Why didn’t they chant for the Greens?

The Green Party is a great illustration of how much UK politics is shaped by First Past the Post. Corbyn supporters tell us that the country has been crying out for an anti-establishment, left-wing alternative for years. But the Greens have been pushing that message for decades. Yes they disagree on some policy areas, especially on Brexit, but Corbyn’s political ideology is pretty much identical to theirs.

The Greens got only 4% of the national vote in 2015 though. And the latest Britain Elects poll which has Labour at 45% has the Green Party at just 1%. Why will people support Jeremy Corbyn when they didn’t support the Greens?

The truth is that the Green Party, and other small parties like ourselves, face obstacles which Labour and the Tories don’t. They are trapped as an outsider in a two-party system, where their votes count for less, their message is muted, and they are seen as a wasted vote. We’ve come to accept this sort of thing as normal – but it makes a sham of our democracy. How can we justify a system which is so structurally biased, that two parties can give almost the exact same pitch to the people, and one is seen as a revolution, while the other is seen as an irrelevance? 

There are many ways which our political system favours the two main parties – but the first and foremost is First Past the Post. We need Proportional Representation to make all votes count the same, and allow the ideas of smaller parties to be treated more equally. Many progressives support Proportional Representation – even Labour MPs who it would directly disadvantage. But many of them are apathetic, and don’t see electoral reform as a priority. Yes the voting system is unfair, they say, but what about schools and hospitals? What about Brexit and Trump and inequality and the environment. Besides – normal people don’t care about voting reform. Why should we make it a priority when the electorate don’t care? 

This sort of apathy is the antithesis of change. First Past the Post is shaping our democracy, and with it – the legitimacy of every decision which each Government makes. Challenging it should be a priority – always – regardless of what else is going on in politics. Public opinion will not shift if the issue is never discussed. This system is hamstringing our party and mocking our democracy. If it keeps languishing at the bottom end of our activists’ list of priorities, then it will never change.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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  • Zack Polanski 6th Dec '17 - 1:38pm

    Well said.

    It always seems bizarre to me that for the smaller parties this isn’t absolutely a) the rallying call that sits at top of their priority list and b) something that transcends party lines to unite everyone.

    Nothing really progressive can truly happen in politics and be sustainable until we fix the very mechanism of how we elect people in the first place.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Dec '17 - 2:16pm

    Very good points well made.

    Our system is a ludicrous and awful travesty.

    The European countries with pr make sense and Liberal and Green votes count.

    The US system makes sense , with two big and broad groups of centre left and centre right, very loose, based on voter register not party member status, so a democratic socialist can become a Democrat, a maverick populist can become a president !

    We , all, would , with Labour, be able to run on the Democrat ticket, supporting favoured candidates.

    This one we have does nothing for us, made worse by Labour being so broad to the left but not centre or centre left. prefering to take in ex communists today, than us !

  • Peter Martin 6th Dec '17 - 2:41pm

    I always thought the Greens were closer to Lib Dems than the Labour party. What are the real points of disagreement? They’d only be minor.

    I’m sure we’d all agree with nearly all of what they say. In my case the question of the EU excluded!

    But I tend to view them as “neoliberals on bikes”. They don’t have a good understanding of the way the economy works, and without that, sentiments such as “A Green economy that works for everyone” aren’t going to ever be realisable.

    Having said that, I’m not sure any party has it right!

  • Peter Watson 6th Dec '17 - 2:45pm

    “We need Proportional Representation to make all votes count the same, and allow the ideas of smaller parties to be treated more equally.”
    I totally agree (and with Zack and Lorenzo).
    Which is why it is so very disappointing that the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg squandered the opportunity to achieve anything like this in the foreseeable future by settling for an unwanted referendum on an unwanted voting scheme. Worse still, by trashing the reputation of the party which would benefit most from proportional representation (i.e. the Lib Dems) he made such electoral reform look unattractive.

  • paul barker 6th Dec '17 - 3:57pm

    All true enough but I do feel that the Greens have other problems which are relevant to us. When they opted for The “Opening on The Left” strategy in the mid 90s I argued that the effect would be to damage their Core Vote & Leave them up a creek if Labour shifted tack again. It seems to me that is whats happened. They have twice as many members as UKIP & get half the vote.
    Note that Im talking about GPEW, the separate Scottish Green went to the Right & became a Nationalist Party, trying to outflank The SNP in the way that GPEW did with Labour. Both strategies have failed.

