Published: 06:00, 14 May 2021
While the political map of Kent remains largely blue after “Super Thursday” there are patches of a different hue in some unexpected places.
The election saw the Green party returning four county councillors building on advances made in other councils. But what is drawing voters to a party that has gone from the fringe to the political frontline? Paul Francis reports on the rise of the Greens...
When Mark Hood stood as a candidate for the Green party in the county council election in 2017, he came close to bottom of the eight candidates standing in the Tonbridge division.
His tally of just 923 votes put him only marginally ahead of the two Ukip candidates.
Four years on and he and fellow candidate Paul Stepto saw a spectacular reversal of fortune, producing one of the major upsets of the council election when they ousted the two Conservatives who had won four years earlier.
It was an emphatic victory for the pair, with Cllr Hook securing 6,346 votes, comfortably ahead of Conservative candidates Michael Payne and Richard Long - both former cabinet members.
A further two Green candidates also pulled off unexpected wins: Steve Campkin, who won in Ashford East and Rich Lehmann who won Swale East.
So, is this a flash in the pan result or something more seismic?
The performance of the Green party in Kent and elsewhere has suggested that there is more than a protest vote going on here.
Environmental issues have been rising up the political agenda: the debate over climate change, carbon emissions and plastics polluting the seas have all gained political traction in recent years.
But Hood, who was elected to Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council in 2019, says the success the party has had owes much to its focus on local issues and its efforts to be seen not just at election times, describing it as a strategy of becoming embedded in their communities.
“We've worked hard right across the town for the last five years. So, people recognise that you genuinely care about them and the town. And if they see the work you've been doing, then they place their faith in you.”
He believes people are fed up with the tribal political warfare between Labour and the Conservatives.
“I think people want to see politics done differently. They have seen the way that the nation has been polarised by things like Brexit and they want a more caring way of doing things.
"The Green Party is working with the other parties when we're actually in councils. As a minor party, we've got no alternative but working by consensus delivers better policies.”
High profile protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, along with the championing of the climate emergency by Greta Thunberg, has drawn in support from outside the political mainstream.
Cllr Hood says: “People aren't stupid. They know what's happening and they are concerned.
"So they're choosing green politicians because we're not trying to scare people about it; we've got science-based solutions that will prove that we're demonstrating how it can be done in a cost effective way.”
The party did not have it all its own way on "Super Thursday". The surge did not enable the party to retain the division that gave it a key breakthrough eight years ago when Martin Whybrow won in Hythe West.
The Conservatives took the seat which has seen boundary changes and now just covers Hythe.
However, Folkestone remains the one council in Kent where it not only has the highest number of Green councillors - six - but has a position on the cabinet.
Cllr Lesley Whybrow has a seat at the "top table" after accepting an offer by the Conservatives to join the key decision-making group in January. It is further evidence of the growing influence of the party.
Cllr Whybrow said the move presented "a marvellous opportunity to turn the consensus within council on the need for action to tackle climate change into practical steps, directly and by providing leadership on the issue outside of the council itself."
One of the party’s long-standing members insists the results locally and nationally, mark a turning point.
Stuart Jeffries of the Maidstone Green Party says: "The tide has turned. This was a great day for Greens here and across the country. We are out on doorsteps listening to local people, working hard for them all year round and now we are representing them in more places than ever before.”
But while the party can boast that it now has representation on more than half of Kent councils, the numbers remain modest.
And a power sharing coalition in Swale recently fractured when the party's cabinet member Tim Valentine quit after disagreements over house-building targets in his area he felt were excessive.
Nevertheless, the council elections saw the Green’s momentum continue, arguably justifying its claim to have moved beyond being considered a fringe party to a credible force.
That has presented the Conservatives at KCC and in other councils with a challenge. Not always seen as environmentally friendly, the party has begun to push back, perhaps sensing that the public mood has changed.
Last year, the county council brought forward targets for zero carbon emissions by 20 years to 2030 - ahead of the government’s deadline of 2050.
In his first interview after the election win, KCC Conservative leader Roger Gough promised “a big, big emphasis on environmental issues” when asked what his priorities would be.
But the Conservative-run authority has not always shown a sure hand.
A public outcry followed a botched plan for ‘pop up’ cycle lanes in parts of the county. The six projects, funded by the government under an initiative encouraging people to be more active during the pandemic, were all scrapped - some within weeks.
Despite its election successes, the reality is the party still has just one MP in Parliament and the first-past-the-post system does it few favours in national elections.
But tactical alliances and non-aggression pacts at a local level could become more common, although that has the potential for political horse-trading.
One thing is clear. The Green party has proved ahead of the curve on increasingly important environmental challenges such as climate change. It has set the agenda and is getting rewarded by voters for doing so.
What would a Green world be like?
The Green party’s pledges on issues such as climate change are well known, but how would other policies affect us? Headlines about eating less meat, driving in smaller cars and flying less have some truth behind them.
All parties have signed up to reducing carbon emissions but the Green party plans to completely eliminate emissions by the end of the decade.
Petrol and diesel vehicles would be replaced; gas heating boilers would be switched for other fuels, such as hydrogen. A carbon tax will apply to all oil and gas extraction and to the use of petrol, diesel and aviation fuels.
Its manifesto for the 2019 election was based around a ‘Green New Deal’ and set out a range of proposals, including planting 700m trees; a universal income for all; votes for 16-year-olds; abolition of student fees and higher taxes for the wealthiest.
The planning system would be transformed to support a massive increase in wind power and other renewable generation.
It pledged spending £2.5 billion a year on new cycleways and footpaths, built using sustainable materials, such as woodchips and sawdust.
Airlines would be banned from advertising for flights and there would be a “frequent flyer levy” to reduce the impact of the 15% of people who take 70% of flights.
History of the Green party
The Green party was started in 1985, having previously been known as the Ecology Party.
It made its big breakthrough in the EU election in 1999 when under a proportional list system, it secured enough votes to return two MEPs, one in the south east region - Caroline Lucas - and one in London.
Despite putting up candidates in many council elections, progress was slow and by 2005 there were still only 49 councillors on 30 different authorities.
In 2007, it had reached triple figures but the pace at which it was gaining a toehold on councils steadily grew.
It made a big breakthrough in council elections in 2010 when it took control of Brighton and Hove council but lost to Labour in 2015 and 2019.
In Kent, a crucial moment came in 2013 when the party gained its first county councillor, Martin Whybrow, who was elected in Hythe.