How the Green Party cost the Conservatives their majority

Progressive alliances worked, but cost the Greens dearly


Last Thursday, the Green Party cost the Conservatives their majority.

Let me explain. For a long time, Greens have been slammed by more tribal elements in Labour for ‘splitting the vote’ and ostensibly costing Labour power.

Greens know all too well the antipathy from a strident minority of Labour members that the Greens even exist as a force at all. The attitude has been, at times, those votes are ‘our votes’. It’s a sense of entitlement that speaks to the worst of party politics. Thankfully, it has been on the wane.  

And on the Green side too, there has too often been rhetoric that Labour are ‘just as bad’ as the Conservatives. Under Blair, some in the party ridiculed Labour as red Toryism. It was a caricature that, given the damage done since 2010, was wrong almost to the point of offensiveness.

So when, last summer, Caroline Lucas and Jonathon Bartley were elected on a ‘progressive alliance’ platform, it felt like a culture shift. And of course, it was one that followed a marked change in Labour Party politics given the election of Jeremy Corbyn.  

The rationale for a progressive alliance was simple: left-of-centre parties should join up to oust the Conservatives. It was to be a one-off pact, with the proviso that Labour would need to back proportional representation.

They didn’t. But the Greens went ahead with progressive alliances across the country anyway. In 38 seats, the Greens stood aside for Labour or the Lib Dems. There were no policy gains — this was a marriage of pragmatism and principle: to cost the Conservatives their majority.

And it worked. In nine of those seats where the Greens stood aside for the stronger progressive party, Labour or the Lib Dems gained that seat from the Conservatives.

That equates to a centre-left Parliamentary advantage of 18 seats: more than the Conservatives’ effective majority in 2015.  

And while Labour and the Lib Dem’s winning margins were slightly above the Greens’ 2015 vote, what the national progressive alliance focus did was much greater than standing down: it sent a strong signal to Green supporters and those on the left: it’s OK to back a bigger progressive party this election. The act, therefore, was greater than the sum of its votes.  

Luke Walter from the group Progressive Alliance, which coordinated these moves, told me:

“What the Greens did was create a permission structure for people who tend to support another party to tactically vote Labour in great numbers. Without that, then I don’t think we would have seen the kinds of numbers Labour achieved.”

For better or worse — and arguably it crushed the Green vote — Lucas and Bartley’s narrative of progressive alliances legitimised one-off tactical voting. It said indirectly, ‘if you’re in a swing seat, vote Labour’.

And just because there was no official pact in many seats, doesn’t mean voters didn’t form their own. One in five people — including 22 per cent of 2015 Greens — ‘held their nose’ on 8 June.

I was one of those voters: a Green member in a Labour marginal, who formed my own ‘progressive alliance’. Though there was a Green candidate, I opted for Labour to try and secure a left of centre government — and ‘vote swapped’ with a Labour-backing friend in ultra-Tory Surrey.

I wasn’t the only one. I know that many Green party figures — including former staffers — did the same. For the first time for decades, in some cases, they lent their votes to Labour. And it paid off, although at some great cost for the Greens, with the party’s vote more than halved from 1.2 million votes to 525,000.

And given that Short money — the public money that goes to parties — is in large part based on vote share, the Greens paid a financial as well as partisan price for their decision to back progressive alliances, official or otherwise.

Whether it standing aside in those 38 seats, or the legitimisation of tactical voting, through making ‘progressive alliances’ a central plank of the party’s campaign, there’s a strong argument to say the Greens cost the Conservatives their majority.

Those arguing Greens ‘cost’ Labour victories in the past must now follow their own logic and accept the Greens’ selfless role in this election. While it might be bad strategy for party leaders to encourage votes for a rival (a line being pushed, surprisingly, post-election), it was done with noble intentions. And it paid off.

The collapse of the Green vote was no accident: it was principled politics on behalf of both the Green Party and its supporters. Labour must find a way to work with them if it’s to build a majority.

The opportunity to do so may come sooner than we think.

Josiah Mortimer is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward

See: How people power can beat the big donors – from crowdfunding to tactical voting

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15 Responses to “How the Green Party cost the Conservatives their majority”

  1. PsychoPolitico

    There were policy gains in Bristol North West:

    “1) Call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal if it is rejected by parliament

    “As a pro-European candidate, Mr Jones will call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal if it is rejected by parliament – giving the British people the choice of which direction their country takes, once the alternatives can be clearly seen.”

    2) Campaign and vote for electoral reform, including PR

    “A commitment by Mr Jones to campaign and vote for electoral reform, including the adoption of a truly proportional system of representation for UK General Elections and other local and regional elections. This will include actively campaigning to change the voting system so that the make-up of parliament and other elected assemblies more accurately reflects the voting patterns of the UK electorate.”

    3) Regular meetings with Bristol Green Party representatives during his term of office

    “A commitment by Mr Jones to regular meetings with Bristol Green Party representatives during his term of office to discuss issues that are of particular concern to the Green Party. These include: improving air quality, increasing the levels of social rent housing, developing renewable energy schemes, expanding energy efficiency programmes, protecting the environment, and reducing inequalities.””

