Inside the Green Party’s general election fight

Inside the Green Party’s general election fight
Just days before the election was called, Digital Editor Ben Smoke sat down with Green Party co-Leader Carla Denyer to talk about her campaign in Bristol Central, holding together the Greens’ electoral coalition, deals with Corbyn and more.

On Sunday May 19, I sat in the sunshine in Bishopston, Bristol watching the final match of the season as I waited for the co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Carla Denyer.

A councillor from May 2015 to the most recent local elections, Denyer assumed co-leadership of the party in 2021. She is also the Green Party candidate for the newly created Bristol Central seat. The weekend we met marked the first major mobilisation for Denyer’s campaign since the council elections that saw the Greens come within a whisker of a majority on Bristol Council.

“Winning a majority [of the 70 seats on the council] was an absolute stretch target,” Denyer tells me as we set up shop in a cafe. It’s also an event space fittingly filled with plants and quintessentially Bristolian ephemera, which will serve as the base for activists who had been out leafleting all weekend.

“We did do, I would say, a bit better than most of us expected,” Denyer continued, a wry smile drawing itself over her mouth. “We've now got 34 out of 70 seats, which means we have the leader and deputy leader of the council.” The Greens have had, by Denyer’s own reckoning, a great set of four local elections in the city, steadily increasing their number of seats across Bristol’s wards.

Across the country the Greens policy platform of nationalisation of public services, radical reform of housing policy with the introduction of rent controls, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and radical action on climate have proved popular, especially with younger and progressive voters. There approach to working cross party, particularly in the new ‘committee’ system of governance Bristol has adopted also attracts many voters.

“We think no one party has a monopoly on good ideas and working cross party is something woven into the Green Party’s DNA,” Denyer says, as we talk through the new system which will see both the Greens and Lib Dems take chairships of different committees overseeing different parts of the council’s work.Labour declined to take up the offer of chairships. “We're looking forward to seeing hopefully some better quality, more lasting decisions coming out of this new system,” Denyer tells me.

For all the talk of working together, drawing ideas from other places and a different kind of politics, Denyer does not hold back when talking about the Labour party. I put to her that taking over the administration of a local authority, after 14 years of cuts, is a poisoned chalice and perhaps the Labour party not taking any chairships could be construed as a political move. After all, in a straight fight between Labour and Greens, as is the case in Bristol Central, it benefits the former if the latter is in charge of a collapsing administration.

She artfully sidesteps the more conspiratorial elements of my question but agrees, “you get the cards you’re dealt but, I think anyone going into administration in local government at the moment is receiving a poison chalice.”

“What is scary,” Denyer adds, shifting a little in her seat, “is that the incoming Labour government have been quite clear they’re planning to keep the poison in that chalice, to stretch the metaphor perhaps a bit more than it goes.”

She points to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves' repeated statements indicating she will not “bail out” councils if her party forms the government following the next general election. “To paraphrase,” Denyer states, “Labour would rearrange the money a bit, but there wouldn't be any new money, which is incredible, given that any Labour politician working in local government knows that the cuts they've experienced over the last 14 years are going far, far beyond what can be achieved through making efficiencies.

“They're cutting into muscle and really, really affecting councils' abilities to deliver basic services,” she concludes.

She’s keen to talk about the clear water between the parties when it comes to policy. The Greens, she says, are not afraid of talking about taxes, claiming that the taxation system in this country is “incredibly unfair.”” She says the Greens have a plan to raise over £50 billion per year by the end of the next parliament to fund “good quality public services.

“We'd introduce a wealth tax that applies to people's assets rather than income and would only kick in on wealth above £10 million. So it's only affecting the really, really super rich who can easily afford to pay a bit more,” Denyer states. “We'd also make changes to the capital gains tax. Most people with assets to sell are the very wealthy, and yet capital gains tax is lower than the income tax that we will pay on our income from work. That's obviously the wrong way around so we would equalise those two.”

