Green Politics Does It Have A Future

In Britain Essay, Research Paper

Does the Green Party Have a Future in Britain?

Although it has been documented that there is a large environmental movement and high levels of popular concern about the environment in Britain, it is a fact that the British Green Party is recognised as being one of the weakest in Europe.

It is the contention of this essay that the hostile electoral system favoured in Westminster Parliamentary elections has stifled the growth of the British Greens and prohibited them from gaining any seats, with the consequential political legitimacy and increased media exposure that necessarily accompanies such positions. The majority of this study revolves around electoral systems and why Britain needs reform if the Greens are to have a future as a politically influential figure. A comparative study with the German Greens will be used, alongside empirical evidence from a multitude of sources to back up these opinions.

Yet the evidence will show that the Greens are likely to remain on the margin of British politics for the foreseeable future, although the forecast appears somewhat brighter for the Scottish Greens.

Factors which will complement a ‘fairer’ electoral system to the benefit of the Greens are suggested later but it is necessary to commence with the central premise of this study; that the electoral system in Britain has constrained the Greens in the past and will continue to prevent its future electoral success until reform is implemented.

Unlike the majority of other Green Parties operating in industrialised nations, the British Greens have had to contend with an electoral system extremely hostile to new parties. According to Sara Parkin, one Belgian Green claimed in 1984 that, given the blatant unfairness of the electoral system to parties outside Labour and Conservative: “It is a matter of astonishment that a Green Party exists in Britain at all.” A look at the Green Party’s electoral performance under the Simple Majority System, more commonly known as First Past The Post (FPTP) only serves to emphasise such claims.

Until Labour’s decision to hold elections for a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 under an electoral system with a degree of Proportional Representation (PR), there had never been an elected Green member in a UK national parliament. Rootes states that until 1989’s European Elections, in elections at every level, Green candidates secured a proportion of the popular vote that, with a few localised exceptions, was little better than derisory. The issues of the Green Party’s seemingly anomalous showing in the European Elections of 1989 requires separate consideration from their UK national electoral performance for reasons we will deal with later in this essay. For now though, we shall consider only electoral results fought under the system of FPTP in UK national elections.

National elections in the UK are run, as we have stated, under a simple majority electoral system. One recurring, and seemingly fair, criticism of the system is that it renders smaller parties virtually powerless to make any kind of dent on political power. This section aims to show that the whole political landscape of national elections in Britain, amongst certain other crucial factors, serves to limit the political opportunities sphere open to the Green Party. Sara Parkin shows that there is survey evidence from 1983 that suggested that 12 percent of the electorate would have been prepared to vote Green if they had not believed that a Green Party vote would have been a ‘wasted vote.’ But in the event of the 1983 General Election, only one percent of those who could have voted Green actually did so at the ballot box. This unfavourable trend continued at the 1992 General Election where despite the Green Party fielding more candidates that it had ever done before (256), the average share of the vote gained by those candidates was fractionally lower than in 1987. It is also important to note that the 1992 General Election saw the Greens secure their largest percentage of national votes to date (0.51 percent) but still the electoral outcome remained the same; no seats won and thousands of pounds lost in deposits alone. To elaborate, the 1992 General Election saw approximately 80, 000 more British citizens cast their vote for the Green Party than in the previous General Election to no political affect at all. Rootes says that this shows Britain to be a clear case where “a high level of diffuse support for environmentalism has, because of an almost uniquely inhospitable electoral system, failed to translate into votes for a Green Party.”

Rudig and Lowe appear to concur with this view, saying that the FPTP electoral system hinders the progress of the Green Party even among those sympathetic to what they perceive to be its aims. Basically, the electoral system is the single most important issue why the Green Party still lacks political legitimacy in Westminster. This lack of credibility means that even members of environmental groups do not usually vote Green in national elections. This explains the paradox thrown up by McCormick and Rudig et al’s findings. McCormick describes Britain as having the “oldest, strongest, best-organised and most widely supported environmental lobby in the world.” And yet, Rudig et al assert that with the exception of fleeting success in the 1989 European Elections, the Green Party has been “singularly ineffectual electorally, never attracting more than 1-2% of the vote.” This may seem a curious pair of findings had we not seen the complete lack of political credibility the FPTP electoral system has bestowed on the British Green Party.

