Caroline Lucas – should the Lib Dems be worried?

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Caroline Lucas has just won the Green Party leadership election with 92% of the vote. Rumours that she is about to grow a moustache and answer to the name Saddam are apparently wide of the mark.

Seriously though, the Lib Dems should be worried about this. Not panicked by any means, but at least alert of what has been happening within the Greens over the past twelve months.

The decision by the party to have an elected leader means it has crossed a rubicon which in the past it has been unwilling to cross. Back in 1989, when it scored a record 15% of the popular vote, the party instantly fell apart over arguments about whether it should seek to consolidate this result or continue to act as little more than a spoiler vote, enabling voters to register the importance of green issues while not being corrupted by political office. The result was that many of the party’s best campaigners jumped ship. Since then, I’ve seen a steady trickle of Green party members who care about the environment but want to make a real difference rather than merely braying by the sidelines join the Lib Dems, including the blogosphere’s own Joe Otten but also Islington’s Finance Head Honcho Andrew Cornwell.

The decision to have an elected leader then marks a sea-change in ambition. The fact is, like any organisation, while it may have lacked an individual with the job title of ‘leader’ it always had leaders. They just weren’t elected. The result is the party has been a franchise for pretty much anyone capable of self-publicity to adopt. Regardless of their relative merits, a party cannot be both a Caroline Lucas party and a Derek Wall party and expect to be taken seriously.

The GLA result this year also revealed a seriousness of purpose. The Greens were entirely realistic about their chances and how to make the best of them in a way that the Lib Dems frankly were not. Their plan wasn’t dependent on them sharing media space with the Boris and Ken Show, nor was it saddled with a target seat strategy. The result – retaining both their share of the vote and their AMs – may not sound tremendous but given the circumstances it was a minor coup. By comparison, the plunge in Lib Dem support showed we had left ourselves entirely vulnerable to a squeeze on both sides.

Don’t expect any great successes in the short term. I certainly don’t share Dr Lucas’ optimism that they will be able to take a parliamentary seat at the next election (even if the result in Norwich South this year was impressive), and they will continue to have internal ideological debates for years to come (don’t we all?). But if they show strategic resolve over the long term in the way that they did in London this year and continue to target their resources, I would be very surprised if they didn’t start to make serious inroads. Once they have their first MP how long will it be before they start getting significant support across the country? Disparage them for being a repository for protest votes all you want, but that has been the Lib Dems’ stock in trade for a significant part of the last four decades. It might not threaten our held seats, but it will significantly threaten our ability to expand into new territory and achieve Nick Clegg’s target of 150 MPs within 7 years.

25 thoughts on “Caroline Lucas – should the Lib Dems be worried?

  1. Yes I agree with this. In my case it was a political disagreement rather than a tactical decision, but I think this puts me in a minority.

    The funny thing is the Greens’ leaders, such as there were, were elected. They were sometimes unopposed, but the principal speakers and executive are elected annually. What wasn’t tolerated was much in the way of political leadership, as we would recognise it.

    So if Lucas does try to influence the direction of the party, expect some real fireworks. It would not be the first time she personally was drummed out of the party by the hostility of members; like quite a few others.

  2. I myself am considering voting Green, in protest at what seems to be to be the Liberal Democrat indifference to environmental matters (at least compared to my level of concern. It would send a message to the “libertarians” that they might be in fashion, but they’re not going to have everything their way.

  3. Well, in PR elections like Europe they will continue to take votes from us (just like in 1989) and replace them with green MEP’s, AM’s, ect. It has been shown they are our voters second preference, and I suspect the reverse is true. They represent a real sap on our support here.

    As to parliament, I think your analysis is mostly correct. However, this could lead to more non-tory/labour party seats faster, making a hung parliament more likely. With both us and the greens supporting PR, maybe it would make that a more likely prospect?

    Of course, once that happens perhaps we really would haemorrhage some support. They might be more ideologically suited to those voters ever hunting for old labour.

    Though I may as well predict a Canada style tory collapse if I’m going to ball gaze to such an extent.

  4. Your piece is perceptive: as a former Lib Dem (including being a Eurocandidate when the Greens slaughtered us in 1989), who became disillusioned by our steady drift rightwards from 1996 onwards, I have found the Green Party a serious, dedicated and informed movement since joining it in 2005.

