For political parties, the arrival of a new leader is often a catalyst for change. But as the relatively unknown Natalie Bennett will quickly find, the wider environment offers the Greens both problems and opportunities.
Like their counterparts in other Western democracies, over past decades the Greens have benefitted mainly from a broad process of value change that has seen more educated and secure citizens increasingly embrace progressive and post-material values, such as concern over the environment, human rights issues and economic equality.
The “Bennett strategy” appears to be anchored in appealing to social groups that have long supported the Greens while reaching into the ranks of disgruntled Liberal Democrat and also Labour voters: left-wing citizens who are concerned over a lack of economic equality, sceptical that a globalised economy can deliver prosperity for all and, more generally, are concerned about quality of life issues.
If this is the strategy, then Bennett is not wrong to target a combination of the disgruntled and more affluent wing of Labour and traditional Liberal Democrats. In fact, Green support has been traced to University towns and urban areas where the Lib Dems have tended to poll well, and also to middle-class areas in the south of England where there are large clusters of young and highly-educated citizens.
In contrast, the Greens would be making a strategic blunder were they to target those social groups who have suffered the most from the economic crisis, as these have never tended to vote Green.
This pattern of support differentiates the Greens from other minor parties, such as Respect that is strongest in more ethnically diverse and Muslim areas where there are high rates of unemployment, or the BNP that is strongest within working-class and mainly white enclaves that are close to more diverse areas.
But there is also a populist angle here, and one that Bennett would do well to push. The bonds between voters and the mainstream parties continue to weaken, while political distrust remains high. Amidst these broader changes minor parties have certainly drawn strength, with their share of the total vote at general elections rising from 3.8% in 2001, to 5.7% in 2005 and to 6.4% in 2010.
But there are specific opportunities here for the Greens, who unlike the BNP or UKIP appear as a more “acceptable home” for voters who are disillusioned with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Labour, argues Bennett, ”just wants to cut a little more slowly than the coalition”.
Indeed, the Greens are on strong ground when talking about opposing the cuts, protecting benefits for those in need, revitalising the manufacturing sector and criticising the three main parties – but especially Labour that is a stable of potential Green voters- for failing to clamp down on tax havens and big business and bonus culture.
The task facing Bennett is to make this narrative both credible and clear. Voters are certainly receptive to a populist, anti-establishment strategy that also bangs on about a lack of progressive values and fairness in society.
Much will depend on whether Bennett can build on her predecessors by packaging the minor party as a credible and legitimate alternative. Further gains at the local and European level will be important to demonstrating that the Greens mean business.
While voters may be willing to hear about a “vision for radical change”, in the current climate they are unlikely to be won over by vague references to the need for greater investment in housing, jobs and renewable energy. But given the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg, and Labour’s ongoing struggle to demonstrate economic competence, there is clearly enlarged space in the British party system for the Green vision.
A version of this post has appeared on Liberal Conspiracy.