Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Democracy never sleeps. Council by-elections take place almost every week. Few of us pay much attention to them. But perhaps we should. A pattern is emerging — and if I were running CCHQ I’d be worried about it.
Since the big set of local elections in May there have been a hundred or so by-elections. Drawing upon the data provided by Britain Elects, I’ve been totting up the losses and gains over this period. Needless to say, any errors are mine not theirs.
On the face of it, Conservative candidates aren’t doing too badly. Losses over the last few months have been pretty much offset by gains.
However, some opposition parties are winning more Tory seats than others. In England, Labour is bottom of the pile — having made a net loss. The Liberal Democrats are doing better, having made net gains since May. But it’s the Green Party that’s done best.
Since July, they’ve taken six blue seats and lost none in return. Out of a hundred contests, that’s not insignificant. What’s more, the places where they’re winning are all of a type. Just take a look at the names. Even you’ve never been to any of these places you can guess what they’re like:
Ardingly and Balcombe on Mid Sussex District Council; Aldeburgh and Leiston on East Suffolk Council; Downs North on Ashford Borough Council in Kent; Horndean Downs on East Hampshire District Council; and Brundall on Broadland District Council in Norfolk (a two-member ward where the Greens won both seats).
It’s a bucolic assortment. Downs North, for instance, contains Chilham — a village of such chocolate box perfection that it could have been built as a film set (and is often used as one).
We think of the Greens as a leftwing party that competes with Labour for the student vote in urban areas like Brighton and Bristol. But they’re also knocking bricks out of the ‘Blue Wall’ — the Conservative heartland that stretches across the rural South.
How do they do it? How do the Greens get to parts of the electorate that other lefties cannot reach? The answer is by combining their radicalism with elements of conservatism and presenting it within a very middle class package.
For instance, here’s the election leaflet from the victorious Green candidates in Brundall. Two issues are highlighted: “housebuilding is getting out of hand” and “traffic congestion and air quality”. With minor changes this could have easily been a William Hague era Conservative leaflet. Remember “Save Our Countryside”?
Opposition to new development sits somewhat awkwardly with the Greens’ opposition to all but the most basic controls on immigration. As their own policy statement puts it: “richer regions and communities do not have the right to use migration controls to protect their privileges from others in the long term.” Does this include the richer communities where the party has been winning seats lately?
You can’t welcome immigrants without giving them somewhere decent to live — and, to be fair, the Greens are generally in favour of more housing, especially affordable housing. Their problem though is with the specifics. As in Brundall, they’re opposed to building it in “the wrong places.” It’s odd how often this seems to be the case with proposed developments. It must be terribly frustrating for a party that would otherwise definitely want these homes to be built.
No major political party is a stranger to nimbyism. However, there’s reason to think that the Greens are particularly well placed to benefit from it.
For a start, there’s the name. In an age when no one knows what ‘conservative’ means anymore, ‘green’ does what it says on the tin. Furthermore, with little experience of office in local government and none at all in national government, the Greens don’t have a record to be held against them. In most areas of the country they can oppose everything that’s locally unpopular without ever having to make a hard decision.
But perhaps the most powerful weapon in the Green armoury is the party’s aptitude for ‘community organising’. This is a concept most famously developed by the US political theorist and leftwing activist, Saul Alinsky. In his 1971 book Rules for Radicals, he set out how activists can rally working class neighbourhoods and other communities around common interests — and then direct that energy against the establishment.
In Britain, the Labour Party flirted with community organising under both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Starmer doesn’t seem to be so keen, but in any case it’s the Green Party that’s running with the idea. I don’t know if they’re consciously following the Alinsky method, but they’re applying the underlying principles — albeit in a middle class setting.
When the Greens won the county council seat of Tonbridge in the May local elections, there was a flurry of interest from the national media. How could this have happened in a prosperous market town that’s been Tory since the last Ice Age? But this didn’t just happen out of the blue. The local Green Party have worked towards it step-by-step.
Thus two years previously they won their first ward in the town (from the Conservatives), giving them a voice on the district council. And before that, Green activists were heavily involved in local campaigns against new development (which — would you believe it — was in the wrong place). Not all their activities are on contentious matters — for instance one of the councillors helped set up a branch of the WI and another organised a music festival.
It’s not exactly the Storming of the Bastille, but it works. By accumulating social capital through community action, the Greens are building up the activist base and name recognition to become an electoral force. It’s how a party to the left of Labour wins in a place as Tory as Tonbridge.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the seats that the Greens have gained over the summer are in areas well-known for local campaigns against new development. For instance, Balcombe was the site of a crucial anti-fracking campaign. Aldeburgh is next door to the proposed (and vociferously opposed) Sizewell C nuclear power station.
The question now is whether the Greens have the capacity to achieve at scale what they’ve already achieving here-and-there? Do they have the resources or the activists? Most importantly, are there enough local protest movements to provide the energy that can be transmuted into electoral success?
In his conference speech last week, Boris Johnson promised to “build back better”. Quite right too. Yet we must bear in mind just how many votes there are for not building anything at all — votes that can be mobilised against the Conservative Party in it’s own backyard.