    The Greens’ combination of environmental sustainability with social justice have led to policies such as calling (today) for a minimum living wage and higher progressive taxation, a citizen’s income, ending the opt-out from the working time directive, supporting a “right to rent” for homeowners in mortgage difficulties which brings housing back into public ownership, and a raft of other policies many of which, in the distant past, would have been shared by Liberals but which have been steadily abandoned as the Lib Dems embraced the free market and Orange Bookery played mischief with the social soul of the party. We also support the public ownership of the utilities and of public transport – all things you origianlly supported but one by one shed, until – what?

    On my way to Green conference on the train yesterday, I overhead two men at the next table in earnest discussion about their work, which seemed to be to do with IT, along with football and, in the middle of this, sudden speculation about what the Lib dems are all about. It did start admittedly with a fairly lurid and quite inaccurate discussion of Lembit Opik’s (alleged) carnal pastimes, but ranged on to “do you know what they are about?”, “no, I don’t think they do either; they blew it – ever since they got rid of the Scots bloke, you know – the ginger guy…”

    Do you know what you stand for? What is the heart of the Lib dems now? Personal freedom is raised a lot, but what does this mean? Being against ID cards and supporting 28 days detention (which is apparently ok while 42 days is too much) does not a political philosophy make. Do you still have any real social objectives with your trundle towards unified as opposed to progressive tax rates? IF, and it is a big if, your so-called green taxes deliver a change in behaviour, how will you pay for your middle class tax cuts? And why do you still have your MEPs voting to allow UK companies to effectively force workers to work more than 48 hours a week? (I wrote to Chris Davies about this shortly before I left the Lib Dems and got a disjointed response about flexibility and unfair dismissals which were worthy of a Tory rather than an LD spokesperson – it finally got me to throw the towel in after 27 years).

    The Greens are slowly but steadily emerging as the true party of the centre-left in British politics. The Lib dems on the other hand seem to have plateaued as they have embraced the same managerialism as Cameron and Blair/Brown. The public see you as pretty much just one of three parties of managers – no vision; just arguments over spedning a bit more ehre, bit less there. The voters want more: they seek leadership, a vision, a narrative – in the absence of these once familiar things, they are dividing between increasing volatility in who they support and simply opting out, not voting.

    Yes, be afraid – and be sure of this: when the change comes, it will be faster and bigger than you will possibly expect. And it may not be long coming at all.

  5. Adrian – you know what? To a great extent you are spot on. The Lib Dems are currently undergoing an identity crisis and if we don’t get our act together soon we will pay a heavy price.

    But if we do get our act together and manage to start articulating something much clearer and more distinctive than we have over the past decade, we will be here for some time to come.

    And a word of warning – the Greens have never had to go through any of that because the Greens have never been electable. Once you reach that stage, and it will happen as soon as you elect your first MP, I hope you are ready for some fireworks. The Greens have never had to articulate a message that attracts mass appeal. From now on, that is going to change. I notice you have listed a whole range of leftwing economic policies but only refer to environmental policies in the vaguest of terms. Are you sure you’re ready for that fight yourself?

  6. I agree, Caroline Lucas was on Andrew Marr’s programme this morning and came over well. She always has a straightforward way of talking which is refreshing and I think she will do well.

  7. Adrian,

    You call it centre-left, but you may find it looks like hard left to many people.

    You may even take some of the electorate with you on this journey where concern for the environment is translated into support for the hard left.

    15 years ago I was arguing with socialists who said to me that you would never be able to save the planet until we had socialism. They didn’t convince me, but it looks like they convinced others. But here’s the kicker. You will never get socialism. And so going down this path, you will never save the planet. Don’t get too upset – socialism was a bad idea.

    But instead of practical support for the environment, the environment is used as a recruiting tool for the left. And maybe the journey won’t stop there but go on to the full-blown misanthropy of the likes of Paul Kingsnorth.

    http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/2007/10/climate-change-is-your-friend.html

    Nobody joins the Green Party out of misanthropy. Quite the reverse, it is a deep concern for human survival. Yet we commonly confront or are turned into people who have decided that they shouldn’t care about human survival?

    The process is like this:

    Step 1. You care about human survival? Yes. Therefore you should care about the environment.

    Step 2. You care about the environment? Yes. Therefore you shouldn’t care about human survival.

    Obviously at least one of these steps is plain flat wrong, but if they are both buried in touchy feely obfuscation this is not so obvious.

