In recent weeks, it has become almost popular to discuss the rise of the Green Party. With membership soaring – now standing at close to 50,000 – the Green Party has argued that they now constitute a major-enough party so as to participate in the upcoming debates (assuming they happen at all!).
Now given the recent popularity of blogging about the Green Party I thought – given my return to blogging following a brief hiatus owing to work commitments – that I would follow suit. Rather than focusing on the policies or whether or not the Green Party should attend the debates, I would like to discuss something rather different but equally, I believe, as important.
It would hardly be controversial to suggest that the environment is one of the key issues for anyone considering to vote for the Green Party. Indeed, many environmentally-inclined voters have begun moving towards the Green Party as a result of the failure of mainstream political parties to fully incorporate the environment into their programmatic profiles – their manifestos. While the mainstream parties have environmental concerns, they tend to fall to the wayside when compared to the pursuit of growth or productivity.
Now, the environment is a typical ‘niche’ issue that, according to Bonnie Meguid, is an example of an issue that exists ‘outside the dimensions of party competition’ and there has been an unwillingness among mainstream political parties to heavily focus upon the environment during electoral campaigns. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the environment is a ‘mid-term’ issue: an issue which increases in saliency during the middle of the election cycle, and one that diminishes come election time.
Given the unwillingness, then, of mainstream political parties to respect the environment as an important political issue, and therefore unwilling to fully incorporate it into their programmatic profiles, it would make complete sense for environmentalists to begin voting for a political party that would prioritise the environment, namely, the Green Party. One could well make the argument that should the Green Party become an electoral threat to any of the mainstream political parties, they would be forced into competing on the issue; adopting it into their programmatic profiles and giving the issue the respect and attention it deserves. Indeed, this is the logic of the party competition model devised by Bonnie Meguid.
Briefly then, Bonnie Meguid argues that mainstream political parties have three strategies when responding to a niche political party, such as the Green Party. In the first place, the mainstream political party can adopt a ‘dismissive strategy’ whereby the mainstream political party actively ignores the issue, or more specifically, decides not to react to it. She argues that by deliberately failing to respond to the issue, mainstream political parties signify to voters that that particular issue lacks merit and importance. The result of this strategy would be to decrease the salience, or prominence, of the issue.
Alternatively, mainstream political parties can adopt either an ‘accommodative’ or ‘adversarial’ strategy. Unlike the dismissive strategy, both an accommodative and adversarial strategy requires the mainstream political party to adopt a position on the niche issue and therefore send signals to voters that the issue is a legitimate one. The net result of this is an increase in the salience of that particular issue.
An accommodative strategy would seek to capitalise on this new found issues’ salience by undermining the distinctiveness of the niche issue and by provide voters with an alternative avenues for its expression – the mainstream political party in place of the niche political party. The mainstream political party would be all the more attractive to voters as a result of its ‘legislative experience’ and ‘governmental effectiveness’.
It is Bonnie Meguid’s contention, then, that given these mainstream party advantages, ‘the established party copy will be perceived as more attractive than the niche party original’. Alternatively, an adversarial strategy declares opposition to the niche issue and in doing so, the salience of that particular issue is increased, however, no alternative avenue of political expression is made available beyond the niche political party.
Applying this theoretical toolkit to the environment and the Green Party, then, we would expect a mainstream political party pursuing an accommodative strategy to adopt greener rhetoric and include environmental protection policies in its programme. A successful accommodative strategy by a mainstream political party would therefore signal to environmentally-concerned voters that with the aforementioned mainstream political party that they should vote for in place of a now marginalised Green or Ecological party.
An adversarial strategy, however, would see the mainstream political party opposing environmental protection – or climate change mitigation – and would therefore signal to voters that they cannot be trusted on the issue, therefore signalling to voters that the Green Party is better placed to address it.
At the moment, however, given the relatively small size of the Green Party in England and Wales, it is entirely possibly for mainstream political parties to dismiss the party. If, however, more and more voters moved towards the Green Party, which seems to be the case, then it becomes progressively harder for mainstream political parties to ignore the new niche rival.
Indeed, some would argue that this is the exact process that has happened for UKIP – at first they were ignored and dismissed, and then when they became an electoral thread, both Labour and Conservative began pandering to anti-immigration voters by adopting progressively harsher and more restrictive stances of immigration.
Importantly, much of the research on party competition between niche and mainstream political parties has shown that mainstream political parties are responsive to the electoral threats posed by niche political parties.
One would thus expect a mainstream political party to respond with either an adversarial or accommodative strategy, and we should therefore witness an increase in the salience of the issue which these niche parties emphasise. In the case of the Green Party then, we should anticipate an increase in the salience of the ‘environment’.
Counter-intuitively, however, the success of Green parties seems to have little effect on how mainstream political parties respond. Indeed, recent research has suggested that when faced against an electorally successful Green Party, mainstream political parties will be more likely to de-emphasise the environment as an issue. This runs in stark contrast to immigration and radical right parties where we witness, such as in the case with UKIP, mainstream political parties seeking to pander towards their cause.
What is the explanation for this apparent disparity then?
The explanation for this result can be explained by the concept of issue ownership. Issue ownership is where political parties are, in the minds of voters, identified with specific policy issues and considered best able to deal with them. Further to this, one can distinguish between the associative and competence-based dimensions of issue ownership. While associative ownership refers to the ‘spontaneous identification’ of particular issues with particular parties in the minds of voters regardless of whether voters consider that particular party to be the most competent in dealing with the issue.
Tautologically, competence-based ownership is gained by parties when they are seen to be competent at handling the issue. From this perspective then, any politicisation of the environment as an issue, and the subsequent increase in salience, will cause partisan realignment in favour of the Green Party, and as Green parties are able to dominate the environment as an issue, both associatively and competence-based, other parties have a strategic incentive to drop the environment as an issue and therefore reduce its overall saliency.
Expressed more simply then, there is a direct correlation between the success of Green parties and the extent to which mainstream political parties actively de-emphasise the environment as an issue. This means that the more successful a Green Party is, the less likely it is that mainstream political parties will adequately address the environment as an important issue.
For any self-proclaimed environmentalist this should be alarming news and should really underscore the simple notion that if one wishes to prioritise environmental issues, then one needs to do so either through the existing political parties or need to accept that in the British context, the environment is nothing but a mid-term consideration that falls by the wayside come election time.
As of 2005, the Conservative Party under the leadership of David Cameron has shown far more interest in the environment than the Labour Party. Indeed, it was Cameron’s desire to decontaminate the Conservative brand that led him to adopt the environment as an issue so strongly. In this sense then, if one is willing to tolerate centre-right approaches to other policy areas, perhaps the best vehicle for environmental improvement is the Conservative Party.
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