Labouring under a false pretense: how stepping aside for Labour helped the Tories and hurt the Green Party
The full disappointment of the 2019 general election had barely sunk in on (appropriately) Friday 13th December before Caroline Lucas re-iterated the consensus view among many leading members of the Green Party: in order to defeat the Conservatives, ‘progressive parties’ must ‘join forces’.
The idea of some sort of electoral alliance with Labour has long been the favoured strategy among many party members, especially those who define themselves as being on the left.
The equation is simple; in many marginal seats, Labour + Greens > Conservatives. So combining Labour and Green campaigns is more likely to see the Conservatives defeated.
But is it true?
The 2019 general election campaign brought us a useful opportunity to test this notion.
In the midst of the campaign, Green MEP Magid Magid published a list of Labour/Conservative battleground seats where Green Party candidates should step aside, in his view, in order to facilitate a Labour victory.
Of the 46 seats that he listed, eight local Green Parties followed his advice and withdrew the Green candidate. In addition, a further 40 local Green parties in key Labour/Conservative constituencies either had already stepped aside or decided not to put up a candidate.
And so, from this list, we were presented with an excellent test case for the idea that we could help Labour defeat the Conservatives
Of these 86 key Conservative/Labour seats, 38 went on to field a Green candidate and 48 did not (this latter figure excludes any ‘Unite to Remain’ seats where we stepped aside and explicitly asked people to vote LibDem or Plaid Cymru).
So what actually happened?
It might come as a surprise to those who argued forcefully for this ‘Magid Approach’, that the election results clearly showed that, rather than facilitate the downfall of Conservative candidates, the absence of a Green candidate appeared to increase the swing towards the Conservatives.
Of the 38 seats that had a Green candidate, the swing from Labour to Conservative was 4.65 per cent (Labour vote fell by 6.3%, Conservative vote rose by 2.9%)
Of the 48 seats where we did not stand a candidate, the swing from Labour to Conservative was 7.1 per cent (Labour vote fell by 9.2%, Conservative vote rose by 5%)
(full list of results listed at bottom of the article)
So, unequivocally, this approach failed to achieve its primary objective of making it easier to defeat the Conservatives in these key seats.
Let’s not extrapolate too much beyond that. This is not a controlled test. Each seat behaved in a different way, and we cannot say why this difference in response occurred. However, we can say, categorically, that it did occur.
The only seat where you could potentially claim that the Green absence saved Labour was Canterbury, but on inspection it appears that this was mainly due to increased turnout, rather than a shift in votes from Green supporters.
So, an electoral pact with Labour appears to produce better results for the Conservatives than having separate Labour and Green candidates.
This evidence demolishes the established wisdom within the party that we should form some sort of electoral pact with Labour. Clearly Green voters/supporters, and possibly others, are behaving in a way that does not fit with this analysis.
The ‘Molly Approach’ v the ‘Magid Approach’
This evidence is also a vindication of the decision of other Greens to challenge hard in other Labour/Conservative marginal seats. Molly Scott Cato and the campaign in Stroud, in particular, were criticised by some advocates of the ‘Magid Approach’ for running a serious and effective campaign. The claim was that it would ‘let the Tories in’ by pulling voters away from Labour. But the evidence shows the opposite.
Of the eight seats on Magid’s list who responded to his call to step down, the swing from Labour to Conservative was 6.1 per cent.
In Stroud, where Molly and her team carried on with a strong Green campaign and achieved one of the biggest increases in Green votes, the swing was just 3.5 per cent (across all the seats on Magid’s list where we stood a candidate, the swing was 4.65 per cent, as mentioned above).
The data doesn’t tell us why this is the case, but clearly some Green voters would rather not vote, or vote for other non-Labour candidates (including the Conservatives), than support Labour. Or, having a Green candidates attracts votes that would otherwise go to the Conservatives.
Either way, Green voters are clearly not a single homogenous block that can simply be shifted from one candidate to another by the Green Party, its candidates or local parties.
It is also entirely possible that reducing the choice that voters have on the ballot paper, and the resulting increase in polarity of the election campaign, actually helps the Conservatives, rather than hinders them.
But I accept that this is conjecture on my part. We would need further data and much greater analysis to determine what produced this outcome.