  8. I certainly think we should take the Greens seriously.

    But equally we shouldn’t overstate their success.

    They have made a bit of ground in a small number of areas and have a small percentage of support across the board which, added to a higher vote in a handful of places, has enabled them to win an MEP in two regions and a couple of GLA members.

    Like your investments they can go down as well as up and have been losing round back to the Lib Dems in Lucas’ former stamping ground of Oxford for example.

    Their two best hopes in the General Election are probably Brighton Pavillion and Norwich South. I predict that they will be squeezed by the Lab/Tory fight in the former and by the Lab/Lib Dem fight in the latter.

  9. Your analysis is pretty accurate, but I’m sceptical that the greens will be more than a nuisance to the Lib Dems.

    The party is finally getting its act together organisationally, but it has missed its big chance, – other parties have invaded its space before it’s barely got off the starting line. Its support levels peaked around 2005, and have been tailing off since then. Greens now faces a much more hostile electoral environment, because many environmentally concerned voters are willing to trust the big three parties on this issue.
    Also Labour is likely to retreat leftwards when it is defeated next year or the year after – so there’ll be far fewer left-wing protest votes for the greens to court.

    The fruitier elements of Green Left are denouncing Caroline Lucas as a Blairite. Even if this were the case, the Green Party is not going to become a party of the Centre any time soon. Its activists wouldn’t allow it.

    More likely than not:
    1) they’ll lose their London MEP next year,
    2) won’t pick up any MPs at the next election.
    3) They’ll slowly gain more councillors across the country.
    4) They will end up controlling Norwich City Council

  10. Andrew Cruden is spot on. Whatever shortcomings the Greens might have ideologocally what they are good at is diagnosing problems and analysing the terminal shortcomings of the global economic system. They also have something which LibDems threw away years ago- integrity. In my view anyone who has any intellect could never vote for a ‘party’ which (i) has no obvious ideology, and (ii) is prepared to stopp to any depths top gain votes including carrying diametrically opposed policies in just about any area you care to mention- from congestion charging and progressive tax on gas guzzlers through to even Europe. Listening to Simon Hughes on a phone in prior to the last general Election trying to garner a vote from a total Eurosceptic was the ultimate in cringemaking but examples are myriad. Your party is founded on hypocrisy and opportunism, I’m sad to say. There’s no point aspiring to political power unless you have something useful to do with it.

  11. Actually, if there is one thing the Greens are appalling at it is “diagnosing problems and analysing the terminal shortcomings of the global economic system” – do you really believe you would be so low in the polls if that was the case? Even Green party supporters seldom buy into the wider Green analysis on the evils of capitalism.

    And please don’t confuse a non-adherence to your ideology for a lack of ideology. Hair shirts are wonderful things, but some of us are out to make a difference.

  12. I like your blog and the fact that although you’re obviously a bit of a party animal you aren’t afraid to criticise party shortcomings- but IMO you’re quite wrong with this response, and incidentally you seem to assume I’m a Green party hack?!
    I suspect that if anything it’s in part because Greens have a deep critique of the failings of market capitalism (which is clearly out of control, look at the rapoid privatisation of the banking system in the recent past and the attendant disasters associated with international capital movements and economic interdependence) that they are so low in the polls. People like their politicians to sound as if they are in control even when they clarely aren’t.
    As to a Lib Dem ideology I have never been able to find one, or to find anyone who can tell me what it is in the face of the ragbag of conflicting pick-your-own policies that are presented to suit the local electorates. Please don’t kid yourself that this dereliction of principles constitutes ‘making a difference’. All this is a greta pity since the two large parties are so dismally poor that a decent strong third party might well have been in a position to make a difference. The Greens for all their current weakness are far more likely to offer long term appeal because they have something coherent to say.
    Incidentally as a Londoner I think the other reason your vote didn’t stand up as well as the Greens was that your AMs didn’t work as hard and were nowhere near as effective. Couple with (as you admit yourself elsewhere on your blog) a useless candidate clearly at odds with your party policy on all sorts of issues
    regards
    MS

  13. Mysterious, could you be a bit less, er, mysterious, and tell us which “deep critique” of capitalism this is that you are talking about? As far as I can see, the greens have a few critiques, but none are deep, or entirely agreed upon.

    Is it the argument beloved of communists and fascists of the 1920s that our economic problems stem from the charging of interest by banks?

