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Cameron Smith: Why disaffected Conservatives are voting Green

Cameron Smith, CEN's Head of Communications

While the coronation saved Rishi Sunak from days of bruising headlines, there is no denying it; last week's local elections were brutal. The Conservatives lost over 1,000 council seats to left-wing parties, the worst result since May 2019 - when most of these seats were last contested.

No threat on the Conservatives' right flank materialised. Despite concerns about illegal immigration soaring to be the second biggest issue facing the country according to Conservative voters, narrowly behind the economy, Reform UK only won a measly six seats.

Tice's political party had hoped to capitalise on illegal immigration and the Conservatives’ continued support for net zero at these elections, but on both fronts, they failed. The Prime Minister's focus on small boats has paid off this time, and any sceptical Conservatives still worried ambitious climate policies are an electoral liability should be reassured.

However, while Tice failed to scratch the Conservatives' right flank, the party bled heavily on the left, with Labour and Liberal Democrats taking the lion's share of gains at the ballot box. The reason for their success is easy to see; last year's turmoil damaged voters' trust in the Conservatives' economic competence, and an electoral punishment was due.

But the Green Party is the most surprising beneficiary in these elections. It surged at the expense of the Conservatives, doubling its number of councillors from 240 to 481, winning its first majority in Mid Suffolk, and surging to be the largest party on eight more councils. But why are disaffected Conservative voters switching to the Green Party?

Once put off by the Green Party's radical left-wing nature and eccentricity, former Conservatives increasingly feel comfortable backing their candidates. Anecdotally, I saw this at Bexley Council's count last year, where a sole Green candidate stood in a three-member Labour ward. To my surprise, around a third of Green voters went on to back Conservative candidates. While unscientific, seeing how would-be Conservative voters were going Green when it was an option was eye-opening.

Most Conservatives imagine that Green voters would likely be to the left of the Labour Party, and the idea voters could switch between blue and green is unthinkable. Frankly, this assumption (which I previously held) is embarrassingly wrong; the Green Party is a real and growing electoral threat to the Conservatives.

So what's going on? Firstly, a disclaimer. Local elections aren't easy to read. Some people vote on local issues, and others as a judgement on national politics. Many more don't bother to vote at all. The reasons for a political upset in one council ward can be unique, not replicated elsewhere in the council area, let alone reflect the nation's mood.

So we should be wary of easy answers to why the Green Party is winning in Conservative areas. But there seem to be three core reasons: organisation, the salience of the environment, and local campaigns.

Firstly, they don't carry the same baggage as the Liberal Democrats or Labour Party, and they're increasingly organised in Conservative heartlands.

In the case of its first majority council, Mid Suffolk, the Green Party was the only non-Conservative option in ten of the 19 wards that elected Green representation. In neighbouring East Suffolk, they gained twelve seats, becoming the largest party, with the Greens being the only left-wing option in three wards of the ten wards they won.

Where Labour and Liberal Democrats are weak, disorganised and unable to put candidates up, the Greens are finding enough local support to put up a good slate of candidates and win Conservative voters other opposition parties can't. Their ability to achieve this should worry the Conservative Party's HQ and the evidence of tactical voting in these areas even more.

Why are they able to do this? In many communities, environmental concerns trump other issues, from water quality to green spaces, making the Green Party's focus on these issues appealing. We know Conservative voters value these things - concern for the local environment isn't a left-right issue.

In fact, opinion polling consistently shows Conservative voters are knowledgeable, supportive and ambitious when it comes to environmental action.

With voters increasingly concerned about the terrible state of England's rivers, the Green Party has capitalised on pollution fears. Last year, the Conservatives also damaged their environmental credentials with navel-gazing debates on fracking and net zero. This has undermined the green foundations at the heart of the party's electoral success, from David Cameron's modernisation to Boris Johnson's election-thumping 2019 voting coalition.

The Greens aren't alone in trying to win support from voters who have lost faith in the Conservatives' environmental leadership. The Labour and Liberal Democrats are too, but the Greens are better positioned to do so in some parts of Conservative heartlands.

They're also winning on a NIMBY ticket, opposing development, infrastructure and even solar farms in places. This was the case in Mid Suffolk, where concern over a large housing development reportedly helped persuade Conservative voters to switch to the Greens. No doubt they also capitalised on other local issues, learning from the Liberal Democrat playbook.

So now the Conservatives face an increasingly organised Green Party in their heartlands speaking to voters' concerns about development locally and the environment.

It's not the only threat to Sunak's government and may not materialise at the next General Election.

However, it's a more significant threat than Reform UK, and the challenge is growing partly because the Prime Minister has not made environmental action a core priority for his government.

Once achieved, Sunak's economic pledges may stem the tide to Labour at the next General Election, while his bold action to stop small boats keeps Reform UK at bay. But with little to say on the environment - despite the government's impressive record over the past 13 years - the Prime Minister risks losing more disaffected Conservatives to the Greens. And in time, if they keep this up, their success at local elections may also allow them to unseat Conservative MPs.


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