In the South-West, the Green Party is probing electoral waters. Is there hope for a third way between the Tories and Labour?
At the end of April 2022, The Guardian’s popular ‘Politics Weekly’ podcast visited Plymouth to try and pinpoint the political mood in ‘Britain’s Ocean City’.
It was the wake of Boris Johnson’s now infamous ‘partygate’ scandal and the local elections were fast approaching.
Host John Harris highlighted the fact that Plymouth is a 50:50 city, split almost completely down the middle between Conservative and Labour voters. They wanted to understand whether the scandal had affected the city’s political leanings, and whether the local electorate would now be voting blue or red on 5 May. Local issues had taken a back seat and the election was being billed as a referendum of sorts; who will be our next prime minister, Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer?
Meanwhile, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, in the small ward of Plympton Chaddlewood, Ian Poyser and a small group of loyal volunteers were delivering leaflets and knocking on doors in a last-ditch attempt to drum up some support. Finishing in second place by only 101 votes in last year’s local election, this small group of activists felt that maybe, just maybe, they could be in with a chance this year.
And on 5 May 2022, with a swing of 13.5% from the ever-popular Tory party, the people of Plymouth had elected their first ever Green Party councillor.
A local Green Party councillor in a small southern city may not be national breaking news, but it speaks volumes of a quiet revolution taking place in British politics.
“We’re about re-empowering and reconnecting with local communities. We’re all about local governance and decentralisation of power.” Says Cllr Ian Poyser, Plymouth’s first Green representative. “The more that communities have a say over their destiny, their futures, the better.”
Local politics is not always glamorous politics. It is grassroots; a lot closer to home. Being a lot smaller in scale than national politics, voters can sometimes feel that there is a little less to lose, and can express themselves more freely with their votes as a result. A politician’s, and a party’s, local presence can also make a big difference in smaller scale elections.
When I asked Cllr Ian Poyser why the people of Plympton Chaddlewood had decided to vote Green after decades of voting Conservative – my research has taken me as far back as 2003, with the ward voting blue at every election since then, their closest challenger in recent years being the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in 2014 – he told me that local engagement has been the key factor.
“Over the last two and a half years, we just re-engaged with the community. We reached out to them, tried to keep them informed on what was happening locally, and listened to them. I think people really appreciated the regular newsletter that went out.”
Is that not something other parties do?
“Not really, no.” Replies Poyser, hesitantly. He wants to be polite and answer my questions but doesn’t seem particularly comfortable bad-mouthing the opposition. “But that’s what we need more of in the city. We need more councillors that are engaging with their communities.”
It’s a big swing in political priorities from the people of Chaddlewood; decades of Tory representation, threatened only briefly by the even-further-right UKIP, now voting for the classically centre-left or possibly hard-left – depending on who you speak to – Green Party. Who are the Greens actually trying to target?
“I wouldn’t say we’re talking to any particular type of person. We’re not talking to Conservative voters or Labour voters; we’re talking to everyone. Greens are winning in old Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem seats; we’re doing it across the board. We’re not targeting a particular community. Most of the time we’re going into places where maybe people have been under-represented, or maybe they’ve been let down by their previous councillors, regardless of their political persuasions.”
Cllr Poyser is keen to stress the absence of party tribalism in the Plymouth Green Party, however. He wants to make it known that the Greens aren’t just after votes and the power those votes can bring, but are instead after positive change.
“We’re collaborative. We like to work across parties.
” Even with the Tories? “Yes.” He says, definitively. “Everyone brings something different, don’t they? And if you’re looking to take the community in a direction, you’ve got to work with everyone to get there.”
“We’re trying to cut through the tribalism to bring people together and do things differently. Because people get bored of it, don’t they? Why aren’t we just working together for the benefit of the city? The in-fighting, both within parties, and across the chamber. It puts people off politics. We don’t go to work and speak to our bosses or our customers like that, so why should we do it in politics?”
“If the Tories or Labour are delivering on Green policy in the city, as far as I’m concerned, that’s our job done. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Green council or a Green councillor who’s doing it. Whether it be on transport, the green economy, the low carbon agenda or renewable energy, as long as we’ve got people together, that’s what it’s all about.”
He points out that it is the very foundation of how the Green Party is run that allows him this freedom to work towards the common good. The Green Party does not operate with ‘whips’, party enforcers who reward politicians that vote in line with national policy, and threaten or punish those that don’t. The absence of whips allows Green party politicians to make decisions based on what they feel is truly right for the people in their constituency.
“We don’t have whips. Councillors and MP’s can speak up as individuals. We’re not told to do things by our party, so we can actually speak up for issues in our communities.”
“If there’s a certain issue for the local community and the solution to that issue doesn’t fit with our national Green Party policy, but we have to deal with that there and then, then that’s what we deal with.”
“Don’t people want more of that? Politicians speaking up for their communities without being curtailed by their local and national parties?”
He comes alive when I ask about his local constituency and what he’s actually been able to do. “Okay!” He exclaims, as he rubs his hands together, as if to say ‘He’s finally asking me an interesting question.’
I’ve been asking a lot about party politics and he’s answered my questions politely, remaining engaged throughout, but it doesn’t seem that that’s where his passion really lies. He doesn’t seem desperate to engage in political philosophy. He seems far more comfortable talking about grassroots issues, the constituency he represents and the positive changes he’s actually been able to implement as a councillor.
He lets fly without interruption.
“My background has always been in waste and resources. There’s a lot we can do within the circular economy with re-use and repair. We’ve got thousands of tonnes of white goods and products and electrical devices that come into the city that people buy new that have a residual, re-use value to them. A lot of that is crushed and sent away through compliance schemes, leaving the city. Whereas that’s value that we could be retaining here to stimulate the local economy, while also delivering massive social value. There’s some recent reports stating that for every tonne of waste that you re-use and put back into the community, it’s about £1500 of social value. So it’s massive, because you’re creating jobs. And rather than people going out and buying a washing machine new, on credit, tying yourself into debt, you can go and purchase it at re-use points at a considerably reduced value, while creating a local economy at the same time. I think that the council’s got a role in that, as it manages some of that waste. But also working with other reuse companies in the private sector here as well as well as working with other retailers. And with the support of other parties and councillors we can do this and achieve this.”
I ask if there’s anything else he wants to add before we finish the interview. “No.” He smiles. “We’ve covered a lot there.”. He seems happy to have ended the interview talking about local issues, the area of politics he is clearly most focussed on and interested in.
I ask him, just before we say goodbye, if he’d ever seriously consider running for parliament. Never say never, but he’s not particularly interested right now. He feels that he could get more done as a councillor.
I also ask him as he gathers his things, ready to leave, about his plans for the rest of the day. He says he is off for a walk around Plympton Chaddlewood, just to check that everything is okay.
Jack May is a freelance writer and poet whose work covers the areas of philosophy, religion, politics, psychology and, anomalously, football.