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Behind the Green Party's Sudden Popularity in the UK

All of a sudden, there are 44,000 Greens in Britain, but what's behind that massive surge in membership?
January 21, 2015, 7:10pm

Green Party placards on an anti-austerity march. Photo by Adam Barnett

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Britain's Green Party, for so long viewed as a collection of well-meaning but slightly weird lentil-eating tree-huggers, now has 44,000 members—more than UKIP or the Liberal Democrats. Three months ago they had 27,000. Months before that, they had roughly half that figure. The latest opinion polls show them enjoying around 11 percent of the popular vote, level with the Lib Dems, while an online petition demanding their inclusion in the televised leadership debates before the election has received 300,000 signatures.

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The Scottish referendum on independence, which saw a turnout of 85 percent, boosted the party exponentially, with the Scottish Greens seeing membership increase from 1,800 to 8,000 during the campaign. And unlike the Conservatives who are looking nervously into a future where much of their membership literally dies off, 50 percent of party members are under 40.

The increase in support for the party has been dubbed the "Green surge." It means that as people turn away from the political mainstream, the Green Party is now a force worth giving a shit about in British politics. And yet, relatively little is known about them—a consistent Green complaint is that they get acres less coverage than UKIP. So, are the Green's about to change politics in the United Kingdom for good? Are they a just bunch of hippies? What do they stand for and are they going to be able to implement it?

"The hedgehogs are still there, but they are part of an understanding that the fate of the hedgehogs is linked to the banks and the food banks. It's all part of the same thing," Australian-born Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, told me when we went for coffee. As a summary of the current of the current ideology of the party, you would be hard pressed to find a better one.

Recent years have seen the party leadership make a concerted effort to push the party in a more orthodox left-wing direction. An organization that a few years ago was trying to get voters to care about its plan for an NHS for pets is now just as likely to be found calling for the renationalization of the railways, or speaking out against austerity as they are to be railing against animal circuses.

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Under Bennett and former leader and sole MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas—who was arrested at a fracking protest a couple of years back—the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labour on a range of issues. The party has called for a £10 ($15) minimum wage, the introduction of a "Robin Hood" tax on banker's bonuses, and a special NHS tax to fund the service and protect it from private companies. They have also made overtures to the Trade Union movement, with the RMT now backing Caroline Lucas's campaign for re-election in Brighton.

More Greens on a protest. Photo via WikiMedia Commons

For Adam Ramsay, VICE contributor and Green Party supporter, this shift leftwards has been the result of a lengthy internal battle for the party's soul, between two distinct factions: "watermelons" and "mangos."

"Watermelons"—of which Ramsay is one—are green on the outside and red in the middle. In other words, they're environmentalists, but are more likely to be found discussing Marx than tutting at someone for eating non-organic vegetable. "Mangos," on the other hand, are more like Lib Dems, for whom cycle lanes are a particularly big deal—broadly pro-business until businesses dodge fly-tipping regulations. Ramsay reckons the watermelons are crushing the mangoes into pulp, politically speaking.

"People are now just as likely to join the party from the anti-austerity movement as they are from being from the environmental movement," he says. He sees this is a natural progression from the party's roots—something that was always underneath the surface. "We haven't changed what we stand for, we've just changed how we talk about it."

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The party's policies are certainly different from what the traditional "big three" will be offering. Key pledges read like the transcript of Russell Brand chatting to Owen Jones. (Strangely enough, neither of them would vote Green. Brand won't vote and Jones is in the Labour Party.) Under a Green government, the Monarchy would be scrapped, economic growth would no longer be seen as necessary for general well-being and everyone—from the unemployed to Alan Sugar—would be given $107-a-week, "citizens income." The idea is that this would replace other benefits, nobody would be without a safety net and people could all work a little less if they wanted to. It's a move the Telegraph estimates would cost the UK economy around $370 billion a year—ten times the defense budget.

