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  1. The Weekend Report
17 June 2023

The Green awakening

Why the Tories were routed in rural England.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Stowmarket, a quiet market town in rural Suffolk, is a vision in pigs’ blood. Its pink cottages, which speckle the lanes and skirt the town centre, first got their distinctive colour from the by-products of slaughtered pigs or oxen being mixed into the whitewash. “It may not please us environmentalists, but that was the tradition,” said John Matthissen, a Green councillor. In his courgette-green jumper, flatcap and walking shoes, a red ant scuttling across his collar, Matthissen is an unlikely spin doctor. The retired accountant and former east London boy, who joined the Greens back when they were the Ecology Party, moved here from Newham in 1979. At last, his moment has arrived.

In May’s local English elections, for the first time in the history of Mid Suffolk council, a sweep of parish churches and tearooms, retirees and farmers, bumblebees and Apaches (Wattisham Airfield is next door), the Conservatives lost. The Green Party, bouncing from 12 to 24 seats (out of 34), is now in power – its first council majority, and the first time a Green party in Europe has won majority rule over a local authority. The Greens are advancing in other Tory heartlands – winning 12 seats in East Suffolk, and becoming the largest party in Lewes and East Hertfordshire, where the Conservatives collapsed.

Something odd is going on. The Green heartlands are shifting. In Brighton, the centre of English Greenery, in May, the party had its worst performance since 2003 – losing control of Brighton and Hove City Council to Labour, which won its first majority in the city for two decades. The council had long been losing local trust. In 2021 it turned out, in a clunking irony, that Brighton and Hove – then controlled by a minority Green administration – had the worst recycling record in England.

Greens were also wiped out in York, another urban stronghold. The party is in the midst of an identity crisis. While urban Greens are vocal about progressive policies, such as universal basic income, a four-day working week and rent controls, rural Greens such as those in Suffolk wish to conserve the countryside and protect green spaces.

Some of the new Green councillors I met in Suffolk were just beginning their political careers (“I’ll have to dial in remotely,” one said of an imminent council meeting, “I’ve got a load of mulch being delivered to the allotment”), while Caroline Lucas, the former party leader and the country’s only Green MP, was simultaneously preparing her departure from the Commons. Having won ever larger majorities in Brighton Pavilion since she was first elected in 2010, Lucas has been the face of a party short of star appeal. Announcing her resignation, Lucas said: “The intensity of… constituency commitments, together with the particular responsibilities of being my party’s sole MP mean that, ironically, I’ve not been able to focus as much as I would like on the existential challenges that drive me – the nature and climate emergencies.”

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Perhaps she feels the succession is safe because of the emergence of the energetic but unthreatening duo of Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer as the party’s joint leaders in England and Wales. “Caroline’s shown just how important it is that we have Greens in parliament and why we need a group of Green MPs in parliament,” Ramsay told me. Her resignation “will increase the focus on building that next generation of Green MPs”.

[See also: It’s hard to be a “tree-hugger” but progressive politicians must try]

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The party is now part of the leadership of 34 councils in England and Wales. In May three quarters of its record gains of 241 council seats were from the Tories. What is going on? How is a curious coalition of socialists, climate luvvies, technocrats, pastoral conservatives and career protesters winning the gamey hearts of rural Conservative England?

The answer, largely, is that many voters are disillusoned with the Tories and associate the Green brand with warmth and care for the local environment. “When you talk to people about ‘the environment’, they mean ‘where they live’,” said Rachel Eburne, the new deputy leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, who had left the business world to study a masters in environmental politics at King’s College London. She wore sharp tortoiseshell glasses and red Converse, and after a long council meeting was ready for lunch at The Mix, a youth centre in Stowmarket town centre, with its pool and ping-pong tables and pride stickers.

Polluted rivers and beaches (we were not far from the pebbly swathes of the Suffolk coastline), poor public transport and loss of green spaces are problems acknowledged, if not addressed, by the word “green” on a ballot paper. “Lots of people who voted for us had no idea what the national policies of the Greens were,” said Colin Lay, a community engagement worker and councillor elected in May. “It was all local… People like green policies. Green policies sell. It’s just having the credibility behind it to see it through.”

But there are differences between the local Greens and the policies of the national party – especially on housing. Ramsay and Denyer launched their local election campaign in Stowmarket, promising rent controls and a mass council housebuilding programme. Yet the Greens I met were down on local developments. Matthissen called one housing project “the pinnacle of insanity”, while Lay shook his head about “a tiny village like Thurston getting 1,200 new houses” without improved infrastructure and services. Greens locally have also opposed electricity pylons and the Sizewell C nuclear power station.

There is no contradiction, counters Andy Mellen, a farmer and leader of the council. “It’s about the right place and the right price.” He wants more but affordable houses built to a high environmental standard; his priority is to retrofit insulation into poor-quality newbuilds. Why did Mellen and his fellow travellers win? “Partly, we had a really good campaign, partly the Tories pretty much left the field of play,” he told me. “They could see the writing on the wall from the national situation and the shenanigans in Westminster, and voters remember that.”

He was dressed smart-casual in a navy V-neck and khaki chinos, but the soil beneath his nails gave away his day job running a smallholding. “OK, our voters may not necessarily be deeply into the kind of Green thinking, but they’ve seen an active person who’s interested in and engaged with their community.”

[See also: How Deep England fell out of love with Boris Johnson]

There is evidence that this latest Green surge is more than a protest vote. John Curtice, the polling guru, found that the Green vote in 2023 rose in areas Green candidates performed best in the 2019 local elections: voters are sticking with their choice and new bases are solidifying.

Concentrating support brings the hope of more Green MPs. Ramsay is running for the new constituency of Waveney Valley, which covers much of Mid Suffolk. The party’s top target is Bristol West, where Denyer is the candidate. One in rural Tory England, one a Labour city, these constituencies embody the Green dilemma. Go in hard on national policies such as a four-day working week, legalising cannabis and taxing landlords? Or hold back on economic and social justice politics in case former Tory rural voters are spooked?

The true challenge is governing well. “The Greens often perform best, electorally, when they are the party of the insurgency, not the party of the establishment,” as Dr Sam Power of Sussex University noted in the Argus.

The new Green knights of rural England are well aware of the pressure. “Because we’ve got that first Green majority, the eyes of the world are on us,” Andy Mellen said. “We’ve got to deliver.”

[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars