Labour MPs call for change as Green Party threat grows

Ed Miliband Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some MPs are urging Ed Miliband to move to the left on some policies

In the not too dim and distant past the Green Party was sometimes dismissed as all beards and sandals - a bit like the Liberal Democrats but without MPs.

That latter fact is no longer true, and I'm sure the Greens would say the beards and sandals stereotype was always a slur too.

And a bit like the Lib Dems prior to 2010, their growing membership and electoral support is beginning to raise the possibility that they might even wield some power after the election.

And one party definitely worried about that rise is Labour.

Labour supporters

The Lib Dem decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives appeared to leave the left field of English politics wide open for Ed Miliband's party.

But now the Greens are not only competing for former Lib Dem voters, they're also appealing to disillusioned Labour supporters.

And that appeal isn't confined purely to its environmental credentials - much of it is based on their opposition to austerity.

Until last month, 24-year-old Matthew Giles from Hebburn in South Tyneside was a Labour party member.

He was also part of the People's Assembly - a group dedicated to fighting austerity.

And then the penny dropped - with Labour committed to cutting public spending significantly, he was actually campaigning against the policies his party was advocating.

His solution was to tear up his Labour membership card and join the Greens.

He said: "If you look at the Green manifesto, it's what Labour should be saying as a party which says it represents working people and people who cannot represent themselves.

"When I was campaigning against austerity and privatisation of the NHS, I realised the Labour Party were saying something different. I realised I had become disenfranchised. I don't feel they really represent a working class lad like myself from the North East anymore."

Lost the plot

And he isn't alone. Peter Thomson was a Labour member for 30 years, serving as a councillor and Lord Mayor of Newcastle.

Image caption Is the Green Party on the march?

But he left Labour in 2011 and joined the Greens last year.

He said: "Labour have lost the plot in my view. They are just one of the Four Horsemen of Austerity telling us there's no alternative but there is."

And then there are potential new members that Labour is missing out on.

Rhiannon Curtis, 26, from South Shields, says she never considered Labour as an option before signing up for the Green Party.

She said: "Labour pays lip service to the idea of representing the working class and fighting for the poor, but time after time its policies say something different.

"More and more people are now joining the Green Party and there is a real sense of excitement that something can be done, and that tangible change is now achievable."

Tight contests

So what of Green ambitions? In the North East and Cumbria, the prospect of winning a parliamentary seat seems remote. The worry for Labour may come in the marginals it needs to win to return to government.

Even a few hundred votes lost in tight contests like Stockton South, Carlisle or Redcar could cost them dear.

And this week 15 Labour MPs also urged the party to make changes to readopt what they see as traditional Labour values and shore up support.

They all signed a letter asking for a change of direction on three issues - they want more rights for trade union members in the workplace, an alternative to austerity and cuts and the gradual renationalisation of the railways.

The MPs deny it's a response to the Green threat, but change in all three areas would move Labour closer to their rival's policies.

One of the signatories is Wansbeck MP and former coal miner Ian Lavery.

He said: "Austerity is having a dramatic effect on my constituency and the North East in general. What we are saying is that we just need to go that little step forward as a party and nudge the policymakers to accept that the general public want those two or three issues to be considered.

"I think that will attract a lot more votes than perhaps going in the direction which we are heading at this moment in time."

Under fire

But there is a challenge for the Green Party too. Increased success means increased scrutiny.

One of its flagship policies - a Citizens' Income of around £75-per-week for every adult - came under fire this week when one assessment found that some of the poorest in society could lose under the plan.

The Citizens' Income Trust, which has advised the Green Party on the policy, found that more than a third of households would lose out under the policy of replacing tax allowances and benefits with the payment - many of them with low incomes.

It now believes the policy would be impossible to implement.

Ian Lavery said: "That policy has been closely scrutinised over the past few days, and it would be a hit on the poor with 35.5% of the households in the UK being worse off. Once parties like the Greens get a little bit of support, they've got to expect the scrutiny and responsibility that comes with that, and that has proved pretty negative in this case."

The Greens do though pose a clear and present danger to Labour - and a dilemma. A move to the left might stop some support leaking away - but it might also open up ground in the centre, where elections are traditionally won.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites