The Greens are in danger of blowing an historic opportunity, they need to find a way to deliver a more credible economic vision
Most political crazes follow a familiar firework-like trajectory. They soar skywards, sparking headlines and excitement, before peaking as the unforgiving gravity of our first-past-the-post electoral system takes effect. However, with fewer than 100 days to go to the election questions are now seriously being asked as to whether the Green Party can break this historical template. Can the Green surge defy political gravity? How can it increase its chances of doing so? And what happens for the wider green economy if it does?
Last week may have seen the first wave of negative headlines since the Green surge started, as Natalie Bennett received an old-fashioned shellacking at the hands of Andrew Neil and several of the party's more radical policies struggled to survive first contact with a sceptical press. But it ended with the party announcing that it has switched its spring conference in Liverpool to a larger venue to accommodate the now 50,000-plus membership base. That news came as the party launched a crowd-funding push to raise the £72,500 required to put forward a candidate in every constituency in the country this May. Given the level of recent support it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this historic first for the party will be achieved.
However, last week's contradictory fortunes highlighted how the election campaign is going to be a lot tougher from here on in. The broadcasters may have gifted the insurgent environmentalist party a platform and a cause they could have only dreamt about six months ago, but in establishing themselves as a genuine electoral threat in a host of crucial swing seats the Greens have invited the kind of scrutiny and political hatchet jobs they have previously been avoided. Quite frankly, if the Green leadership isn't spending every waking moment thinking long and hard about how to address this scrutiny and build on its recent surge it deserves to see momentum fizzle out.
There are two important questions the party needs to address: how can it deliver a strong electoral showing and how can it use its influence to advance the issues it cares about?
This begs the question as to what constitutes a strong electoral showing. There is an understandable tendency within the party to try and manage expectations. To note that beating the Lib Dems vote share would be a great achievement, to acknowledge that first past the post means retaining Caroline Lucas' seat and being competitive in a couple more seats represents solid progress. This is a mistake. Given the party has moved from being a rounding error to having a tenth of the vote in the space of a few months the target should be to build on, not consolidate, recent momentum.
If I was a Green Party member, and I'm not, I'd want to see a strategy for securing 15 per cent of the vote and a credible set of tactics for winning at least three seats and being competitive in plenty more.
It is this ambitious target which brings us back to last week's series of car crash interviews and headlines. It is no secret that as soon as an insurgent left-wing party moves from being a marginal concern to a genuine threat to the political status quo it is going to face tough questions, and rightly so. But did the Greens have to make it quite so easy for their right-wing critics?
A citizen's income is not quite as daft an idea as it sounds, even if there are legitimate concerns about how it is funded and whether it actually ends up being regressive. But if you are going to have such a radical policy you need to do a much better job at explaining and defending it than the Greens did last week. There are ways to position yourself as a party that opposes the concept of "thought police" without making it easy for opponents to characterise you as an apologist for ISIS. Equally, urgent reform of drugs and prostitution laws are eminently justifiable liberal policies, but savvy politicians know there are ways to make this case without scaring off centrist voters - there are reasons why governments love a royal commission or public inquiry.
Finally, and in many ways most importantly, attacking corporate tax evasion is entirely fair enough, doing so using language that appears to attack all businesses is self-defeating, particularly when it is a combination of private and public sector that has developed the technologies we so urgently need to tackle climate change. A chunk of the Greens' appeal is that they challenge corporatism at a time when trust in many businesses is through the floor, but there is a difference between being anti-business as usual and anti-business full stop. It is a distinction the Greens often struggle to make.
The party is letting itself be painted as anti-growth, advocating steady state economics without credibly explaining how clean energy, circular economy models, and new economic metrics can make aspiration, growth, and continued improvement in quality of life compatible with environmental sustainability. Many within the Green Party know this to be the case, they need to get much better at explaining it when under hostile questioning.
A fascinating recent study demonstrated in a blind survey more people favour the Greens' policies than any other party. I suspect the reason this support does not translate into more electoral success is a combination of the first past the post straight jacket and the manner in which policies that would have once been regarded as firmly of the centre-left are undermined by hair shirt rhetoric and some of the party's wilder policy touchstones.
It is possible for the party to remain true to its left-wing and environmentalist tendencies by foregrounding radical policies on rail nationalisation, much more ambitious climate action, and an end to austerity measures without muddying the picture with universal incomes and peace and love inspired defence reforms. It will be fascinating to see if the party's eventual manifesto makes a more centrist pitch for electability or whether it is happy to let gravity take effect on its recent bounce. It will be equally fascinating to see if the leadership is willing to fast-track some of the new talent that has joined the party and strengthen its roster of spokespeople as quickly as possible. It is encouraging that there have already been indications from some of the party's senior figures that the manifesto could make some of its more radical ideas aspirations rather than firm policy commitments.
Some veteran Green campaigners may hate it, as the admirable Baroness Jones acknowledged in an interview last month, but the significance of a more measured, realistic and, dare I say it, pro-business approach is that it will not only aid the party's electoral chances, it will also increase its influence over those main parties that will inevitably form the next government.
The fascination for business leaders with the Greens is not so much the number of seats they win (first past the post means even in its wildest dreams the Greens will remain a minor player post-May), but the extent to which the party can emulate UKIP in shaping the political rhetoric and policies of the main parties.
UKIP's Nigel Farage has got increasingly adept at deflecting questions about the party's wilder policies and spinning his response back to his core issues of Europe and immigration. The Greens have no desire to aspire to Farage's reductive view of the world, but they could usefully work out how to condense their message so that it is more centred on ending austerity and protecting the environment. Currently, by focusing on some of its more radical policies and speaking less about its core environmental concerns, the Greens are at risk of diluting the influence they can bring to bear on Labour, the Lib Dems, and even the Conservatives.
After the last set of US Presidential debates failed to mention climate change, CNN's Candy Crowley explained the omission: "Climate change, I had that question. All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing."
One of the big advantages of having the Greens in the TV debates is that it should ensure this short-sighted failure to tackle one of the biggest issues of the age is avoided. The Greens presence should mean all of the party leaders are forced to talk about climate change, not to mention fuel poverty, fracking, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and the inherent inefficiency of our economic models. But this will only happen if the Greens seize the opportunity to speak about these issues, relate them to people's lives, and vigorously attack the flaws in the environmental record of the main parties. Unfortunately, I'm yet to be convinced this will happen.
Bennett's primary goal should be highlighting Cameron's inconsistency on fracking and climate change or pushing Miliband even harder to promise more funding to tackle fuel poverty and drive clean tech investment. If she can achieve these eminently attainable goals she would have done the entire environmental movement a huge favour, regardless of what then happens in May. But Bennett won't be able to credibly challenge the mainstream parties if the Greens have to spend the debates and the wider campaign defending policies that they should have recognised long ago make more sense in a academic seminar room than on the doorstep.
The Greens' recent momentum could yet prove hugely significant for British politics and the UK's green economy, but only if the party seizes the opportunity it has been presented with, ditches some of its unworkable policies, and modifies its message to broaden its appeal. The opportunity is there to put rocket boosters under the Green surge, but is the party bold enough to seize it?
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