The Green Wave’s Ebb

In the last few years, fueled by a series of high-profile civil society campaigns on the climate crisis, several countries across Europe experienced a surge in support for Green political parties. Ireland was among those. The party, which had clawed itself back from the dead in 2016, suddenly found a renewed movement behind it, buoyed by a surge in support, particularly from young people, urban dwellers, and suburban middle-class voters. This put the party in an interesting position, where it had drawn votes from traditionally left-wing demographics as well as conservative voters who were developing a new environmental consciousness.

It’s worth noting that the impact of the Green Wave is, in general, as much a social phenomenon as an actual political one, and was far from the universal surge it was cast as. Below is a table showing the performance of Green (in the ideological sense) parties in legislative elections over the last two years, when the Green Wave was reaching its zenith.

If you want to see all elections that I could find sufficient data for, not just legislative ones, click here.

The wave was uneven, and dictated to a large extent by conditions in specific nations. In Ireland, there was a space – most other parties were seen as weak on climate action, there was space on the left with Labour continuing its decade-long implosion, and there was a small socially-conscious group on the right who were perhaps uncomfortable with some of Fine Gael’s actions in the previous government.

The Green Party filled this space somewhat amorphously, managing to simultaneously sell itself as the party of a radical, system-changing Just Transition to appeal to young and left voters, while managing to still appeal to those who wished to see representation for environmental issues without upsetting the economic orthodoxy. It was a remarkable balancing act at the time, and one that could not be maintained.

While I flagged the key demographics that contributed to the Greens’ performance at the start, it’s worth noting that there was a wider shift beyond these already Green-friendly groups; while overall small, the relative gains the party made in more rural areas are still hugely significant. The map below, which shows the relative growth in party support between 2016 and 2020, is evidence of that.

This map is truly remarkable. Even Sinn Féin’s thunderous performance in 2020 didn’t come close to generating these kind of swings – although granted, they were working from a higher base in most constituencies. Even in areas where the party was traditionally strong – like Dublin Bay South – the vote increased massively. The party won a highest-ever 12 seats, and shattered its prior best FPV performance in almost every constituency in the country.

Serious inroads were made in what had previously been its weakest areas, heavily rural constituencies and working-class areas of Dublin. This was in many ways, a start-of-a-movement election; support had increased but was nascent in many areas, and in many places connected more to the wider environmental concerns than it was to the party itself.

This is reflected in a number of the truly spectacular rises shown in the above map. By way of example, consider Limerick County, Mayo, Roscommon-Galway and Meath East. The Green party candidates in these places – Claire Keating, Saoirse McHugh, Julie O’Donoghue and Seán McCabe – were established local environmental/social activists who joined the party between 2016 and 2020. These were smart recruitment calls – the kind of people who could bring the movement with them to the party. But they reflected the point made above – that the Green Wave was about more than the Green Party.

Before I continue further, I want to go back to the chart at the top of the page that shows the European Green Wave and look at the countries where Green parties more than doubled their vote, as it’s valuable context. The Ukranian and Moldovan Greens are essentially micro-parties, so we’ll leave them aside. The Estonian Greens are stagnant, still polling well short of the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament. In Austria, the Greens went into government with the right-wing People’s Party, and now find their polling numbers sliding as their partners enact a number of anti-Islamic policies. In Croatia, the Green-Left coalition has already run into difficulties, expelling one of its member parties.

And that leaves Ireland:

This map, which shows the model’s projected swing for the Green Party if there was an election tomorrow, is rough. There’s an apparent gap between the numbers here and in the prior map, because this swing is relative to 2020 and the prior was relative to 2016. For example, the +81.1% increase in Carlow-Kilkenny in 2020, followed by a -55.2% swing in the projections, means that the model projects that the Green Party result in Carlow-Kilkenny will be lower than it was in 2016.

The pattern here is overall negative, of course, but two areas are striking, for opposite reasons. Dublin remains a relative stronghold – indeed, all Dublin constituencies show a lower drop in support than anywhere outside of Dublin – and still represents the party’s best hope of keeping seats. On current polling, Eamon Ryan, Catherine Martin, Joe O’Brien and Neasa Hourigan are the only ones with a chance, and none of those look like sure things.

The other notable area, for different reasons, is the Rest of Leinster. Polling shows the Green Party getting absolutely buried in a region that produced two of their TDs as well as two of their Senators. This was a region where they would have been hoping for breakthroughs next time round in Kildare North, Meath East and Laois-Offaly. Instead, it seems vanishingly unlikely that the party will keep seats here, let alone challenge for new ones. This goes back to the idea of the start-of-a-movement idea; treating the Green Wave as fait accompli rather than a diffuse social movement without strong ties of political preference has proven a risky approach.

Ultimately, the indication here is that the Green Party has failed to maintain its coalition of voters from 2020, and has failed to coalesce the wider movement behind it. Going into government was always going to pose challenges, but the results are clear – an retreat of support to its Dublin heartlands. I mentioned earlier that the party tried to fill multiple roles during the election campaign, but even a brief time in government has sharpened the focus of the party, and it seems it now appeals to a much more limited group than the one that created the Green Wave.

And it gets worse. Remember the four constituencies I mentioned above where local activists were recruited as candidates, and sent support numbers parabolic? All four of those candidates, within a year of the General Election, had quit the Green Party.

This matters because the above modelling assumes – as it has to at this point – that future candidates will be as strong as the 2020 ones. The above indicates that this will not be the case, and I would expect the party to fare worse than currently indicated in a number of constituencies simply on the basis of candidate quality – something that I hope to long-term be able to factor into the modelling.

To further illustrate, consider Dublin Mid-West, which went from essentially a paper candidate in 2016 to having a locally engaged county councillor, Peter Kavanagh, running in 2020, resulting in a relative vote increase of close to 600%. The drop here of 19.7% is based purely on party polling; it is reasonable to assume that a less strong candidate would fare even worse. This seems quite likely, as Cllr. Kavanagh has also left the party. Similarly, I would anticipate the drop in Cork South Central to be more severe than the 47.9% indicated by the model with Cllr. Lorna Bogue’s departure from the party.

The group most obviously posed to benefit from the ebb of the Green Wave, despite the PBP’s recent pivot towards eco-socialism, are the Social Democrats. Below is a five-poll rolling average of the two parties’ support levels since GE 2020:

The Soc Dems are, for the first time I can calculate, beating the Greens on an RPA basis. This is going to be a key movement to keep an eye on in the future. There is space for a party on the left to take advantage of the decline in Green fortunes. The SDs have a number of issues of their own – something for a future post – but right now they are in the best position of anyone to take advantage. However, it’s only recently that polling has indicated that they are starting to do so, and anything – including a Green revival – could happen before the next election.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I was a member of the Green Party between April 2014 and December 2020, holding various voluntary officer roles within the party, and was heavily involved in the campaign for the 2020 General Election.)

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