Of course our conversation, though not abstract by any means, took place in a different reality. Since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s surprise announcement of an election, I wondered what, if anything, had changed for them.

“The Green Party is ready for the General Election, as is Bristol,” Carla tells me afterwards when I ask her if the surprise nature had shifted anything in their strategy. “Voters here know that the Conservatives are on their way out of Government but are feeling utterly uninspired by Starmer's Labour. They are excited at the opportunity to vote with their values and elect the city's first Green MP.” For Carla and the Bristol Greens, this will be the culmination of years of hard work. They are, she told me, “feeling prepared and excited for 4th July.”

Across the country Greens have had to accelerate their plans, throwing everything they have into their four target seats - Bristol Central, Waveney Valley (contested by Denyer’s co-leader Adrian Ramsay), North Herefordshire (where former Green MEP Ellie Chowns is standing) and Brighton Pavillion, home to the first Green MP in the shape of Caroline Lucas. Lucas announced she’d be stepping down last year so the seat is being contested by ex-leader Sian Berry. They’re also fielding their first ever full set of candidates across England and Wales which is, Denyer says, “very exciting”.

It’s particularly important for the party where ‘Short Money’ is concerned. Short Money is the common name given to financial assistance made available to all opposition parties in the House of Commons who secure either two seats, or one seat and more than 150,000 votes at a general election. Under the scheme parties like the Green Party, who received over 850,000 votes at the last election, can gain money (£42.82 in financial year commencing 1 April 2023) for every 200 votes received, as well as funds allotted per seat won. For Caroline Lucas’ parliamentary office, this meant approximately £200,000 of funding each year. It’s one of the reasons why Denyer is so pleased that “Green party members and supporters everywhere will have the opportunity to vote for Green candidates.”

I ask whether there are any deals to be done with independents or candidates from other parties, specifically Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Labour party, now running as an independent in Islington North.

“So the Green Party is always open to collaborating with people who we agree with,” Denyer tells me, before pointing to the Unite to Remain agreement which was a pact between Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party for each party to step aside in certain constituencies to allow the others with a better chance of winning a fairer shot. The idea was to ensure the largest number of anti-Brexit MPs returned to Parliament. “Its effect was limited because the Labour Party declined to take part, in fact, it's written into their constitution so even under Corbyn they were totally unwilling to consider any kind of collaboration.”

Denyer says that this time around there are “no signs of any willingness to collaborate from any of the other parties or candidates”, adding that “if that changed, then my door is always open but as a Green party, we’re not going to just be rolling over and handing over any seats unilaterally.”

Days later a story emerged in the Islington Tribune which revealed an internal memo urging local members to keep the Green campaign “boring.” Members of the local Green Party I spoke to were very keen to make sure I saw the story. The Green Party, unlike the Labour Party, has a much more nebulous approach to party discipline, with local branches and parties much more autonomous than their Labour Party counterparts.

This is certainly not the case in other places going to the polls. Across the country the Greens are now competitive in places they barely thought possible a few years ago. They now have over 800 councillors and are in administration in over 10 per cent of all local authorities. Aside from the improved performance in Green heartlands like Bristol and Norwich, the party also saw surprise breakthroughs in places like Basingstoke and Newcastle at the May local elections. The party has been slowly amassing support in various rural communities, which have been solidly Tory since before the birth of time (probably). It’s an incredibly broad church of voters from across the spectrum.

How is it then that the party will keep that coalition together as we move towards a general election?

“We achieve that by a combination of getting people that had previously voted for Labour, Lib Dems, et cetera, to swing behind us as the only credible alternative to the Conservatives in that area and getting people to turn out to vote, who hadn't previously and, yes, getting some people that had previously voted Conservative to vote for us.”

The party didn't construct this coalition, Denyer assures me, by “hiding our true policies or promising things that we’re not going to deliver.” People across the political spectrum actually like what they’ve got to say and agree with the policies, even those much of the mainstream media would deem to be “unelectable”.

