Beating the Greens at the ballot box — Lessons From Lambeth

This May’s local elections are gearing up to be a key test for Labour in making further decisive inroads into local Conservative control of key councils. Battlegrounds include Bolton, Walsall and Plymouth, amongst others. A less heralded tussle,  which nonetheless could be a harbinger of fights to come over left of centre voters, is the battle to take on and win votes and seats where the Green party is either in power or the main challenger to Labour.

In parts of the country, including Brighton where the Greens run the council, Bristol where they are now the largest party (and fiercely targeting the Bristol West parliamentary seat) and other large cities including Sheffield, Red-Green fights will tip the balance of local control and could decide whether parliamentary seats fall Labour’s way. Labour activists and local campaigns need to learn fast how to win back and retain votes defecting to the Greens or risk losing control of key local authorities.

In our South London borough of Lambeth, the Green Party has been well dug in for some time as the main opposition to the Labour administration with its national leader until last year on the council giving the group a high profile. Many left of centre voters who often put an X in the box for Labour had developed a local Green voting habit. Yet despite strong results for the Greens elsewhere in the UK, as well as in other parts of London, the 2022 Lambeth local election campaign focused on stopping the Greens. The successful campaign saw Labour win ‘safe’ Green seats and push the Green party down to two seats on the council, its worst showing for almost a decade. In Herne Hill & Loughborough Junction we achieved a swing of 6% and returned a council seat from Green to Labour.

So how do we break the Green voting habits of a tranche of Labour supporters and non-aligned voters?  There is no fail safe formula but our experience in Lambeth indicates that there are three keys to winning them for Labour.

Firstly, it’s essential to ‘Outgreen the Greens’.  The Greens clearly have a strong appeal to those who are rightly concerned about environmental issues and the climate and ecological crises. But the Green Party does not have a monopoly on action and neither does it have all of the answers.  Far from it. Across the country, it is Labour councils who are leading the way on getting to net zero, as our own work in Lambeth as the first London borough to declare a climate emergency, our programme of decarbonising council buildings and our trailblazing work prioritising active travel, testifies. Turning that work into ‘pavement politics’ – including school streets, cycle hangar spaces, electric vehicle charging points and food waste collection – is crucial.

And furthermore, Labour in power isn’t just taking environmental action, but we are delivering on climate justice.  Our internationally recognised Kerbside strategy will ensure our neighbourhoods are safer, accessible, environmentally sustainable and more equitable for all our residents by reallocating kerbside space back to communities. And with our biggest ever tree planting programme, deprivation factors will be ranked alongside levels of canopy cover to help address health inequalities in our borough.

Secondly, values-based messaging is critical. A big part of the Green vote is made up of socially liberal homeowners who might otherwise support Labour. For these voters – as with all others – it is important to appeal to their values.  For example, in our focus grouping when talking about the cost of living we got a much better response on the 7000 households we are lifting out of paying council tax (via our council tax support scheme), than when we discussed Lambeth having – as we do – the 10th lowest council tax in the country.  Voters who would consider voting Green were particularly keen on targeted support for those on low incomes, support for refugees, free school meals during the holidays and protecting our children’s centres.

Thirdly, our focus group gave us advice on how to talk about the Greens. Put bluntly they said ‘Don’t’! Response on the doorstep underlined that people see Labour attacks on Greens as throwing our weight around and ‘punching down’ when the party attacks the Greens, putting at risk the support of values-based voters as a result. Whether tweeting, posting on Facebook or delivering literature, ignoring them (even when Green activists attack Labour) and telling your own story is the best advice.

None of the above are a substitute for the age-old virtues of diligent local ward work, regular campaigning with loads of door knocking and direct mail. The ruthless targeting of activists into marginal wards away from safe seats remains a crucial part of the mix.  Out working and out thinking the opposition whether Green, Blue or Yellow will always be a key part of any winning strategy.

The Greens – as a party who profess left values – pose a unique set of problems for Labour and these may well become more acute should we get a Labour government in 2024. The solution requires a bespoke approach targeting campaign resources, dialling down on negative campaigning and going big on positive messaging around the substantial achievements of Labour councils on combatting climate change, the cost of living and fighting inequality!