In the recent European elections, in terms of the total vote, the Green Party received 0.2 million more votes than the Liberal Democrats.[i] Moreover, 5 percent of those surveyed in a recent national poll conducted by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, responded to the question, ‘If there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?’ by saying they would vote for the Green Party, which was the same percentage as those who said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats.[ii]
Going into the recent European elections, the Greens had every right to be optimistic about winning more seats, especially within the context of unease with the main political parties in Britain. Yet it only won one extra seat, and held on to its two existing ones. UKIP outstripped all the political parties in Britain, winning the most number of MEPs, with 24 being elected. But the Liberal Democrats now only have one MEP.[iii]
Despite the growth in support, the Green Party does not feature on Ofcom’s list of ‘major parties’ (published in March 2014), which designates major parties in Great Britain as the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, along with the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales respectively. The list also considers the Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party to be major parties in Northern Ireland. UKIP is even included on the list in England and Wales for the European elections.[iv] Whilst the list was dated to March this year – that is, before the recent elections – with the Green Party now having three MEPs, two more than the Liberal Democrats, it is perhaps time to update and reassess whether the Green Party should be viewed as a major party in British politics.
A petition on the website ‘38 Degrees’ which calls on the BBC to end a blackout of the Green Party, has received 49,581 signatures as of 11 June 2014.[v] The petition claims that the BBC News coverage of the Green Party in the recent local and European elections has been almost completely absent, noting that whilst UKIP made gains in the local elections, so too did the Greens, which now has a total of 162 councillors across the country, and are now the official opposition in Liverpool, Solihull, Islington, Lewisham and Norwich (which has 15 councillors to the Labour Party’s 21).[vi] The party also gained two seats in Bristol and retained a third, which brings the total in Bristol to six. With one MP (one more than UKIP, which failed to beat the Conservatives to win the recent Newark by-election), two London Assembly members, and leading the council in Brighton and Hove, these are privileges not enjoyed by UKIP.
The Green’s EU manifesto, published in the run-up to the EU elections, included, unsurprisingly, much about the environment.[vii] Yet it also contained much on issues like health, education and social justice. Writing in The Independent, Natalie Ben, leader of the Green Party, reflected why it was important to get more people to vote; over 60 percent of voters stayed at home and did not vote for the EU elections. ‘There were critically important issues to be debated in this election: the disastrous proposed EU-US free trade deal; the importance of strong renewables and energy efficiency targets; the very nature of the EU and the need to reform it to make it work democratically for the people of Europe rather than in the interests of big corporations’. In the local elections, she queried where the debate was about the impacts of government austerity or the promises to freeze council tax and the effect on services.[viii]
With a recent poll from the Department of Energy and Climate Change revealing 68 percent of those questioned were concerned with climate change, the party should have had a surge in the polls in Europe, especially with the disillusionment with traditional parties.[ix] Instead, that disillusionment was swept up by UKIP in participation with voter apathy and a low turnout. One reason, perhaps, is described by John McCormick, a Professor of European Union Politics at Indiana University in Indianapolis, America. Barely one-third of the British population, he states, think they understand how the EU works. This is one of the lowest rates in the EU. This, together with Britain being amongst the least excited about the EU, ‘has spawned a public debate over the EU that is replete with myths and misconceptions’.[x] These myths and misconceptions are heightened by sections of the media which are Eurosceptic, along with UKIP’s ability to raise people’s awareness levels of it, in addition to a reserved nature by pro-EU groups to speak out in favour of it (look at the debates between UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister).[xi]
If the mainstream political parties articulated better how the EU works and what it does for us – or how we are affected by it – voter apathy might be less. Yes, there is unease and disappointment with mainstream political parties and politicians, which might account for the rise of UKIP, but also Europe itself, is an issue: the EU is the unknown, distant parliament. All the political parties need to inform the public better in what the EU does and why it is important to vote in elections. That way, perhaps, more people would see it as more worthwhile to vote, than they did.
[i] The Green Party, ‘General Election 2015: Greens polling at 7%’, 10 June 2014: http://greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/06/10/general-election-2015-greens-polling-at-7/.
[ii] Lord Ashcroft Polls: http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/ANP-140602-Full-tables.pdf.
[iii] The Green Party, ‘General Election 2015: Greens polling at 7%’, 10 June 2014: http://greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/06/10/general-election-2015-greens-polling-at-7/.
[iv] Ofcom’s list of major parties: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/broadcast/guidance/major-parties.pdf.
[v] 38 Degrees, ‘BBC News stop this media blackout of the Green Party: –https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/bbc-news-stop-this-media-blackout-of-the-green-party;
[vi] The Green Party, ‘Local elections surge is on! Green Party gain ground across Britain’, 24 May 2014: http://greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/05/24/local-elections-the-surge-is-on!-green-party-gain-ground-across-britain/.
[vii] The Green Party, EU Manifesto – ‘Real Change’: http://greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/European%20Manifesto%202014.pdf.
[viii] Natalie Bennett, ‘Enough stealth success for the Greens, let’s get visible’, 1 June 2014: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/enough-stealth-success-for-the-greens-lets-get-visible-9466337.html. See also Catch 21, ‘Green Party fights on despite being ignored’, June 2014: http://www.catch21.co.uk/2014/06/green-party-fights-on-despite-being-ignored; The Green Party, ‘General election 2015: Greens polling ahead of Lib Dems, the coalition partners’, 3 June 2014: http://greenparty.org.uk/news/2014/06/03/general-election-2015-greens-polling-ahead-of-lib-dems,-the-coalition-partners/.
[ix] DECC Public Attitudes Tracker survey – Wave 9 (Summary of headline findings), 29 April 2014: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/306898/summary_of_key_findings_wave_9.pdf; See also RenewableUK, ‘Press Release: Public support for onshore wind at record level proving the Tories are out of touch’, 29 April 2014: http://www.renewableuk.com/en/news/press-releases.cfm/2014-04-29-public-support-for-onshore-wind-at-record-level-proving-the-tories-are-out-of-touch.
[x] John McCormick, ‘The UKs opposition to the EU is driven by a lack of information and undirected hostility’, LSE Blog, 6 March 2014: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/03/06/the-uks-opposition-to-the-eu-is-driven-by-a-lack-of-information-and-undirected-hostility/; See also EU Public Opinion, ‘Eurobarometer surveys’: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm.
[xi] John McCormick, ‘The UKs opposition to the EU is driven by a lack of information and undirected hostility’, LSE Blog, 6 March 2014: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/03/06/the-uks-opposition-to-the-eu-is-driven-by-a-lack-of-information-and-undirected-hostility/.