    Which possibly provides future guidance on how to broker these local deals (I don’t know if other local stand aside pacts agreed similar things with the relevant Labour / Lib Dem candidates).

  2. Ruth Wilde

    Thank you for this article. I would encourage every Green Party member to write to their MP- especially if he or she is a Labour MP- to ask them to support proportional representation. This is the next stage now- we need to build momentum on the back of the goodwill of Green party candidates and members have shown Labour in this election.

  3. Robin Le Mare

    This, my letter before the recent election, was printed in Westmorland Gazette. It seems to fit your argument.
    “Dear Editor,
    In 2015, five Parties contested Westmorland and Lonsdale. UKIP came third after LibDem and Tory with Labour and Green way behind. In 2017, with no talk of alliance, UKIP will not contest the seat. Is there a Tory/UKIP Regressive alliance that is not spoken of? Voters whose first preference was UKIP in 2015, now have no option but to go for their second preference. The incumbent, LibDem, majority could be overturned by that alliance. Those who have no desire to support the present government have to support LD, even if their first preference be either Labour or Green – a Progressive alliance, of which there is much talk. Green Party, by not contesting the seat is, essentially, putting Single Transferable Vote into I practical action. The disadvantage with this is that Parliament is less likely to have the advantage of Green Party opinion and analysis. How does this benefit our democracy? I know some will say, “With STV, UKIP might gain representation in Parliament.” So be it – let them argue their case and have it judged by their MP peers; except their founder brags that his ideas are now integral to Tory policy and others say it’s one purpose has been achieved. That achievement, based upon lies, misinformation and a pair of questions that over-simplified a highly complex consideration, is a further example of the corruption of UK polity, governance.

    It could, perhaps, be argued that UK’s mix of Electoral stems is just an expression of its broad democracy. It is certainly confusing –
    * Westminster = First Past The Post
    * London mayor = FPTP + Supplementary vote
    * Scotland = Additional Member Vote + Single Transferable Vote for local council
    * Wales = FPTP + AMV
    * MEP = Proportional Representation.

    What, if any advantage is there in having such a mix of electoral systems?

    I have no doubt FPTP is a failed and failing model. I am convinced there are powerful forces funded by plutocrats that have corrupted, and are corrupting UK’s polity. The ‘smoke’ for those thoughts rise from reports on the involvement of Cambridge Analytica and allegations of huge sums channeled through the Democratic Unionist Party in the EU referendum. Such ‘smoke’ suggests a huge fire somewhere. ‘Corrupt’ is a powerful word, which I do not associate with Tellers and Returning Officers administering our elections. FPTP delivered, yet again in 2015, a ‘tyranny of majority’ (a majority of MP for one Party) based upon a ‘tyranny of minority’ (a minority of the electorate voted for the victorious Party). I say that system is corrupted. Those terms are indicative of what could happen. ‘Tyranny’ is a strong word. Thankfully, UK Institutions and its ability to openly criticise those in power means our country avoids real tyrants, but the word ‘coup’ has been used about some recent events.

    Sincerely, Robin Le Mare”

  4. John

    Interesting thoughts. But Corbyn’s Labour Party was far more attractive to made socially radical Green than Blair, Brown or Miliband ever was. If the Labour Party develops its environmental credentials further there is will be good reason for many former Green voters to stick with Labour next time irrespective of any ‘progressive alliance’.

  5. Robert Jones

    You can explain all you like, me boy, but your explanation doesn’t hold as much as a saucer-full of water. The Green vote collapsed everywhere but in Brighton – to argue that it made any difference at all, in numerical or psychological terms as you prefer, in any other seat is self-delusion of such an order that I suggest a cold shower followed by self-flagellation with stinging nettles (very Green..) to awaken you to quotidian reality. The Greens stood down where they had no hope of winning; hardly a sacrifice.

    The party should now dissolve itself.

  6. pleasepresshere

    I still maintain it was a huge mistake, which undid many years of growing the party, its momentum and its vote share. 🙁
    The behaviour of many Labour MPs towards their leader in the last parliament alone was reason enough NOT to give them any help. Let alone Labour’s attitude to cooperating with other parties in parliament, and their unwillingness to embrace proportional representation.
    All give for nothing in return? As stupid as the Liberal Democrats in 2010. :/

  7. Jim Greer

    A large number of Remainers loaned the Labour Party their votes on the hope of getting a softer Brexit. In fact, their votes have interpreted by Michael Gove, among others as a votes for Brexit. He has said that Brexit supporting parties (I’ve Labour and Tories) increased their vote in the election whereas those opposed – (Greens and Lib Dems) saw a reduction in their vote. And sure enough the Labour Party manifesto is supportive of Brexit- which is why I wasn’t prepared to lend them my vote. Once you give a Party your vote they can do what they like with it. While giving Theresa May a bloody nose offers short term pleasure- it soon wears off. If you vote for what you believe in you will have no regrets.

