Green parties are surging in Europe. Could it happen in Britain?
Where are the Greens doing well?
Germany, for a start, where the upstart Greens are being tipped to dethrone Angela Merkel’s mighty Christian Democrat Union after 16 years in September’s elections – a recent poll put them on 26%, 3% ahead of the CDU. The Greens’ would-be Chancellor, 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock, has strapped booster rockets to her party, promising a €500bn investment in infrastructure, digitalisation and innovation as well as the obligatory carbon neutrality. She’s the same age as her party, was once a tournament-level trampolinist and replied to a newspaper asking whether she could see herself as Chancellor by doing a handstand. In 2017 Die Grünen (“The Greens”) were the Reichstag’s smallest party. Now no governing coalition looks plausible without them.
Surely Germany is a blip?
No. There’s a similar trend across western Europe. Millions of voters backed the “green wave” in the 2019 European Parliament elections, driven by ecologically anxious 18- to 25-year-old voters and parents keen to stop their children badgering them about melting ice caps. Power-broking Greens have entered government coalitions in Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Finland, Ireland and Iceland – and the SNP will need their help if it wants to force another referendum in Scotland. Big French cities such as Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg have all elected Green mayors, while Paris’s cycleway-loving mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is propped up by Europe Écologie Les Verts.
Weren’t Green politics once just part of the loony fringe?
At first, yes. “We were laughed at, mocked as ‘muesli eaters’,” Hans-Christian Ströbele, an early member of Germany’s Greens, told the FT. His lot were an “anti-party” party, staging street protests to stop a nuclear waste disposal facility being built in West Germany after the Chernobyl disaster, or Ronald Reagan plonking missiles there. When a handful of huffy Greens were actually elected in the 1980s, they went to parliament sporting beards, long skirts, trainers and hand-knitted sweaters. Nevertheless, their founder, Petra Kelly, powered some of the century’s biggest disarmament movements and counted the Dalai Lama and Vaclav Havel among her friends. The Guardian once called her the “second most powerful woman in Europe” after Margaret Thatcher.
So what’s happened to the muesli eaters?
They’ve grown up. Annalena Baerbock is a media-savvy leader who prefers a smart blue dress and red heels to hand-knitted sweaters, and prides herself on being a master of policy detail. Crucially, she has kept a lid on the party’s left-wing fundi factions (who prefer paint-bombing to politics) and prioritised the pragmatic realo wing by setting bold climate targets: quintupling the use of wind energy and ending support for the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. Her co-leader, Robert Habeck, talks up the Greens as “radical and statesmanlike” at the same time. No wonder he’s been hailed as a German Emmanuel Macron – they share a taste for the pragmatic politics of “en même temps”.
Has the “green wave” hit Britain?
It’s certainly hitting Scotland, where the pro-independence Greens have eight MSPs after the May 6 elections – which means they can hand Nicola Sturgeon an Indyref2 majority the SNP can’t manage on its own. The Greens also gained 99 seats in last week’s local council elections and now have 445 councillors across England and Wales. That is still, in the words of the BBC’s Chris Mason, only a “rise from a very small number to a slightly bigger small number”. Or, as polling supremo John Curtice put it: “The Greens are now able to win a non-trivial proportion of the vote.”
Quite. But political analysts spy a path for British Greens to do to Labour what their German cousins are doing to the CDU. “The quietly impressive performance by the Greens this week is a big hint that we may well be heading in the same direction as our European neighbours, such as Germany, where cosmopolitan parties are eclipsing the old centre-left,” says Matthew Goodwin in The Sunday Times. In the next decade, I can see the Greens “as a much bigger force, rallying zoomer graduates, middle-class professionals and city-dwellers in the face of a Labour party that looks bewildered and lost”.
Is anyone in Labour buying this?
Definitely. As Peter Mandelson pointed out last week, the party’s election record over the past 40 years reads: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose. The Greens know what they stand for, says Guardian columnist Owen Jones – pushing “greater economic and social equality, and transition to a greener economy” to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Labour, by contrast, has no idea what it stands for. That spells trouble.
Will the Greens romp home?
The problem is their patchy track record when they get anywhere near power. Brighton became “an object lesson in why it is a disaster to vote Green”, said Tim Stanley in The Spectator back in 2014. The year before, Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, had failed to stem a wildcat strike by binmen in Brighton, leading to a “winter of discontent” during which “gulls feasted on piled-high rubbish”. Fines for putting plastic in paper-only bins reached £50,000 and a “meat-free Monday” in council-run staff canteens was reversed when the binmen demanded their bacon back.
Is there an easy fix?
The Greens need to think like we did at Ukip, says Patrick O’Flynn in The Spectator, and strip off any wonky policies that slow the cause. While environmentalism is now “at least as hot a topic as Brexit was”, hounding out members who want to save the planet, but don’t agree that “trans women are women” in every regard, is not an approach likely to broaden support.
So the Greens aren’t for everyone?
Grégory Doucet, the Green mayor of Lyon, denounced the Tour de France as “macho” and “polluting”, which didn’t win many friends, then banned meat in local schools, which caused angry farmers to take to the streets. His neighbour in Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, last year cancelled the Christmas tree outside the town hall because of its “unjustifiable” carbon footprint. But these are the extremists, and the party undoubtedly has a universal appeal – it’s the environment, stupid. Europeans are feeling the effects of climate change: Poland, Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia all sweltered in record February heat this year, while 2019’s “green wave” coincided with a sizzling winter and a deadly hot summer that killed 2,500 people. Why sweat the small stuff when the weather is cutting through?