To emphasise the point of how improbable it is that the Greens will ever have an elected MP under FPTP, it is invaluable to look at the Conservative Party in recent years. Advocates of PR can point to the fact that it is not just the smaller parties who can feel the brunt of a simple majority electoral system. The Conservatives managed to secure 17.5 percent of the popular vote in Scotland but won no seats. Taking into account the fact that the Green’s highest ever share of the popular vote in a UK national election was 0.56 percent of the popular vote in England at the 1992 General Election and we can see the futility of the Green’s task under the present voting system. If the Conservatives could secure such a relatively high share of the popular vote and still gain no seats in Scotland then where does that leave the Green Party? On their recent British General Election results, it could take the Green Party decades to reach 17.5 percent, if ever, and still there is no guarantee of winning seats when they get there. Frankland appears to concur with this view, saying that “it is hard to see a breakthrough by the Green in such a ‘First Order Election,’ without electoral reform The Greens themselves see theirs as a long-term struggle and look to the late 1990s for their Westminster breakthrough.” It is now the Year 2000; there has been no electoral reform as yet for Westminster parliamentary elections, and the Greens look as close to their ‘Westminster breakthrough’ as they did at Frankland’s time of writing.

Another factor which limits political opportunities to the British Greens is the issue of finance. Earlier, we touched on the issue of lost deposits at national elections. The conditions for standing in a UK national election are that you must have the endorsement of 10 signatures of electors registered in the constituency in which you are standing and a deposit of 500; refundable only if you secure over 5 percent of the vote. The deposit rule has affected the Green Party badly over the years, financially constraining their political opportunities. Results from the Election website at claim that in the four British General Elections from 1983-1997, the Green Party has only had one deposit refunded. Using this site’s statistics, we can estimate the cost to the Green Party of standing in four General Elections, even before general campaign costs are taken into account, at approximately 294, 000. And also, using this data, we can also calculate the total cost of financing a deposit for every contested seat. Over these four General Elections there were a total of 2, 610 seats contested. At 500 a deposit, this would have required an overall risk of 1, 305, 000 just to stand in these elections. Again, it must be stressed that this cost is the minimum amount the Green Party would have had to spend and, given their electoral results, the vast majority of this figure would not have been refunded. This places severe financial limitations on parties such as the Greens.

Finances withstanding, the Greens also have the difficult task of finding enough representatives to stand for election under their party’s banner; a party with no political credibility. These factors all add up to a pretty bleak future for the British Greens under the current electoral system. If we relate these limitations with the situation faced by Die Grunen in Germany then we can see a marked contrast. The German system is a great example of how new parties can expand into parties with influence and recognition, as a result of more sympathetic political opportunities field. This should also enable us to point the way ahead for the Greens in Britain.

In Germany, the opportunity provided by the German federal system for a new party to win seats in the Landtage, which are more significant political arenas than the local and regional councils of unitary systems. By clearing the electoral hurdles in a number of Lander during the early 1980s, Die Grunen gained a level of national media attention that the British Greens could only envy. This enabled Die Grunen to build up financial resources; parliamentary skills and experience; and most importantly – political credibility. Furthermore, as an incentive to new parties and in direct contrast to the British system described above, under German electoral law there are no required constituency deposits for candidates. In addition, parties in Germany who win 0.5 percent or more of the votes qualify for campaign reimbursements from public funds. The fact that a national alliance of Greens (SPV) qualified for DM 4.5 million as a result of their showing in the 1979 European Elections and the prospects of substantial public funding as a consequence of participating in Bundestag elections clearly encouraged the formation, and subsequent success, of a national German Green Party in early 1980.

Richardson and Rootes state that:

As of early 1994, the (unified) Greens hold seats in the European Parliament, the Bundestag, 13 of 16 Landtage and hundreds of local councils. Their electoral performance has altered the pattern of coalition politics in several Lander and many localities; there are Green ministers, state secretaries, departmental heads and mayors. Even when confined to opposition, the Greens have had an undeniable impact on the environmental programmes of the major parties, especially of the SPD. As a feminist party, they have contributed to the changed public discourse on the role of women in German society.

It seems that the German Greens, while a long way away from becoming a major party force, cannot be ignored. One quote which establishes exactly how far behind the British Greens are comes from Dr. Hans-Georg Betz, ADJ Professor in International and Public Affairs at New York’s University of Columbia:

One thing appears certain: at least for the foreseeable future, [The German Greens] will remain a central factor in the new German politics.

As, we have already seen, by no stretch of the imagination could the British Green Party be referred to as ‘central’ to British Politics, in terms of political legitimacy at least. Granted, in some local level elections the Greens have managed to maintain at least a moderate electoral force in some areas. Despite their disastrous 1992 General Election, they did manage to retain many of their council seats. Rootes seems to suggest that the only way forward for the British Green Party, under the current electoral system at least, is through sustained local campaigning. The theory being that this could lead to more local success from which the Greens could build on. But it has to be noted that the only instances of electoral success for the British Greens have come in secondary elections in which the conditions of political competition are nowhere near as fierce as in national parliamentary elections. The most salient example would be the European Elections of 1989.