    Or is it the marxism of Derek Wall (who is to his credit quite opposed to the first.)

    Or is it, in contrast to both of these, the idea that our problems stem from wanting stuff in the first place, and we should just learn to be happy in poverty.

    Or is it anarchist or social democrat?

    Or something else?

  14. You say “Since then, I’ve seen a steady trickle of Green party members who care about the environment but want to make a real difference rather than merely braying by the sidelines join the Lib Dems.”
    Shouldn’t that read “Since then various people who were on the right of the Green party have joined the Lib Dems” ?

  15. Different James here. And no, I don’t know a single person who’s left the Greens and joined the Liberals. But plenty who’ve gone the other way round.

    And as Derek Wall fades and Caroline Lucas leads the English party, that’s only going to accelerate.

  16. I know 7 who have left the Greens and joined the LDs and three the other way round including Adrian.
    Adrian is an old ally from the anti Danny Finkelstein faction in the Young Social Democrats.
    I was sad to hear he had joined the Greens but I think it was for tactical as much as idealogical reasons.

  17. Tim

    Thanks for missing me, but I can assure you that it was for purely ideological purposes – in spite of my unbounded optimism for the Green Party’s prospects, there are few tactical reasons for leaving the Lib Dems and joing the Greens!

    Best wishes to you.
    Adrian

  18. Joe

    I’d just note that in response to your statement that I call the list of policies I mention you refer to them as being “hard left”. Nearly all of them were Lib Dem policies into the 1990’s, with the exception of LD support for the maximum working week opt-out, as that EU Directive did not exist at that time (- we did though support signing up to the Social Chapter, which would have enacted it.). Yet now I feel you bracket me with the Derek Hattons of the world.

    On all these issues, LD policy has swung sharply rightward or, in some cases, apears to have lapsed into unnoticed silence. It is a shame – people are crying out for something different, but at the Lib Dems advanced on a platform of change, they have shed difference for a caution which doubtless you will argue is about realpolitik and I am just a dreamy idealist.

    However, a Scottish LD councillor depressed me greatly when she told me after hearing I had joined the Greens that “Principles are all very well, but if you ever get the chance to take a real decision, you will learn you have to compromise -before breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Fine, from my political, personal and professional lives I know this is of course the case, but it is good to start out with some values to compromise on: are you any longer certain what Liberal Democrast core values actually are?

    The Green Party is passionately concerned about humanity and that is why social justice is so important to us. There are limited resources and so it is logical that we have a more equal society if they are to be used sustainably and for life to be happier for everyone (not hairshirted at all, I can assure you but maybe more fulfileld than our go-getting, ultra-competitive all-out capitalist society). I am absolutely no misanthrope and to put into context, my own mantra is not “Save the planet” but rather “Save the human”, becuase th planet will survive and go on, as will life of some sort. Greens’ intense, motivaing desire is for humanity to continue to exist as part of that future.

  19. I suspect there are a number of towns and cities where the Greens are nearly the 3rd party. I’m with the Greens in Coventry, and apart from the one ward that the Lib Dems won, the Greens and Lib Dems went head to head in 11 other wards. The Lib Dems, when you add up the total votes in the 11 wards, only beat us by 1393 votes (126 votes on average, in wards with 11 000 voters). I think that having a visible and articulate national leader will really help close that gap.

  20. Scott’s right. Take Glasgow.

    Like the Liberals and the Tories, we Greens have one MSP. Labour are the largest party on the Council, then the SNP, and both the Greens and the Liberals have five seats to the Tories’ one.

    So, third equal, even in Glasgow. We’re coming.

  21. James – you say “even in Glasgow. We’re coming”. Step back a bit. Despite full-blown proportional representation, the Greens have councillors on only two local authorities in Scotland, and have dwindled to two MSPs. Sadly that is not the story of a party which is coming.

    I’m sure we’ll continue to see more Green councillors in years to come, but they’re going to be struggling every step of the way. There won’t be a sudden breakthrough which suddenly sees greens being swept into town halls across the country.

    The Lib Dems succeed as the third party because they’re vague enough to be a repository for protest votes from across the political spectrum. When the tories are unpopular, they pick up tories – when labour is unpopular, they pick up labourites. The Greens are too ideological to appeal to any old protest voter.

    Anyway, the big test will be the 2009 European elections.

    My overview is:

    1) If the Greens are wiped out, it is a disaster for them. Activists will be jumping overboard literally left right and centre.