  • @ Paul Barker “the separate Scottish Greens went to the Right & became a Nationalist Party,”

    Really ? I don’t know where you got that gem from…the Scottish Greens went to the right…….unless you regard supporting Scottish independence as necessarily right wing.

    On social and tax issues the Scottish Greens are more radical and traditionally Liberal than the Scottish Lib Dems – with more success in Holyrood elections and more MSPs than the Lib Dems. They also don’t tie themselves into intellectual knots by supporting a second EU referendum but opposing a second Indy Ref.

    Incidentally, one of their prominent members is a former Lib Dem Councillor who got ejected from the then ruling party in Aberdeenshire for opposing the Trump Golf Course.

    Whisper it softly , but many Scottish Lib Dems, to my knowledge, are quietly not entirely opposed to an Independent Scotland if it means remaining in the EU and getting rid of Trident.

  • Chris Bertram 6th Dec '17 - 7:08pm

    @David Raw : recent election results suggest that the Scottish Greens are now paying the price for being the SNPs poodles. Plus they’re actually quite split internally on the independence question. Patrick Harvie may be in lockstep with the SNP, but several of their parliamentary candidates seemed to prefer to distance themselves from that position, or at least downplay the policy very heavily. They’re in decline just like the Green Party of E&W, and I’d be in no hurry to help revive them.

  • Chris Bertram 6th Dec '17 - 7:23pm

    @John Littler : You’re absolutely right, the Tories are against electoral reform, didn’t want a referendum in the first place and when forced to concede one, allowed only a minimal change option onto the ballot paper. Nick Clegg might have tried to play hardball, perhaps he actually did, but didn’t have the strongest hand to play. AV in one member constituencies isn’t a terribly attractive option. But it was a fairy step in the right direction, and worth supporting for that reason. It’s a shame then that the Yes campaign was so diabolically awful.

    All the same, the way Labour behaved when an option that they had had in their own manifesto was on the ticket was despicable. Never mind that Ed Miliband wouldn’t share a Yes campaign stage with any non-Labour figures, the sheer lack of discipline in the party was shocking, with many MPs campaigning No, either because they thought that playing “kick Clegg” trumped addressing the question on the card, or because they saw a threat to their own seats.

    I’ve always said that you can’t trust Labour where electoral reform is concerned. They talk the talk, but won’t walk the walk when the chips are down. At least you know where the Tories stand. Labour speaks with forked tongue.

  • @ Tim 13 Like you I’m a critic of the neoliberal tendency…………………….

    But I must say I was greatly encouraged tonight by a splendid contribution in the Commons from Wera Hobhouse pursuing the need for social housing. It was on the BBC Parliament Channel at about 8.30 pm.

    She got good support from Jamie Stone too. Can it be that finally the great big world is turning ? Well done, Wera and Jamie. Concise, well informed and highly effective. Keep at it and banish those neoliberal blues.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Dec '17 - 11:08pm

    Fine comments through this, very important, the major parties play games that suit them, they did even with Roy Jenkins commission, yes we are keen , no we are not , then was their attitude. Clegg was in a weak position , on that issue , the Ed Milliband line abysmal like his leadership was a good bit.

    Not completely true, I am well to the left of the right of this party , well to the right of the left of it , sometimes, no position too far away from the other though as we are not as absurdly broad as Labour, which has people to the right of me and these days ,to the left of Mao !

    Tim, David,but the so called neo liberals are not Liberals today but conservatives, more importantly, Conservatives.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Dec '17 - 11:11pm

    And . David, it is a sorry party representation, that needs you to get excited about support for the policy that saw Mcmillan build more council houses than any Labour government.

    Since when were even our non, lefties against social housing?

  • Janet Williams 6th Dec ’17 – 6:50pm…………. Lib Dems & Greens were anti-war – Labour isn’t……….

    Nonsense…In the Iraq vote far more Labour MPs voted against the motion than any other party.
    You also ignore the fact that LibDems supported the Libyan war and Syrian bombing where-as Labour voted no!

  • Lorenzo Cherin “Since when were even our non, lefties against social housing?”