The lose:lose ‘Alliance’
The main argument for co-operation or an alliance/pact with Labour in marginal or key seats is completely undermined by the evidence outlined above.
But is there some other payback for the Green Party that could make it worthwhile? Do Labour or other ‘progressive’ voters reward us in other seats for our broader efforts to support their preferred candidates in the more closely contested seats?
Many proponents of the Magid Approach, often accompany it with the claim that progressive voters can freely vote Green in other seats without worrying about letting the Conservatives in. But does this actually happen?
Just looking at the national picture would suggest not. Our vote share in 2019 increased by just one per cent on our 2017 result, and was one per cent lower than our 2015 result. There didn’t appear to be any payback nationally for our efforts in selected local contests.
What about in seats that might be considered a Green success in 2019 (i.e. deposit saved/ achieved over five per cent of the vote, and our vote share increased by at least three per cent)?
There were only six fully contested seats where we managed to clear this bar:
- New Forest West (Result: 7.7%. Increase: 4.8%)
- Hackney North & Stoke Newington (Result: 8.8%t. Increase: 4.1%)
- Islington North (Result: 8%. Increase: 4%)
- North Herefordshire (Result: 9.3%. Increase: 3.8%)
- Camberwell & Peckham (Result: 6.2%. Increase: 3.4%)
- Tonbridge and Malling (Result: 7.2%. Increase: 3.1%)
Three of these were safe Conservative seats, three were safe Labour seats. The majority in each was a massive 50–60 per cent, so there was plenty of scope for Labour voters to give their vote to the Green Party without fear of upsetting the result. In the event, however, there was little movement in our direction. The Labour vote fell slightly in each, but in most cases, it was the Lib Dems who benefited, not the Greens.
So, stepping aside for Labour in key seats seemingly did not help them in their efforts to beat the Conservatives. It also appears to have not helped the Green Party attract Labour voters in other seats.
So what, exactly, was the point of doing it?
Electorally, at least, it seems that there wasn’t one.
The Magid Approach and its anti-Green framing
However, the real damage, in my view, is to our wider movement and its future prospects.
The idea that we should stand aside for Labour reinforces the following anti-Green framing that is often put forward by the Labour Party:
- “Voting Green will let the Tories in”
- “Labour = Strong; Green = Weak” in the fight for environmental, economic and social justice
- “Greens for later, Labour for now”
- “It’s safe for Green supporters to vote Labour”
Why would any floating voter choose to vote Green if this is the argument we are putting forward?
The idea that an electoral pact with Labour will help the Green Party in any way is a fantasy, and it is undermining our presence on the national political stage.
Let’s face the reality of how voters are behaving and abandon the fantasy of an electoral pact with Labour:
- It isn’t going to happen. (Labour has rejected it at every turn, every time).
- Even if it did happen, the evidence presented here suggests it wouldn’t work. (It produces better results for the Conservatives than us standing separately).
- Even if it worked, Labour will not deliver its end of the bargain, because it will always protect its own narrow tribal interests above all other considerations. (If you don’t understand this, you really don’t understand the Labour Party!)
- In the meantime, all talk of it will keep pushing Green voters away from the Green Party
Let’s stop telling Green-minded voters to vote Labour (or for other parties)!
Instead, let’s put forward a distinct Green platform that appeals to people across the political spectrum and takes votes from Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems, while engaging non-voters.
Creating a distinct Green narrative
The first step in creating that platform, in my view, needs to see us move beyond the perception of being a small left-wing niche party and find a new Green framework for developing ideas and policies. From that will spring forward a new way to frame Green proposals and a new pitch that will be heard by a wider audience.
At the Green Party online Mini-Conference on 21 March I attempted to start this process by presenting the fringe session “The Green Doughnut: How we create a distinct Green economic narrative” (video and slides available online to Green Party members). This suggested a new framework for viewing, developing and articulating Green policies, but also a new way to think about our place in the national political debate.
Instead of doubling down on a failed strategy of looking to the Labour Party to deliver for us, we should begin to explore a new approach that aims to broaden our appeal to a much wider range of voters and makes the Green vision much clearer.
Martin Farley is a member of the Green Party of England & Wales, the Convener of its Tax & Fiscal Policy Working Group, and Elections Coordinator for Brighton & Hove Green Party.