Political commentators have rightly refused to overstate the Greens’ achievements in securing 14.9 percent of the vote in those elections, focussing instead of the ‘political cycle dominated by the sequence of elections.’ According to Rudig et al, these elections can be viewed as a mid-term election, or ’second order’ election in the British context. Government parties are expected to do badly in mid-term elections, where there is increased scope for experimental or protest voting in favour of smaller parties. In this case, the Government party (Conservatives) was bound to do badly as a result of the fallout over the poll tax. But when General Election time comes around, voting tends to be more predictable, in that the larger parties swallow up the majority of votes. This is due to the nature of the electoral system, and the financial superiority of the larger parties in mobilising voters through expensive campaigning; an option not open to the Greens, who are funded solely by donations. But is has much to do with the fact that second-order elections have little impact or importance in the public eye compared with first-order elections such as General Elections. It has been suggested that the British public view European Elections as second order elections. This view seems justifiable when we look at British turnout at European Elections in the period 1979-1994.

The British turnout at these elections has been very poor, rising slightly in each subsequent election from the 31.6 percent recorded in 1979 until the peak of 36.4 percent in 1994. However, the appalling figure for 1999 seems to force the point home. Less than one in four people in the UK turned out to vote in the elections to the European parliament in 1999. At one polling station in Sunderland, only 15 people turned out to register a vote.

Basically, the point to take on board here is that the Green Party in Britain have never had anyone elected to either the British or European parliaments under the FPTP system. We must therefore take into account that although the Greens did extremely well in terms of votes in 1989, the end result was the same; no seats won. When we look at the occasions that the Greens have fought elections under a system of PR then we can see the way forward for the party.

For the first time in Britain in 1999, elections to a national parliament were held under a system of PR in Scotland. Also in the same year, a system of PR was introduced for European Parliamentary Elections over the whole of Britain. It is the European Parliamentary elections which we shall look at first. As we have already established, the Greens obtained 14.9 percent of the vote in the 1989 European Elections. The turnout in that year was 36.2 percent and the result for the Greens was no seats won. When we compare this with the 1999 European election results we can see a more favourable picture emerging for the Greens. Although the Greens only managed a 5.8 percent share of the vote, with a 24.0 percent turnout, they managed to secure two European Parliamentary seats under the new PR rules. This means that with a vastly reduced number of voters, the Greens managed to gain a degree of electoral success under PR.

Similarly, in the Scottish Parliament elections of 1999, the Scottish Green Party managed to secure their first ever UK parliamentary seat after the election of Robin Harper MSP on second preference voting. Fielding only five candidates in the 1997 General election, the Green Party secured 0.06 percent of the vote in Scotland with a turnout of 71.40 percent. The Scottish Parliament elections had a slightly lower turnout of 58 percent but the Scottish Greens secured 3.59 percent of the second preference votes; their biggest ever share of votes in a national election. The Scottish election and the European Elections of 1999 prove two different points.

Firstly, the European Elections prove that PR is fairer to smaller parties in terms of votes translating into seats. Securing a smaller portion of a smaller turnout than the previous elections led to the first European parliament seats for the Greens. And all this under an electoral system described by John Curtice, deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, as a improvement for smaller parties but still not a level playing field with the rest of Europe:

For in adopting PR, Britain has opted for a version that makes it more difficult for small parties to win seats than is the case almost anywhere else in Europe.

Secondly, the Scottish election proves that PR is fairer to smaller parties in terms of the interest it generates among voters and parties too. An unprecedented percentage of voters chose the Scottish Green Party in the first ever elections held under PR. The effect of a change to this ‘fairer’ voting system was evident in the behaviour of the Scottish Greens themselves, prior to the elections. It was the biggest election campaign ever run by the Scottish Greens. As Robin Harper stated:

We were greatly encouraged by the fact that for the first time in a UK election there would be a fair voting system. Small parties would have a chance of election through the second vote.

These elections have given the Greens the political legitimacy they have strived for since their formation as the Ecology party in 1973. This legitimacy could prove to be the catalyst towards Westminster electoral success, but only if some manner of electoral reform is implemented. Their new found voice in the Scottish and European parliament should help raise the visibility of the party in Britain and enable them to enjoy the benefits of increased media coverage; an issue which Harper was disappointed with in the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections:

It was also impossible to get the TV companies to give us a platform alongside the four main parties on their debates programmes, or the press to give us anything more than token.