“I think you'd be surprised how radical some people in Suffolk are because they can see the problems with the sewage in their waterways. There's strong public support for public ownership of the water companies, even amongst people that voted Conservative in the last general election.” Likewise, she adds, many in places like Suffolk(a Tory stronghold) support rent controls, even when they own their own home outright because “their children or grandchildren are affected and can’t get onto the housing ladder”.

Green Party voters or new members are driven to the party through a number of different routes. “Sometimes it’s climate,” Denyer begins, “sometimes it’s nature, sometimes it’s about democratic reform, other times it’s about something really specific like drug reform. In that sense, we are a broad church, and we welcome many people, but our principles are pretty clear.”

Labour and the Tories drug stance smacks of desperation

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I asked her what her first days, weeks and months of being the first Green MP for the city might look like.

“My top priorities as an MP will be tackling the climate crisis and the housing crisis,” she begins. “I’ve been a campaigner on housing issues for longer than I've been a Green Party councillor and calling for landlord licensing rent controls, changing the rules to make it easier to get more affordable housing and so on.”

In Bristol, like so many other parts of the country, housing is a huge issue for so many people. “When we go out knocking on doors, asking people what they want to see from their MP, housing almost always comes top of the list. I've already done work on rent controls here at a local level on Bristol City Council by proposing a motion that says, although Bristol doesn’t have the power to bring in rent controls, it lobbies the government to do so, so I would continue that process.”

Prioritising the NHS and protecting it from privatisation is also high up on her list. She points to “very worrying statements coming out of the Labour Party, with Wes Streeting not only saying he went from refusing to take privatisation off the table to actively proposing it.”

Pushing back on Labour’s “enthusiasm for Conservative fiscal rules”, “challenging them to reconsider on capital gains tax, wealth tax and so on to raise the funds needed to actually invest in services people need,” and pushing for democratic reform so “we’re not stuck in this situation forever” also feature in her ambitious plans for Parliament.

Her opponent is incumbent Thangam Debbonaire - the shadow culture secretary who very recently told The House that the polls she’d seen put her ahead in the race by “quite a lot”. Talking to Labour insiders across the party - from those in the Parliamentary Labour Party to those in the local party, it’s clear that behind the scenes, there’s panic. “A tough fight”, as one staffer put it.

“We were out door knocking in the Harbourside area, speaking to a voter who voted Labour in the last general but voted Green for the first time in the local elections,” Denyer tells me. “His main issue was housing. He wanted more housing, specifically affordable housing being built and he put it well to me. He said he was willing to give Starmer a chance because he said he was going to be a ‘big tent kind of guy’, but now he’s not even that.”

Indeed, as Starmer continues to ruthlessly and very publicly cut those from competing factions out of the Labour party, you do have to wonder how it’s all playing out on the doorsteps in places like Bristol central. For many, their minds are already mind up.

“People will tell me, well, I used to vote Labour but then they make a face and kind of trail off,” Denyer says, after months spent on the doorstep. “Sometimes they’ll cite specific things. Sometimes it’s Gaza, sometimes it’s the U-turn on the £28 billion climate investment, the flip flopping on rent controls, the unwillingness to support striking workers. For more voters, it’s not just one of those things, it’s the cumulative effect. A lot of them hung on and gave Labour another chance or two. And then the next U-turn happens and now we’re getting to the point where we get to the doorstep and more and more people have already decided - no, I’m voting for you, what can I do to help? Which is exciting.”

So is it a foregone conclusion at this point that Denyer will be returned to Parliament come July 5? It is, she told me, “in reach, but not in our grasp yet.”

As the interview comes to a close, the room is full of Green party activists, sun kissed from a weekend of relentlessly leafleting and talking to voters across the city. You get a sense of a change coming. A small shoot of green, working its way up through the increasingly authoritarian Starmerite wave sweeping across the nation. Will that shoot blossom and thicken and meet all that it promises to be? Time can only tell.

Read more Huck Election content here. 


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