    Not sure what you mean – it’s a bit obscure. Certainly in the Coalition years there was a decline increase in social housing – even in Scotland where for a while this was part of my responsibility in local government. Austerity – which this party supported – killed off many things including social housing, and the public know this.

    In passing, Radio 4 featured Canterbury this morning – where Liberals Democrats dropped from a second place 32% (16,000 votes) in 2010 to 8% (4,000 votes) in 2017 – with Labour gaining the seat.

    That’s how so many people see it even if some Lib Dems still stick their heads in the sand. The Clegg/Alexander folly paved the way for Corbyn to be given a chance. I hope Ms Hobhouse’s initiative may be the first straw in a changing wind.

  • typo edit out increase in line 4. Should be decline.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Dec '17 - 10:30am

    If we want to see a change in the voting system we need to start from the bottom up .We should be campaigning for PR in Unitary and County elections first to increase voter turn out in local government elections where voter participation is notoriously low and to break up the one party states so many local councils have become under FPTP .The voter pool is large enough in those bodies to elect Councillors by STV whilst retaining a genuine local connection .

  • Michael Meadowcroft 7th Dec '17 - 12:50pm

    Ben Andrews’ article is a useful basis for debate but it is yet another issue where an awareness of Liberal history is valuable. The pre-merger Liberal party had a powerful ecological message. It was summed up in a 1974 Report:

    “Once the basic needs of food and shelter are met the individual’s greatest satisfactions are to be found in love, trust and friendship, in beauty, art and music, and in learning, none of which are served by the mythology of growth for its own sake.”

    In the light of this, and other statements, it is no wonder that the Ecology party – the forerunner of the Green party – debated at its conference in 1979 whether or not it should disband and recommend its members to join the Liberal party. Had the Liberal Democrats maintained a more powerful green image and identity it is arguable that the Green party would not have continued.

    Even more important in the context of today’s politics was (later a Liberal Democrat Peer) Ralf Dahrendorf’s perception that “greenism” was not a political philosophy but an analysis and was so crucial that the ecological imperative should invest all political philosophies and policies; he therefore argued that a “green movement” was essential but that a Green party was a contradiction in terms. He went further to point out that the more successful a Green party the more damaging it was to the adoption of the ecological imperative, in that by drawing members from the other parties it weakened the green influence. Only by having a powerful green presence in all the parties was there a chance of escaping disaster.

    Liberalism, from T B Macaulay, through John Stuart Mill, the Liberal Yellow Book of 1928, to the resolution agreed at the 1979 Liberal Assembly saying that:

    “…. sustained economic growth as conventionally measured is neither achievable nor desirable.”

    was always in the vanguard. We can capture the Green party’s vote but only by being true to our philosophy and by being forthright in our speeches and literature.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Dec '17 - 1:33pm

    David Raw

    I mean that I do not believe the non left wing or shall we say , more centre to centre right of the party spectrum, are neo liberals , nor are they against social housing investment.

    The austerity you bring up all the time, was very mild compared to what it could be, it just focused on all the wrong areas. In that same era my local , Labour council, spent one million pounds to make a pavement area flat, it is now dangerous because they did not pedestrianise the locality, so had to invest in, now , often, dented, bollards ! Spending and saving go hand in hand. It is as you know , that we should make those who can, pay more, those who can’t, not. I am in despair that we are obsessed with being so complacent as a party that we are either so for or against things, the truth is more complex.

    Michael Meadowcroft

    Great to see you here. I need to be in touch with you for your potential interest in an arts initiative I am developing within Liberalism, an article I wrote on here mentioned it, more to come soon, but want to approach those who might be keen to engage.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Dec '17 - 1:37pm

    p. David, of course I refer to the spectrum of our party, but add that the Tories from Sir John Major, through Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry, are as I described as well, not the neo liberal ideologues!

  • Robin Grayson MSc 7th Dec '17 - 3:07pm

    Ben – great post.
    These days all parties have a tinge of green. As Lib Dems we need to step up our community activism on new national green issues relevant to thousands of local communities. Fracking is a good case in point. Only the minority conservative government support fracking and trample upon local planning authorities powers to make it happen. Our Manifesto states we ‘oppose fracking’ . Great, but what are we doing to oppose fracking at local level? Time we got cracking at fracking by constructively opposing it in those wards, constituencies and councils where fracking is now of major concern to voters and conservative MPs look vulnerable and wonky as a result. To step up, look at the UK Onshore Geophysical Library – UKOGL on Google – as it unlocks the where and when of this major green issue. Time to saddle up and campaign locally on this major green issue! – Robin

  • I’m thrilled to see an article supporting the need for us to prioritise the drive for electoral reform. Our useless FPTP system actively encourages the dysfunctional behaviour of so many of our MPs who have next to no accountability to the public.

