A week on from the General Election and the road ahead still unclear, what should Greens make of it all? With the exception of co-leader Caroline Lucas’ deservedly brilliant result in Brighton, it’s fair to say the hard work and passion that went into a particularly tough campaign wasn’t reflected in the results. Naturally there now begins a period of reflection and analysis. I suspect those conversations will be dominated by two questions: ‘progressive alliance — good or bad idea?’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘have the Greens become too left wing?’ This is my small contribution to that debate.
Both questions are important, but must be understood in a broader context. So here I look at that context through the lens of political opportunity structures¹. This is a political science approach I explored in my doctoral research to explain the breakthrough success of a German party; I think it additionally offers an interesting structural and situative perspective on the Greens’ state of affairs both now and going forward. There are four aspects to the framework:
1. Demand: What kind of politics does society demand and is that demand met by a party? In this General Election, there was a strong demand for social justice, for caring politics: ending austerity, decent and dignified social care, safeguarding the National Health and a more balanced, consensual approach to Brexit. Over recent years Labour had disconnected from its socialist principles and core constituency, leaving a political ‘gap’ that needed to be filled. Although Greens have consistently offered strong policies addressing these demands and have grown in popularity, this time the gap was largely closed by Labour’s manifesto.
2. Institutions: The winner-takes-all electoral system is of course stacked against all the smaller parties and is grossly unrepresentative. In my own constituency the Tory MP won by about 350 votes despite being easily outnumbered by the opposition parties. This is a system notoriously difficult for small parties to penetrate. And while the progressive alliance is not ideal² — lack of respect for smaller parties and their policies, and a narrowing of electoral choice — the alternative, at least in marginal seats, is ‘wasted’ votes and ultimately no change at all (societal demand remains unmet).
3. Supply: the political actors. The Greens campaigned tirelessly and positively, whether in support of the party’s own candidates or, in marginal seats, for a progressive alliance. But either way, there was little space for the Greens in this election. Having finally left behind the timid policies of recent years, the Labour Party stood on an unashamedly left-wing manifesto that was in tune with societal demand. Moreover, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign won him valuable support from young voters, many of whom might have otherwise found the Greens appealing.
4. Framing: This is about the language framing debate and issues. This election was framed in terms of change, leadership and social justice. The environment was barely mentioned, prompting the Greens’ ‘where is the environment?’ campaign as election day approached. But what if the Green manifesto had been less left wing? But would the environment have played a more prominent role in how this election was framed? I very much doubt it. Even with the shock and anger at the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, many voters prioritised what they saw as the most urgent and compelling need — a change of political direction that Labour was best placed to deliver.
By illustrating the unfavourable structural and situative conditions of the election, this framework shows there’s more to consider than ‘progressive alliance: good or bad?’, or whether the campaign was too left and insufficiently green. But what happens next? Lots can change, but let’s assume there’s another early General Election. Will the opportunity structures be so different?
there’s more to consider than ‘progressive alliance: good or bad’
Demand: With a hung parliament, a PM desperately clinging onto power by any means, and an emboldened Labour opposition, demand for change, so tantalisingly close last time, is likely to be even greater.
Institutions: Obviously the same electoral system, but with many more marginal seats. Therefore the outlook is even less favourable for Greens and there will be intense pressure to step aside. In those very marginal seats understandably so — provided the conditions are right (see below).
Supply: Labour will most likely unite behind Corbyn and prioritise winning back former Labour and UKIP voters (possibly Green voters too), and further strengthening support among young people. That leaves precious little room for Greens.
Framing: Debate will probably be framed in terms of change, leadership and social justice.
A snap election will be a tough prospect for Greens. With more marginal seats (and the not inconsiderable expense of fielding candidate) it’s important to prioritise goals that stand a chance of being achieved in the current context. Votes on their own have little intrinsic value; what matters is their instrumental value — what you can do with them. Given the current political and institutional context, which clearly points to another contest between the Conservatives and Labour, I suggest Greens concentrate on policy-seeking strategies — ways of getting key policies implemented.
with a strong left-wing Green manifesto Greens can pressure Labour on environmental and socio-economical issues
A good place to start is the framing opportunity. Brexit negotiations, Trump, the ‘MayDUP’ alliance and Michael Gove as Environment Secretary give Greens the opportunity to drive — ‘frame’ — public debate. Meanwhile, Labour don’t have all the answers (Trident, for example; and has there ever been a better time to press for electoral reform?). Moreover, the impact of climate change and environmental degradation is inseparable from social justice, and with a strong left-wing Green manifesto Greens can pressure Labour on environmental and socio-economical issues.
This is why I think Greens should neither dismiss out of hand the idea of progressive alliances, nor retreat from a left-wing manifesto. Neither was responsible for the election disappointment; the conditions just weren’t right. Unfortunately, the environment can’t wait for the political and institutional context to favour Greens as a party. So for now, it’s necessary to carefully assess national and local opportunity structures and pursue policy-maximising choices — including alliances where desirable and practical. What does that mean? Well, it means framing discourse: pushing the Green agenda into the spotlight nationally and locally. Therefore, it also means maintaining an independent, distinct and coherent voice — as Greens. Not as (eco-)Labour cheerleaders, even (in fact particularly) when alliances are forged.
In the short term these choices might not deliver substantially increased voter share or another MP; however, they could shape a political climate in which Green voices are heard — and see key Green policies adopted into legislation.
¹ journal article: Nachtwey, Oliver and Spier, Tim: Political Opportunity Structures and the Success of the German Left Party in 2005. Published in Debatte, Vol. 15, No. 2 (August), 2007.
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