ‘What If’s above. But if it is sooner, then we are buying ourselves collectively more response time. And response-time matters, right? Especially in an emergency…

The emphasis must now be on truthfulness; and on action. It is not good enough to make plans for 2050, or 2030; we must make changes in our communities now. This is how we show that we mean it; this is how we generate resonance. We must lead the way in tackling man-made climate change, not just by pressurising the Government (although that is most certainly going to be part of it) but also by building community resilience, whether through the restoration of wetlands, and/or perhaps through revised agri/permacultural techniques, and/or perhaps through community orchards, and so on. Not only will this have a positive effect on mitigating climate change, but it will also build local resilience and make climate breakdown more of a focal point for communities. Moreover, once we are honest about the extent of climate breakdown and face up to the fact that some effects are simply unavoidable now, then there is no alternative but to get serious about adaptation. Not adaptation, as it is sometimes expressed, as a merely defensive effort, as a way of keeping out environmental risks such as through the building of sea walls. This must be transformative adaptation at all levels that works with nature, and accepts the most painful of truths; climate breakdown is not something we will ‘solve.’ Climate breakdown is a new permanent condition in which we are living, but we can still take action to determine how bad the situation will be, and how prepared we are for the consequences. 

And yes, sometimes the action that we take should be non-violent direct action, in accordance with our Philosophical basis. Not to place an important emphasis on this, where appropriate, is to fail to resonate most profoundly with our times.

As our esteemed leader at a time of grave crisis, Winston Churchill, once said, ‘It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required’. What is required now is that we examine ourselves carefully, and ask ourselves honestly what we are content to be. Is it enough for us to be a small Party snapping forever at the heels of bigger Parties, and plaintively asking the world to turn to us, as the world goes down the toilet? Or we do dare to do something truly different? Do we dare to tell the full truth, and act like we mean it?

And here’s the beautiful possibility that will be created if we do: if we dare to tell the truth, including the (bitter) truth that we ourselves are not about to come to the rescue through the ballot box, then, paradoxically, we open up the one conceivable route by which politics in this country could be turned on its head – and we could be the beneficiaries. 

For truth, authenticity, emotionally congruent disclosure, IS a mighty power. When people hear us being honest enough to admit defeat, and honest enough fully to share our fears and our assessment, then, paradoxically, they might finally be impressed enough — at actually encountering that most vanishingly non-existent of beasts, an honest politician — to turn to us in numbers, and grant us our biggest victories yet, after all…