    The status of the Greens is interesting, but I’d argue they are a broad church, and that some supporters are perfectly sensible and are interesting in innovative policies, whereas others have an unrealistic understanding of what is possible, and who will almost always vote for a manifesto by a party that has no chance of power, but with a great many more somewhere in between. IMO, there is overlap between ourselves and the more economically literate members, but there are some members who we’ll never convince. In my experience, the Scottish Greens have moved in a very different direction from the Greens across the rest of the UK. Harvie lacks the intelligence and political ability of someone like Caroline Lucas. The decision to back nationalism was a calculated risk, which paid off in the short-term, picking up support from nationalists who wanted something a bit different, and of course the omni-present anti-establishment voters, but in doing so, they neglected their environmental tradition, and now if they do disagree with the SNP, they get a lot of abuse from nationalists who think they are betraying the ultimate cause. An independent Scotland would have been much poorer than we are now, and very heavily dependent on North Sea oil, and it’s just not good enough to say “but we’ll ditch Trident” as justification that nationalism would benefit the people or the environment.

  • “The status of the Greens is interesting, but I’d argue they are a broad church, and that some supporters are perfectly sensible”.

    In fairness, and so are some Liberal Democrats.

  • Denis Mollison 8th Dec '17 - 8:52am

    Returning to the original topic, it’s not just FPTP that distorts relations between Liberal Democrats and Greens, as we see with the two different proportional systems in Scotland. Under the Additional Member System of the Scottish Parliament, they are pitted in sharp competition, with both parties struggling to get the threshold of 5% or so required to win regional seats; an environmentally concerned voter has to choose one or the other, aware that if both get 4% neither will win a seat. Under the Single Transferable Vote, as used for our council elections, the possibility of transfers eliminates this dilemma, encouraging more cooperative politics.

    This is one of a range of reasons why thoughtful electoral reformers prefer STV to AMS; reviews in both Scotland (Arbuthnott 2005) and Wales (Richard 2004) recognised that STV might be better than AMS for the Parliament/Assembly, so we may yet see this improvement, small though it is compared with getting something proportional instead of FPTP!

  • Be careful what you wish for.

    PR would clearly yield fairer representation in Parliament. For the Lib Dems the 20% or so the party polled in GEs over many years would translate into well over 100 seats. What’s not to like?

    However, for me the compelling advantage is not a calculation of electoral advantage but that, by lowering the barriers to entry for a small party, PR makes challenge easier. And when it is the big parties are constrained to be less awful.

    But therein lies a sting. It’s precisely because the big parties are so awful that there has always been a substantial block of ‘none-of-the-above’ voters who could be persuaded to go Lib Dem. Arguably, the core Lib Dem vote has only ever been around 10% or so.

    And that creates a problem. If some form of PR were introduced, how would that big block of ‘none-of-the-above’ voters react? Would they continue to opt for the Lib Dems or would they settle on some other party? (Note: I don’t mean to imply these voters might switch as a block – a general shuffling is more likely.)

    That scenario has actually played out twice in recent years – in European elections and in devolved assemblies. In each case we have lost out to others – UKIP and the SNP.

    The conclusion is surely that over many years we have put far too much emphasis on tactical manoeuvres, for example relying on a second place last time to put the squeeze on rivals – a tactic that only works in a non-PR world. We have fallen down on creating a clear vision supported by compelling arguments.

    And, as UKIP has shown, with a clear programme consistently pursued it’s perfectly possibly to have a huge impact on national politics even with negligible parliamentary representation.

  • Denis Mollison 8th Dec '17 - 10:50pm

    You describe well the kind of tactical trap we’ve been condemned to under FPTP. The Tories and Labour are equally stuck in their own FPTP traps – currently pro-Brexit ones.

    PR would indeed create serious problems for all the main parties – problems that every democrat should welcome.

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