In search of a Left UKIP

What does a Green surge at the local elections mean for Labour? Is a Left UKIP possible?
Alex Champion

At the local elections at the beginning of May, the Conservatives lost over 1,000 seats and the control of nearly 50 councils.

The major opposition parties performed well. Labour became the largest party of local government, winning 2,675 seats, up from 2,131; the Liberal Democrats won 1,628 seats, up from 1,223; and the Greens won 481 seats, up from 239, 47 more than their previous record set in 2019.

Labour, still reeling from the 2019 general election defeat and captured by a narrow centrist project, has moved to ostracise the left of its party and in doing so threw out key components of its 2019 Green Industrial Revolution pledge.

From this, there emerges the slightly tongue-in-cheek notion of a 'Left UKIP' riding in to save marginalised progressive voters. This idea of a Left UKIP means, in short, a party that while proving relatively electorally unsuccessful, can shift the public discourse left and strongarm one of the two established political parties into carrying out their goals – as UKIP did to the Conservatives over Brexit.

With the Green surge at the local elections and their activists feeling boisterous about potentially picking up their second MP at the next general election, the question is whether the Greens will be able to drag Labour to the left on climate.

The Greens won 481 seats at the local elections. Image: secretlondon123/Wikimedia Commons.

To properly answer this, we need to understand why UKIP was so successful in getting its policy adopted by the two mainstream parties from a position of such electoral obscurity. In short, its leverage was not in the seats that it won but in the more than 100 seats that it almost won.

UKIP's leverage

When we talk about the political legacy of UKIP, we're rarely talking of the legions of gammon-faced cryptids it raised to stand, to invariably be crushed by one of the established parties. We're instead talking of the main two parties' attitudes towards Europe and their rhetoric on immigration, currently being played out in the small boats 'crisis' and bipartisan adoption of a points-based immigration system.

In the 2015 general election, UKIP's electoral high water mark in Westminster, it held onto one seat that it had gained in a by-election the previous year. It did however come second in 120 constituencies, 75 of which were Conservative, and gained 12.6% of the popular vote with a +9.5% swing – the largest of the election.

UKIP swallowed a sizable chunk of votes from both swing seats and safe Tory heartlands all over England. This top-down national approach was enabled with capital from some of Britain's less politically correct plutocrats and a friendly media atmosphere that promoted Farage as a serious contender. With connections in print media, the celebrity of its leader and enough financial backing to promote the campaign all over the country, the party was able to reach new heights despite having a comparatively small membership.

A Left UKIP?

In contrast, the Greens run a hyperlocal strategy of slow but steady local gains, building up momentum to take seats they already have a comfortable majority in at the local level. For instance, party co-leader Carla Denyer will likely stand in Bristol West where she ran in 2019, while their other co-leader Adrian Ramsay has announced his intention to stand in the newly-created seat of Waveney Valley, straddling the Norfolk-Suffolk border.

Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer stood in Bristol West in 2019. Image: Bristol Green Party/Flickr.

This may prove to be a winning strategy for the Greens but won't pose the same level of threat to Labour's chances at a national level until they're actively hampering Labour's advance in dozens of swing seats, or making significant inroads into safe seats. UKIP influenced the Tories because they disrupted the national picture for the entire Conservative party, either by winning seats outright or taking enough votes from them to allow other parties to sneak through and win. That's something the Greens would need to replicate with Labour if they were to start to wield similar leverage nationally.

Importantly, like UKIP, in this year's local elections the Greens took votes from both parties where direct Lab-Tory switches were too great a journey for many voters to undergo in a single election. However, Corbynism's focus on climate and anti-austerity politics squeezed possible urban gains for the Greens in many of their 2015 targets such as Norwich South and Sheffield Central, stacking Labour votes into seemingly unassailable majorities.

The Greens' targets were forced to shift towards more rural Conservative seats in deepest blue rural south and east England where Labour was untenable. Where the Greens did recently pick up votes was from both dissatisfied Labour voters, who felt abandoned by its rightward lurch, and from traditional Conservative voters, who see green politics as a relatively toothless but well-meaning affair.

The Greens shifted to targeting rural Conservative seats after the rise of Corbynism. Image: Greg Wilson/Unsplash.

While an increase in Green parliamentary representation can be used to bring their message to a wider audience and highlight issues to the left of current political debate, it alone doesn’t pose a threat to Labour nationally. Labour's more suburban target seats currently have little Green Party presence and with the Conservatives currently feeling the greatest effects of this green surge, the loss of Bristol West or Green gains in Tory heartlands will be unlikely to shift many in Labour HQ.

Where next?

If the Green Party wants to become a serious left-wing alternative to Labour, it will need to build a mass membership and court support from the trade union movement. With the reliable funding streams and consistent political direction that this would afford them, the Greens could entice existing left-wing activists and trade unions such as CWU, FBU and Unite to rethink their relationship with Labour.

Nationalising water could strike a chord with Tory and Labour voters. Image: Alexander/Unsplash.

It's not impossible that with growing distrust of Starmer personally and a public hungry for more ambitious left-wing economic policy, we see this effect after the next general election, as the Greens could hoover up disaffected Labour voters. If the Greens can focus on a Green New Deal, with public ownership at its heart, putting forward a common-sense narrative of national self-reliance and social justice, they can strike a chord with voters of all stripes around the country. Nationalising water companies to protect local waterways from sewage and bring down bills is an idea that can strike a chord in even the bluest of Tory consistencies and goes beyond Labour’s current meagre offerings.

By being honest about their interventionist policies, rather than triangulating to an imagined median voter, the Greens can speak to a very wide cohort that’s currently being ignored by all the major parties. However, unless they can show strong inroads into key Labour seats or target seats soon, we're unlikely to see a Left UKIP effect materialising in the short term. If Labour is to take climate seriously again, it falls to a popular movement of the young and old, trade unionists and socialists to force its hand.

Alex Champion is a socialist, trade unionist and climate justice activist. He previously sat on Labour for a Green New Deal’s leadership team and Momentum’s climate justice committee. He is currently a postgraduate student in theoretical physics.

Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

Alex Champion

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