  8. Bruce Bingham

    Robert illustrates precisely why the Greens will carry on. If people think that Labour is anywhere near where the Greens would like them to be they should take a look at the Greens’ long-term policies; they’re permanent objectives, passed at conferences after a previous conference drafting stage. They’re not ripped up and thrown away between elections.
    Almost all the ‘radical new’ Labour policies were in the Greens 2015 General Election manifesto. The election manifesto is what the Greens think is achievable now so to speak.
    25 years ago it was gay marriage and windmills, the kind of things many Labour people laughed at (in the case of windmills into this century). Now it is a guaranteed income and a four day week objective.
    Could a Green manifesto appeal to 40%+? Yes, probably, if people understood it, but short-term, no. That isn’t the point though. The point is you can never offer a truly radical manifesto cos to do so you always run into opposition, even if 15 years later that opposition is widely seen as wrong. At the cutting edge that opposition is normally mainstream thinking.
    We shouldn’t have to appeal to 40%+. With a proportional voting the Greens (or socialists or anyone else, single issue parties perhaps) can drive the agenda forwards. If such parties command 10 or 15% then a ‘left-centre Labour’ stands a very good chance of dominating a left coalition by taking 30-35%.
    A proportional voting system is what most people assume is fair and natural. It would enable anyone living anywhere to support, vote for and crucially campaign for knowing that their efforts will not be a waste of time; awful councils like Rotherham can get rightly challenged without needing to win 40 or 50% of the vote to do so.
    And from a left point of view left ideas can be taken to those leafy privileged places that almost guarantee the Tories 250 seats before the election has even started.

  9. Alan Borgars

    No, Robert, the Green Party should not dissolve itself-but it should definitely change direction, back to honest green values without any pandering to far-left nonsense or any ‘Progressive Alliance’ that is not going to happen anyway.

    The Green Party has shown it can do this before, with the mark it made in the 1989 European elections, and in modern European elections terms it performed best in the South East and South West England regions. Both of these have large swathes of Conservative territory (and only a few pockets of reliable Labour support) that was generally only challenged by the Liberal Democrats, and the Lib Dems can no longer challenge the Conservatives in most county constituencies. The Greens can, though, if they work at it.

  10. Andy

    As a Green Party member I wasn’t really in favour of the Progressive Alliance, alhough, it being party policy, I didn’t do anything to undermine it. I live in a safe Labour seat so voted Green still and yes, the Green vote in the constituency halved.

    My problems with the Progressive Alliance are that it could only ever really benefit us in Brighton and Labour couldn’t even bring themselves to stand down there. Secondly, I don’t really see the Lib Dems as progressive, more a Tory ‘B’ team. I still wouldn’t put it past them to end up in coalition with the Tories again.

    One of Labour’s problems is that there are too many party members like Robert Jones here with an overwhelming entitlement to the votes that don’t go to the Tories, who see coming second in a General Election as a divine right. They have spent the last 7 years trying to woo Tory votes by being more like the Tories but, at the very last minute, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn they realised that politics isn’t just about reflecting your perceived attitude of the voters it’s also about changing them. In fairness it was probably as much that as the progressive alliance that got them as far as they have. Imagine where they could have been if they’d learned that early on instead of pursuing silly anti-semitism witch-hunts.

    As the author says, the Greens have paid a dear price for their part in helping Labour and we won’t see any gratitude, probably not even support for PR. Despite having an MP and numerous councillors around the country we will also no doubt have to sit by while UKIP gets more short money and more exposure in the media.

  11. Blissex

    «Under Blair, some in the party ridiculed Labour as red Toryism. It was a caricature that, given the damage done since 2010, was wrong almost to the point of offensiveness.»

    Look, let’s put this myth to rest with a pretty “official” story, from the diary of Lance Price, a New Labour mandelsonian, reporting a strategy meeting in 1999-10-19:

    “Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe. Philip didn’t say this, but I think TB either can’t make up his mind or wants to be both at the same time.”

    That is pretty clear: “quasi-Conservative”, not “Conservative” or “red Tory”. 🙂

  12. Blissex

    «Secondly, I don’t really see the Lib Dems as progressive, more a Tory ‘B’ team.»

    It is more the opposite: the Conservative party is the Liberal “B” team. The whigs are too few to get many votes with universal suffrage, so they have infiltrated the Conservatives, like Churchill did. And Labour too: economically libertarian whigs have taken over the Conservative party for quite long stretches of time, and socially libertarian whigs have done the same in the Labour party.

  13. Tom

    …Except in Glasgow North, where Patrick Harvie polled less than the Tories and nearly led to Labour taking the seat from the SNP.

  14. Robert Jones

    This argument, I should have added, is worthless without hard figures to back it up. It’s hardly surprising that they’re entirely absent.

    And so the author is reduced to talking of “signals”. This isn’t an argument, it’s a sales pitch, based on a grossly inflated headline claim which the article beneath it hardly even tries to substantiate.

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    […] victory, their candidates stood down in 38 seats as not to split the progressive vote, helping Labour and the Lib Dems to take nine seats from the […]

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