The Greens will almost certainly have their best ever Westminster election this year. Even if their support halves during the campaign, a vote of 3-4% will easily beat their 2005 previous best of 1%.
But the most likely result of the Green Surge – whether it results in a tripling or an octupling of their vote – is that their number of MPs stays the same: 1. There’s an outside chance that they could win another in the four-way contest in Norwich South, but that’s as far as it goes.
So after a best-ever result that may produce no increase in representatives, where do the Greens go next?
They will have a record number of members – potential door-knockers and leaflet-deliverers – who might help them increase their vote in future elections. After May, they will target the 2016 local government elections (so obscure they don’t yet have a Wikipedia page) and the 2019 European elections.
But progress at Westminster will still be the biggest prize and a Syriza-style storming of Parliament is much more difficult under our electoral system. When Syriza won 5% in 2009, and 17% then 27% in 2012, they got a proportionate number of seats each time – making them look like a potential largest party. That route isn’t open to the Greens, just as it hasn’t been to Ukip.
Given that, Westminster electoral reform may be the Greens’ chief goal – but none of the major parties will be interested. The Tories and Labour still benefit from first-past-the-post, and the Lib Dems may lose interest now they get only slightly fewer MPs than their vote demands. Reform would benefit Ukip but their priorities will be Europe and immigration, not changing voting systems. With one or two MPs, the Greens will have little chance of getting it into a coalition agreement. Their best hope for electoral reform might be the Lords or local government elections.
But there is one scenario where things at Westminster might work out for the Greens.
Suppose Labour becomes the largest party in May, and forms either a minority government or a weak coalition. It initially follows Tory spending plans before introducing its own austerity. Without a clear mission, or having convinced its supporters of the need for austerity, and with a divided parliamentary party, a large swathe of 2015 Labour voters – particularly those who’d voted Lib Dem in 2010 and other anti-austeritarians – can see no reason to stick with Labour. Its support drops to the low 20s, while the Greens’ hits the high teens with some polls putting the parties level*.
But even in this scenario there’s a further problem for the Greens. In 1992, a vote of 18% got the Lib Dems just 20 MPs. Something similar for the Greens in 2020 might seem like a springboard for the subsequent election, but come the election after 2020 austerity might be at an end, and with it, the centre of the Greens’ electoral appeal**. What they may need is for the election following 2015 to be early: coming far enough after May 2015 for Labour to have lost much of its support (in this contrived scenario) but not so far away that austerity is near an end.
And if all this goes right for the Greens – and wrong for the others on the left and centre-left – they might have a chance of avoiding Thursday May 7th 2015 going down as their high water mark.
* Ironic, this. Just at the time anti-austerity campaigners are calling for Labour voters to defect to the Greens, a Labour government pledged to austerity might be the thing that gives the Greens the best chance of being able to differentiate themselves.
** There’s a debate to be had about whether this will necessarily remain the Greens’ main appeal and whether it’s enough to win a large number of votes – I could see their emphasis changing, but if it does I’m not sure why they would appeal to any more people than they did in the New Labour era – but for now I’m taking the party as they currently are.