    2) It is to be expected that they lose their London seat. If they retain it, they are doing well and making slow but steady progress in terms of support levels. If they lose it, the new leadership structure is making little difference to their fortunes.

    3) If they make 1-2 gains, they are doing brilliantly and making real inroads

    4) If they make more than 2 gains, something odd has happened, and they’ve captured the public mood.

  22. Adrian,

    I wasn’t referring specifically to your post as hard-left, but to the Green Party’s position in general. However, since you mention it, surely it is fair to describe support for the nationalisation of utilities as hard left. Also, probably the minimum living wage and higher progressive taxation, but that would depend on the actual numbers. A citizen’s income would be a great idea if it weren’t phenomenally expensive, and indifference to phenomenal expense also seems – except in cases of war – to be a hard left trait.

    You will see on my blog a detailed analysis of the Orange Book, so if you want to pinpoint the call to abandon our social conscience, perhaps you could look there.

    Frankly, I don’t agree with the line that principles are all very well, but you have to compromise. My disagreement with the Green Party is not that it fails to compromise, but that its values of care for the environment, and (for most) for human well-being, have been put second to the mistaken values of socialism, irrationalism and autarky.

    It is supreme arrogance – albeit probably of the kind that every party is guilty of – to claim that you uniquely care about social justice and the environment. Caring is not enough if you stifle innovation with socialism and autarky, and ignore the evidence of what is actually happening, and obstruct science with irrationalism. Those would be more fitting actions for a hater than a carer.

  23. Joe

    Well, all I was saying that public ownership of the utlities was Lib Dem (and before that Alliance) policy right as far as 1992 – and as late as 1997 Paddy Ashdown was calling for the renationalisation of the rail network. I don’t see how these things are “hard left” (as opposed to, say, nationalisation of the IT industry or the retail trade, which would be) as they only stopped being in public hands as a result of the policies of the “hard right” under Thatcher and Major. Some things cannot effectively operate on a profit-maximising basis (as opposed to surplus-making) and basic utilities, among which I would put transport as well as health, education and energy, would be such an example.

    Citizens’ Income was Liberal policy for over 30 years up to its apparent vanishing in the mid-90s – so again, you may disagree with it, but to characterise it as hard left seems somewhat over-the-top; it is about rationalising benefits, eliminating the poverty trap and recognising the need for independence at 18, something your leaders still talk about but with no clear polciy how to achieve it. Greens would pay for it through higher taxes on the rich – not hard left at all when you consider the extreme inequality which now exists (take the CEOs of the top FTSE 100 companies – in 1988 the ration of their income to their average employee was 17:1; now it is 75:1). Our conference last weekend voted for an additional high rate of tax (not, as I and others had proposed, an absolute limit) on incomes over 10 times the minimum wage – the capitalist thinker David Ricardo advocated a rate of 10:1 as a voluntary maximum and most industries followed this, broadly, until the rise of Thatcher and Reagan.

    So what we are about is not so extreme and is certainly not based on class envy but simply on what makes fair, sensible and sustainable use of our resources. We do not advocate autarky, but we do support greater self-sufficiency (which again I always thought LD support for the EU was all about that: it is in fact the founding principle of the EU!). It makes little sense in a polluted world to have lost most of our native apple stocks and instead be flying apples from New Zealand. So, yes, we would encourage UK farmers to grow their own apples again and put tariffs on NZ apples; we would seek to re-industrialise the UK (sustainably) rather than import goods from China – things which we will have to do any way as fuel and transport costs are set to rocket in the coming decades. Our choice is whether we struggle to adapt through economic chaos or opt to begin a planned transition to a more local, but not closed economy with a focus on encouraging small business and co-operatives (again something traditionally Liberal).

    The choice is yours – I do not think the Greens claim to have unique concerns, but we do have increasingly unique responses, including now, policies which used to be shared at least in part with your party but clearly are now beyond the pale of Lib Dem thinking.

    Thanks for what has been an intelligent exchange and I hope you know I do respect yout views and retain some affection for the Lib Dems (nice to hear from you, Tim). However, your clear and articulate denunciation of the policies I listed and the themes I see as being vital to solving the planet’s problems, and protecting our species’ suvival, has made clearer than ever to me that I was right to leave the Liberal Democrats and seek to advance the cause of real change through the Green Party.

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