On the assumption that political success breeds more political success, the Green Party has now managed to place their foot on the first rung of the ladder. The Scottish Greens’ future looks fairly bright at the moment. Since the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections, their membership has rose by 50 percent. However, it still only totals 400 so there are signs of encouragement for the Scottish Greens but a long way to go yet.

It would be foolish to suggest that the electoral system is the sole reason why the British Green Party have not done well in national elections but it is the contention of this essay that it is by far the most significant. Basically, the Scottish Parliament and European Elections of 1999 have laid the foundations for the British Greens to develop into a party with real influence, visibility and credibility. However, it must be emphasised that PR would only give the Green Party a foot on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, the future of the party depends on a number of factors, not only on a change to PR. The changes in Scotland are a start but realistically, there needs to be UK-wide electoral reform in order for the Greens to begin to become a political force. It is all fair and well for the Greens to gain legitimacy in Scotland but in terms of UK politics, under FPTP, they should most probably remain as marginal as they are now. The remainder of this essay aims to set out the other conditions under which, coupled with UK-wide electoral reform, could enable the British Greens to grow into an influential political force, as their European counterparts have.

Salience of Environmental Issues.

Rootes suggests that it is contentious to claim that the mere existence of the British Green Party raises the profile of environmental concerns. He claims that the opposite is true; environmental concerns raise the profile of the Green Party. He states:

When, in 1989, they {British Greens] polled 15% of the vote, the party was the beneficiary of the increasing environmental awareness of the public and the government; it was popular anxieties about environmental matters, fuelled in part by government initiatives, development pressures and food safety scares, which fed the stream of environmentalist concern which flowed to the Green Party.

Salience of environmental issues therefore is a factor which seems to have major implications on whether people vote Green or not. This is a view shared by other leading political commentators such as Rudig, Franklin and Bennie:

The environment reached unprecedented levels of political salience in Britain in 1988 and 1989 in the run up to the European Elections, having climbed to the top of the political agenda perhaps for the first time by 1988.

The growing salience of environmental issues was illustrated best by Mrs. Thatcher seemingly overnight metamorphosis into an environmentalist for her third term. Interestingly enough, it appears that while Mrs. Thatcher’s speech to the Royal Society in September 1988 was as a result of growing public environmental awareness, the outcome of directly addressing this issue was even further public environmental awareness. Following the speech, there was a sharp rise in environmental concern; the rise in environmental concern and the rise in the attraction of the Green Party went hand in hand. But the political salience of the environment and the corresponding importance bestowed upon it by citizens is an extremely complex issue. There seems to be no doubt that political salience of the environment played its part in the Greens European Election success in 1989 but it is not a reliable indicator of how many will vote Green. Even when the environment is accorded the utmost significance there are still many other factors which will decided the outcome of elections (for instance the abolition of tuition fees or tax reductions) and this is what makes Green political success to difficult to predict.

While we tentatively acknowledge the influence of political salience in light of its shortcomings, it is imperative to note that there were other factors behind the Greens’ levels of electoral support in 1989. There was also widespread disaffection towards the main political parties in Britain at the time; towards the Conservatives as a result of the poll tax; Labour for changing its policy on nuclear weapons; and the Liberal Democrats for the mess it had made of its merger with the SDP. Consequently, Rootes claims that:

Nothing more clearly demonstrated the extent to which the Greens’ success in 1989 depended upon an extraordinary state of political competition than the contrasting result in 1992.

Briefly, other factors which could affect the Green vote include:

The Economy.

Based on Lowe and Goyder’s 1983 finding that periods of sudden growth of environmental groups occurred “towards the end of periods of sustained economic expansion.” Rudig et al’s research expands on this over the page:

The salience of environmental concern appears to rise only on the basis of actual experience of economic growth and well-being, whereas rising expectations about an economic up-turn are not necessarily associated with a higher salience for environmental issues.

This suggests that if such periods of actual ‘economic growth and well-being’ coincide with national government elections then the potential for more people to vote Green is increased.

Compromise Within the Green Party.

Further studies by Rudig et al seem to show the existence of strong factions within the British Green Party. They claim that it is essential that the differing views on party strategy within the Green Party “could have an adverse effect on the maintenance of the membership and activism base.” Studies show that the left-anarchist position is most strongly associated with activism and membership retention. However, this same position of commitment to “grass roots democracy and alternative life-styles” is a most electorally unpopular position. Basically, the strongest activist and most faithful members tend to have Green opinions which are less than likely to win the party votes. Rudig et al conclude that to alienate these left-anarchists would be to place the future of the Green Party in jeopardy. Yet for the Green Party to “survive as an entity on a left-anarchist, biocentric footing” would be extremely unlikely to lead to a promising electoral future. Therefore, a compromise of positions is necessary to enhance the chances of the Greens arriving at the next level of political legitimacy.

