On the face of it losing Caroline Lucas as an MP after the next election is a hammer blow for the Greens. Having such a prominent and popular person speaking out so clearly in parliament has been a huge advantage for the party. It is never easy to replace people who are talented, hardworking, charismatic and widely viewed as completely honest and sincere.
Yet it could turn out to be the best thing for both her and for the party. Being out there on your own leading from the front can be exhausting and whatever title she held in the party there has never been much doubt about who was our key figurehead. If Caroline gets a chance to have a more balanced life, then she has more than earned the change and there will be no shortages of opportunities for her to use her talents.
For the party it may also prove to be the right moment. She is leaving just when it is ready to move up a gear and be a real force in more places.
Local electoral success for the Greens
When Caroline was elected 13 years ago the Greens had under 100 local councillors. Seven years later in 2017 when I won a council seat from the Conservatives the Party in 2017 the party had only just crept above that 100 seat figure. By May 2019 we were doing a lot better as we doubled the number of council seats we held nationally and moved up to having 362 councillors.
Last month the move forward was even more impressive as we won 481 seats in a single night increasing the number by 241. Because of continuing councillors like myself, this now places us on 766 councillors in England and Wales. In places as diverse as Suffolk, Lancaster, Sheffield, the Forest of Dean, Bristol and East Hertfordshire the party is a serious force.
It is now no longer just a fringe party that can only win votes from one type of voter. It is proving very good at winning votes from Conservatives too. In East Hertfordshire it had only one seat on the district council before May of this year. It won an extra 18 seats in one night whilst the Conservatives lost 27 and the Greens are now the biggest single party. That is a simply staggering outcome.
Targeting disillusioned voters
It was once a great rarity for the Greens to win a seat off the Conservatives. Even our own national election co-ordinator told me when I stood that it was a waste of resources to target such hopeless areas. I had to rely on my own army of supporters and a very low budget. Now it is commonplace for Greens to win in country areas and around half of our councillors are representing places that previously elected a Conservative.
As we approach a general election at which a lot of Conservative voters are looking for an alternative that creates some interesting possibilities. There has been much talk in the political classes about who will win in former red wall areas. The chattering classes might be wise to focus rather more on who will win in currently blue wall areas.
There are a lot of parts of the country that were never over enthusiastic about Brexit and now feel seriously let down by one major political party that is waiting for a golden age that never comes and another that seems to think the only thing we can do is cope with the fall out as best we can.
It is unlikely that Labour will soak up many of those disillusioned votes if it continues to offer little more than the hope that it might be possible to negotiate some form of slightly better access to the EU market sooner or later. The Liberal Democrats could do very well in areas that aren’t buying this, and it is highly likely that the Greens will also return trusted local representatives as MPs in results that surprise the pollsters.
The unpredictability of polling predictions
Opinion polls provide us with a snapshot of what perhaps 2,000 people say they intend to do at a general election. They publish predictions of what will happen across the whole country with little analysis of how things have changed region by region. They can know almost nothing about the changes that are taking place in particular localities and even less about the impact of particular local personalities.
That is why they failed to predict Caroline’s win way back in 2010. They hadn’t looked carefully enough at what was happening in Brighton and how popular she was. It is highly likely that the Greens will pull off some similarly significant surprises at the next general election, just as it is likely that the Liberal Democrats will do very well in places where the Conservatives have lost local trust but few people want to switch to Labour.
So, there is a high likelihood that the Green Party will be able to progress from being a single MP party and even if it fails to secure a single MP it is now making a real difference in council chambers up and down the country. That broad spread of representation is more useful than all the eggs being in one basket – even if the person carrying the weight of that basket is as talented as Caroline Lucas.
A progressive alternative
Oh, and there is one other rather important point to make about the progress of the Greens. If Labour gets in and then proves bland, ineffective and misguided, then the country will be in bad need of a vibrant progressive alternative.
There is little doubt that Caroline Lucas will continue to provide some of that alternative vision wherever she is working. Those of us who belong to the Green Party are aiming to ensure that a workable alternative is offered by a broad spectrum of people coming from an increasingly confident and capable party that offers its own vision of the future.