by Stephen Tall on October 29, 2014
“As Ukip is to the Tories, so can the Green party be to the Lib Dems.” That’s a sentence I wrote 7 years ago, November 2007. So I was interested to see this post by YouGov’s Peter Kellner – ‘Ukip, the Greens and the new politics of protest’ – which looks at his firm’s polling data to find out more about the current spike in support for the Greens.
In it, he aggregates three weeks’ polling data to create a sample size large enough to find out who these new Green voters are. One finding probably won’t surprise many of us: half current Green supporters voted Lib Dem in May 2010:
Here’s how Peter Kellner analyses it:
In many ways the Greens and Ukip are mirror images of each other. Half of Ukip’s supporters are ex-Tory voters, while the Greens attracted half of their vote from the Lib Dems. Green voters are younger, more female, better-educated and more middle-class than the average – whereas Ukip voters are older, more male, more working class and far less likely to have a university degree. Ukip voters veer to the Right in ideology and choice of newspaper, while Greens veer to Left. (In fact, the Greens are more ideological: 60% of them say they a left-of-centre, while just 40% of Ukip voters place themselves on the Right.) On religion – and make of this what you will: their different age profile explains only part of the difference – Ukip voters roughly match Britain as a whole in dividing evenly on whether or not they are religious, whereas Green voters are significantly more likely to be atheists.
Taken together, what seems to be emerging is a two-headed protest vote. In the past, the Lib Dems largely monopolised the anti-big-battalion vote in by-elections – winning middle-class support to beat the Tories in the shires and suburbs, and working-class votes to challenge Labour in inner-city seats.
Those days are long past. British politics has fractured in two ways. The most obvious is that the Lib Dems are no longer an insurgent party, able to attract support when one or both of the two big parties stumble. Moreover, there has also been a long-term decline in some of the forces that used to give British politics its shape and stability. Social class and political ideology matter far less than they used to. Our political loyalties and attitudes are more varied, and so are the sources and expression of protest. Ukip and the Greens are both beneficiaries of this new political reality – as, arguably, is the SNP as it gears up to invade Labour’s heartland in Scotland next May. They all draw on different versions of our current discontents and all offer different remedies.
Can Lib Dems win back these Green voters? Some, I’m sure. Perhaps those who want to register their support for the Greens in polls but will choose to vote Lib Dem when it comes to the crunch. And/or perhaps those who realise where they live the Lib Dems have a much better chance of winning.
However, I doubt we can win them all back. The party’s environmental policies are, in my view, correctly pragmatic, rooted in science. We are now pro-nuclear as the least worst way to de-carbonise and combat climate change. We are cautious of fracking, but not opposed in principle. We have never been vitriolically opposed to GM foods. In rejecting expansion of airports, the party has maintained a ‘purist’ line, but it is one of the few issues where that’s the case.
I think that’s the right approach, but it is clearly a less rigid approach than the Greens’. Just as the Tories’ Eurosceptic approach is not enough for the absolutists who want the UK our of the European Union.
But that doesn’t alter the immediate threat to the Lib Dems – as Kellner notes: “Ukip depriving the Tories of votes in Conservative-Labour marginals, and the Greens making it even harder for Lib Dem MPs to hold their seats against Labour or Conservative challengers”.
Nor does it alter the medium-term threat either: “if Ukip establishes itself next year as the clear second-place challenger to Labour in much of the North, as well as to the Tories along England’s east and south coasts, while the Greens build up support in university seats where they have started to put down roots [then,] in 2020, there could be dozens of seats in which the ‘wasted vote’ argument for sticking to the two big parties won’t apply, and tactical voting could help Ukip and the Greens.”
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.