In conclusion, the British Greens would appear to have a bright future in Scotland, where electoral reform has brought them parliamentary representation with the promise of increased levels of credibility and visibility to build on. However, in a UK-wide perspective the future for the Greens is less clear. It will depend heavily on whether Tony Blair decides to implement a PR-based electoral system for Westminster elections.

If reform is implemented, the Greens will have the opportunity to build up influence in the same ways which they should be able to in Scotland under the present system. The increased media coverage, which would come with being a party in parliament, would also help their cause. Once given a foothold, the Greens could possibly start to emulate their German counterparts. But, the level of success they achieve is also dependent on factors discussed above; salience of environmental issues, the state of the economy at ‘first order’ elections; the public feeling towards the other main political parties; and whether or not the Greens can present a united, coherent policy front in light of their internal factions. Yet, the likelihood of these factors all working concurrently in a positive manner for the Greens, as they did in 1989, are slim. Rootes says that the failure of the 1989 success, under “extraordinary conditions of political competition,” to be emulated by the Greens in subsequent elections (until 1999) “serves only to confirm the conclusion that, under the conditions of political competition normal in Britain, the Green Party’s prospects are distinctly uncompromising.”

And sadly, these poor electoral prospects for the Green Party seem destined to remain for the imminent future at least. Labour internal policy review found that opponents of electoral reform outnumbered those in favour by more than five to one. Tony Blair painted a bleak future for the Greens with his statement:

We’ve effectively said that we won’t have it in this Parliament. As to what happens next Parliament, well, there’ll be a debate or discussion in the Labour Party. We’ll make up our minds at a later time on that.

Aides of Mr Blair say that he had “gone cold” on the idea of electoral reform after the failure of Labour to effectively horse-trade with the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament, and also as a result of the Kosovo war. The Prime Minister was apparently appalled that other leaders who headed coalition government delayed decisive military actions while they won the support of small parties who enjoyed a pivotal role in their administrations.

So it seems as though the immediate future for the Greens is not too bright, except in Scotland. Whether the Scottish Greens can achieve a level of success which spreads to the rest of the UK only time will tell. But until FPTP is replaced by a relatively fairer system, the Greens in Britain will have to remain on the margin.

But it has been argued that the Green movement is the most important innovation in party systems since the 1920s and will be around for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the celebrated article The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, argues that now that communism has ceased to be, the new challenges to capitalism will come from either Islam or the Green movement. This seems to suggest that the Green movement is here to stay and surely their day will come, in terms of electoral reform, if they stay patient and focussed. They must be sick of waiting but the recent changes to British politics, and their election successes of 1999, show that success in Britain is possible, if not probable. So the Green Party appears to have a future in Britain; it is just that we cannot say for sure just how far in the future it will be when they start to enjoy significant electoral success and political influence.

Green Politics Essay: Bibliography.


Bennie, L.G., Franklin, M.N., and Rudig, W. Green Dimensions: The Ideology of the British Greens, in Rudig (ed.) (1995) Green Politics Three (Edinburgh University Press)

Brooke, P. The Green Party and the Environment, London: Conservative Research Department, 1989.

Conradt, D. , Kleinfeld, G.R. , Romoser, G.K. , Soe, C. (eds.): Germany s New Politics; Parties and Issues in the 1990s. (1995, Berghahn Books, Providence and Oxford)

Evans, G., Hard Times for the British Green Party, Environmental Politics Vol 2, No. 1, (Summer 1993)

McCormick. J. British Politics and the Environment (1991 London: Earthscan)

Parkin, S. Green Parties: An International Guide (1989, London: Heretic)

Richardson, D and Rootes, C. (Eds.) The development of Green parties in Europe. (1995, Routledge, London and New York.

Rudig, W., and Lowe, P. The Withered Greening of British Politics: A Study of the Ecology Party, Political Studies, Vol. 34, 1986, pp.262-284

Rudig, W., Franklin, M.N., and Bennie, L.G. Green Blues: The Rise and Fall of the British Greens, Strathclyde Papers on Government and Politics, No.95 (1993)

Rudig, W. (ed.), Green Politics Three, (1995 Edinburgh University Press)

Rudig, W. (1990) Explaining Green Party Development; Reflections on a Theoretical Framework. (1990, Strathclyde University)

Rudig, W. (ed.) (1990) Green Politics One. (Edinburgh University Press)


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The Herald Online (

Election Results website (

The Independent Newspaper


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