Things would become both much more and much less fun. Anti-rave laws would be scrapped and drug laws would be significantly liberalised, with possession of class As and Bs for personal use decriminalised along with the cultivation of weed. The sex trade would look more like Amsterdam, but drinking would look more like Scandinavia—really fucking expensive, with taxes for booze and fags increased.

Of course, the Greens aren't going to implement this in full or even at all in 2015. They're running in 75 percent of constituencies and are targeting 12 seats, with Bristol West, Norwich South, and Brighton Pavilion—currently help by Lucas—looking the most likely places where they can win. Three MPs is hardly earth-shattering, but a good showing at the general election, combined with the likelihood of strong showing for the SNP and then a hung parliament, could see the Green's play a key role in propping up the next government. But both Bennett and Lucas have ruled out entering a formal coalition with any party.

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"We've seen what's happened to the Lib Dems. They've paid a very heavy price for not being able to keep their identity in the coalition with the Tories," Lucas says.

"What we would look to do is what we have done in the London assembly and in the Scottish Parliament in the past, which is to keep votes on a vote-by-vote, case-by-case basis. We would not under any circumstances support a Tory government, which means there is a possibility of some kind of progressive alliance on the left. But what that looks like is still to be discussed."

Caroline Lucas (right) with anti TTIP campaigners in Brighton. Photo by Global Justice Now

In refusing to jump fully into bed with anyone, Lucas may have an eye not only on the Lib Dems, but also on Green Parties in other parts of Europe. For instance, the Irish Green Party has been wiped out after it supported a centre-right Fianna Fail government that was later blamed for the country's economic collapse, having signed off on an oil refinery project that it formerly opposed. Meanwhile in Germany, peace-and-love pacifist Greens ended up supporting Nato's bombing of Belgrade and committing troops to the war on terror when in government.

Like any smaller party, hovering over the Greens is a fear of selling out their principles for power—in fact the party have already been criticized for that. In Brighton and Hove, where the Green's have run the local council since 2011, the idea of governing by consensus—a party principle—has been tested to its limit.

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Central government cuts have forced the Green-led council into some awkward positions. An attempt to bring the council into line with equal pay legislation in 2013 saw bin collectors facing $6,000 pay cut, which led to a week of strike action. As seagulls flocked to the rubbish that was piling up on the streets, local party activists, led by Caroline Lucas, supported the strikers, leaving the council leadership—their party comrades—being held up as villains by the left-wing of British politics that the party had gravitated towards.

More recently, an attempt to increase council tax by 6 percent was voted down by Green councillors, despite their party coming up with the proposal. Meanwhile, Councillor Ben Duncan, who had previously called for Brighton to introduce cannabis cafes to boost the tourism trade, described members of the armed forces as "hired killers," ensuring he would be forever viewed as a hate figure in the right-wing press.

Some Greens with a campaign bus. Photo via Green Party Facebook

To their enemies, in fighting has made the Greens a bit of a joke. "It's a mess, figuratively and literally," is how Cllr Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour opposition on the council characterizes four years of Green rule. "I go into meetings with the council leader, and he says he can't deliver his group because the party is not whipped. You can't negotiate with them, you can't work with them… If you go out on the doorstep the hostility to the Green's is quite astonishing."

Green Party Council leader Jason Kitcat, a man whose name derives from his West Country heritage rather than the chocolate bar, is on the "mango" end of the party, and unsurprisingly takes a rather different view.

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"It's been fantastic," he says, sounding almost believable.

With light brown hair and a goatee beard, Kitcat is described by Morgan as "a bit of technocrat".

"The people in the local party can take positions, like any local party can. In any party there is debate, people take different views and that is part of the political process," he says. Overall it's a somewhat different political tradition. The party refused to have a leader in 2007, before then having two "principal speakers." It's perhaps a messier approach, but a change from starchy politicians who refuse to say anything until they know what the party line is.

The question for the Greens seems to be as much about whether they can get MPs into Westminster as it is about how they can deal with the responsibilities power brings and keep their electorate, membership and new political allies happy.

Follow Joe Sandler Clarke on Twitter.