Away from the blokey rabble-rousing of Ukip, there is another quieter political revolution in going on. It’s younger, more female and left-wing – and almost the exact opposite of Nigel Farage’s party.
The Green Party is on the march (well, perhaps a leisurely stroll).
While Ukip supporters are older, more male and more working class and the Greens’ disproportionately middle-class graduates, what unites them is their distrust and anger with Westminster.
That’s not enough to storm Parliament, but activists once dismissed as muesli-munching sandal-wearers have got the established parties looking nervously over their shoulders.
Well, for starters they are the only mainstream political party dominated by women rather than men.
The leader of the Greens is a woman (Natalie Bennett). Their one MP is a woman (Caroline Lucas.) Two out of the three Green MEPs elected to the European Parliament were women (compared to 55 per cent of Labour’s, 32 per cent of the Conservatives’ and 29 per cent of Ukip’s.)
If there is a political glass-ceiling, the Greens seem to have smashed straight through it.
To find out why and how, I turned to Caroline Lucas – the first elected Green MP and former party leader. In my experience, Green party candidates and activists often live up to the stereotypes of scruffy students and frizzy haired do-gooders. But the Brighton Pavilion MP is different – no-nonsense, elfin-featured and steely.
Needless to say, when it comes to women she says: “There’s a huge problem with Westminster. It’s all about grandstanding, competition and willy-waving that puts off women – and probably most men too.
“When I raised the issue of Page Three models in Parliament the faces of the Tory front bench were a picture. Ken Clarke could barely contain himself. They thought it was hilarious – but it’s not a funny issue.”
Caroline Lucas in Parliament
‘Women are interested in our issues’
In an age where young women are much less likely to vote than their male equivalents, how are the Greens managing to attract women to politics?
Lucas says: “Women are interested in the issues that we campaign on. It’s hard to talk about this without making huge generalisations, but women tend to think about what kind of world they’re leaving for their children. It’s not innate, but because of the roles women tend to play.”
Parts of the party’s drive for equality will be too touchy-feely for some.
At party conferences people sit around tables with microphones dotted around the room, in case public speaking from the stage is too daunting for their more sensitive members. In local Green meetings, if a shy little flower feels they are not being listened to, they can hold up a coloured card to get everyone’s attention.
Ridiculous political correctness or essential efforts towards a more equal society? In this – like in many areas – the Green Party will split opinion.
But for Matilda Carter, a student at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Young Greens, it’s vital.
Matilda tells me: “Coming from the perspective of a transgender person, I think the Greens are the only party who really take issues other than those of lesbians and gays really seriously. The Conservatives are celebrating that they brought in gay marriage, but that’s of minute concern to me, I’m still fighting for my wider rights and wider acceptance. The Green Party are the only ones taking that seriously.
“There’s definitely more interest in the Greens as we’re leading up to the election. At university, we’ve been collaborating with the feminist society, and people are much more willing to vote for them.”
So what do they really stand for – and what can you expect if you vote Green?
The party’s roots can be traced back to a copy of Playboy (bear with me.) In 1973, its founding members were poring over a copy in a Warwickshire pub and were inspired to form a political party after reading an article about famine and population growth.
To say it wasn’t an immediate success is an understatement.
After polling just 0.7 per cent in the General Election a year later, and going through a series of name changes (from PEOPLE to the Ecology Party) the Green Party finally emerged in 1985. It wasn’t until 1999 that Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert became the first Green politicians to be elected to the European Parliament.
Ms Lucas tells me: “The Green Party stands for the environment and social justice, and reorganising our economy in a sustainable and equitable way.
“Something really exciting is happening. Membership is up 90 per cent in six months. Ukip has shown people they don’t just have to choose between the main parties – there are alternatives.”
Time for a reality check.
It’s true that both the Green Party and Ukip have benefited from disillusionment with Westminster – but there is a mountain to climb for the eco-warriors.
The party’s three key target seats are Norwich South and Bristol West (both currently held by Lib Dems) and holding on to Brighton Pavilion. But according to the pollsters, they are most likely to emerge with no seats at all.
Even in alternative Brighton, Labour could snatch control. According to a recent survey by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, the Greens and Labour are practically neck and neck in the constituency, at 32 per cent and 33 per cent respectively, well within the margin of error.
When I was in Brighton researching the seat, my taxi driver summed up the problem: “You’ve got to tell me exactly where you need to be dropped off because driving in Brighton is a disaster. It’s all because of the bloody Green Council. They’ve been a nightmare.” When I tell him I’m going to interview Caroline Lucas, he replies: “She’s good actually, I like her. But the problems with the council are going to affect her chances.”
The Green council and its leader Jason Kitcat (yes, that’s his real name) have only reinforced the stereotype of a well-meaning but slightly deluded group of sandal-wearing hippies.
A week-long bin strike left rubbish piling up on the streets. A bid to improve recycling left the process so complicated that it caused an increase instead. And a bizarre row over an ancient elm tree left Green councillors joining the picket line to protest against the local authority stance – yep, that very same local authority that they run.
So if the Greens will get a couple of MPs at best in 2015, why should we care about them?
The answer is simple: they could deny Labour a majority.
The opposition traditionally benefits from the unpopularity of a Government. But Westminster politics has been turned on its head by Ukip, the Scottish National Party and the Greens. Thousands of words in column inches and hours of television news have been dedicated to the first two. But if too many Labour votes drain to the Greens, it could make the disease terminal.
Make no mistake, Ed Miliband is worried.
Sadiq Khan, the MP for Tooting, has been appointed to head the rather grand sounding Green Party Strategy Group – in other words, love-bomb them into submission.
There are 17 seats where support for the Greens could split the left-wing vote and keep Labour out of power – and that’s according to Sadiq Khan himself.
“One of the consequences of voting Green is letting David Cameron win the next election,” he says.
“In all likelihood the Greens won’t win any seats in 2015, and the seat they have will probably be lost. The danger is that even though they may have no Green MPs returned, they could deprive us of a Labour government and lead to another five years of this Prime Minister, who thinks green policies are crap.”
Significant movement or wasted vote? The jury is still out.
But the women of the Green Party are yet another curveball in a General Election that is increasingly difficult to predict.