When Chris Williams first joined the West Midlands Green Party as a Local Party Support Worker back in 2008, it had £36 in the bank and 10 people coming to meetings. It’s a situation that will be familiar to many involved in local party politics; changing the world can seem a very long way off when meeting a few fellow devotees in the back of a pub on a cold Wednesday night.
But in the six years that Chris has been in his ‘temporary’ post, the transformation in the fortunes of the West Midlands Green Party has been remarkable. It’s gone from having three councillors on three councils to 24 on 10, winning seats in Nuneaton, North Staffordshire, Dudley, and, in the most recent elections, becoming the official opposition in Solihull.
“We believe we can win almost any seat with the right campaign and resource”, says Chris, who was himself elected in Chelmsley Wood ward in 2012 with 63 per cent of the vote. And it’s where seats have been gained that makes the successes arguably one of the most significant phenomena in green politics in recent years. From the outside at least, Greens are seen as only successful in the few English cities with a self-styled alternative image. But the wins right across the West Midlands have allowed Natalie Bennett to recently argue that the Green Party is becoming “much more of a national party”.
“There’s always a temptation to stay in the comfort zone, but we’ve concentrated on taking the Green message out to all communities”, says Chris. “Once you get out there and explain what we stand for to people on the doorstep, our message does resonate in working-class areas.”
And when Greens have been elected, they have made a real difference. “Green councillors are not there for selfish reasons – they stand for equality and fairness”, says Chris. As is the case across the country, Green voices speak out far louder than their counterparts. Those elected have concentrated on raising alternatives and persuading people around to Green ideas. “If we present our ideas intelligently, people will listen, but we’re also about meeting people where they are at and not ramming ideas down their throats.” Chris claims that the positivity of the Greens and their focus on policy rather than point scoring has resonated with people who are turned off by negative campaigning and old-fashioned politics.
Despite the gains, Chris claims that the secret of the success lies in not being too ambitious. “Too many local parties set the bar too high, trying to win MPs and MEPs straight away”, he says, adding: “People get burnt out without winning anything.” Instead, Greens in the West Midlands have ruthlessly targeted resources at winnable seats at the local level. It’s a quietly effective strategy, keeping activists motivated with small victories and demonstrating to the electorate that momentum is building.
Chris is also a keen advocate of the regional model that he has helped to pioneer. All the local parties in the West Midlands work closely together, collaborating on events and election campaigns. But elsewhere, regional parties are often an afterthought, run by stressed activists who are heavily involved in their local party as well and don’t have the time and energy to make the regional level work. “There’s nothing special about our region per se – it’s just that we have decided to make it happen here.”
Effective fundraising is also a vital part of the success. The original £36 has rocketed up to £1,200 a month, which mostly comes from standing orders and a 2.5 per cent levy on elected officials’ earnings. This provides a reliable income allowing the party to plan ahead and frees activists to get out and meet the voters, rather than worry about day-to-day funding.
It’s an inspiring example demonstrating that something that often seems unachievable – getting Greens elected into positions of power – can happen quickly, almost anywhere in the country. All you need is the right blend of organisation, activists and self-belief.