Green converts? (Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

January 5, 2024   6 mins

A quiet revolution is underway in the dales and downs of rural England. What the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” — local churches, families, charities, and civic associations — are in open revolt against the party they helped create. While much attention in recent years has focused on the Tory Party’s struggle to retain young-professional voters in cities, less has been said about the thousands of pensioners, affluent provincial business owners and struggling farmers who are swinging from Right to Left, and voting Green for the first time.

Local elections are traditionally an opportunity for upset, rebellion and protest. And in May, when the voters of Conservative metroland (from Tunbridge Wells and Tandridge, to Nuneaton and Bedworth) go the polls, the Greens will be hoping to repeat the gains of last year, when they established pluralities and majorities in the councils of Mid-Suffolk, East Suffolk, Babergh and the Forest of Dean. Of course, this was amid a general wave of anti-Conservative feeling. But these results were distinct. The Green Party, once the preserve of the bohemian bourgeoisie, holed up in university enclaves such as Brighton and Bristol, has managed a startling prison break, vaulting fences and stiles to advance across the fields of Tory England.

Whether these victories stick is an open question. But safe seats are only safe until they aren’t, and the last time dozens of Tory strongholds swung, in 1997, they never returned to the Conservative fold. There have been numerous theories to explain this metamorphosis: Nimbyism, short-lived protest voting, disaffection at the cost-of-living crisis, strategic localism, and a genuine slippage from Conservative conservationism to Green ecologism. But, while the Greens have recently been associated with a younger urban electorate concerned about housing, social liberalism and technological acceleration towards net-zero, the party always contained a “small is beautiful”, Little England wing. An older block that prioritises “green space”, local control, local public transport and responsive administration.

To understand the true colours of this countryside revolt, I head out to Mid-Suffolk, the first local authority the Greens have ever governed by majority control. Arriving in the market town of Stowmarket, I am greeted at the station by three of the district’s Green councillors, Teresa Davis, Colin Lay and James Patchett. In their chinos, desert boots, tattersall shirts and gilets, none stands out as a typical Green. All are former Conservatives with backgrounds in the military, farming, and charities: the lieutenants of Suffolk’s Burkean platoons. They show me around Stowmarket, from the Union Jacks adorning the Victorian high street, to the large and prosperous new estates patched onto its exterior. This was a bedrock of Conservative support in 2019. And nothing about the town speaks to a Green Party positioning itself towards an exodus of disgruntled millennial Corbynites from Labour, as some have suggested. Patchett admits that: “We’re almost the opposite [of young and professional]. If you look at the people who are in the local Green Party, who come to the meetings, well… we, in our forties, are the young ones.”

Stowmarket, still the centre for Suffolk farming communities in the outlying areas, is now also something of a dormitory town, with trains running to London in just over an hour. On the outskirts of the town lies the Orwellian-sounding “Gateway 14”, a vast freeport made up of huge distribution and logistics warehouses, the product of the Conservative’s attempts at a national industrial policy and “levelling up” in the area. Many residents grumble about the development, occasionally caveating with the need for “jobs for the young”. And this isn’t the only controversial infrastructure project in the region: Green Party support has also surged in East Suffolk, where Government plans to extend nuclear power capacity with Sizewell C have been met with stiff resistance.

Davis, Lay and Patchett deny that the Green Party surge in Suffolk comes down to Nimbyism, though they do allow that the pace of development targets from Whitehall has caused resistance. And speaking of the freeport, Lay offers little to ameliorate stereotypes of campaigners with a proprietorial attitude towards their surroundings, and a scorn for anything concrete or new: “There were a lot of objections to the project from the local people who live on the farms because their view used to be of rolling hills towards Stowmarket — now you’ve got a view of Suffolk’s biggest shed.”

It also seems that the pressures of the renewable energy transition, through developments such as solar farms, are, counterintuitively, pushing farmers and rural voters towards the Green Party. “We just had three solar farm applications go through planning,” says Patchett. “We’re obviously not against solar power. But we are against solar in inappropriate places. If developers are taking rich, fertile farming land and wanting to build solar farms on it — then we’re opposed to that.” The Green councillors justify working in opposition to certain green energy developments, because “one, the residents don’t want it and, two, these fields are the wrong place to put it”.

It seems odd that the Greens would be the best party to vocalise these niggles. Why have Davis, Lay and Patchett clustered there rather than in the party most associated with their perspective? “I don’t think the Conservatives have an identity you can get behind. We’re all disillusioned Conservatives, aren’t we? The first time I voted Green was four years ago, I always used to be Blue,” says Davis. Lay puts the Tory conversion to Green politics down to multiple factors, with the issue of competence looming large: “I think [the Truss debacle] reinforced what a lot of people were already thinking and gave them permission to say no — enough is enough.”

Their attempts to convert the surrounding areas have been boosted by recent events. All the Stowmarket Greens have set about capturing the conservationist and bucolic streak within Tory voters that has been alienated by Rishi Sunak’s Net Zero U-turn. “You’d knock on the door of a big detached house. You’d 100% know they were a Conservative voter. They’d have lovely big gardens. They admit to voting Conservative,” says Patchett, “You’d then ask them their views. ‘We like the environment, we like nature. We believe in all these things as well.’ That’s how we are flipping Conservative voters.”

Despite the Stowmarket councillors’ insistence that the Green surge wasn’t down to a protest vote, others see their local victories more pragmatically. One Ipswich resident says they switched from Blue to Green because, “Tories aren’t really Tory anymore. Labour is the above with red ties and barely any real point of distinction. Green is a good protest vote.” Although they do concede that: “I wouldn’t [vote] the same at a general election.”

However, the often dismissed question of building continues to rear its head. Geri Silverstone, a political consultant who has worked closely on Green political issues, tells me the party’s eastern surge is down to infrastructure pressures rather than a wholesale abandonment of the Conservatives. “It’s a reaction to development,” he says. “Those Suffolk districts have been under the cosh to meet government targets. There’s been a backlash from their residents. These areas are predominately 50+ years old and that’s why you’re seeing a movement from traditional Conservative voters to the Greens. It’s an alternative — they think this is a party that’s going to say no.”

Up the coast, in the small, Georgian town of Halesworth, I test this theory out on Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay and local councillor Toby Hammond, who were analysing river water connected to run-off sewage plants. Ramsay also puts the Green swing primarily down to local alienation. But he admits that the Greens have been pursuing a different politics in Suffolk from the one they might in urban enclaves: “You’re going to see a very different style of Green politics in rural Suffolk than you’re going to see in Brighton, certainly. The leader of Mid-Suffolk is a farmer who is very pro-farming. We’re less tied up with some of the more fringe issues discussed elsewhere.”

To scrape beneath the competing rhetoric, I went looking for Green converts at what used to be called “the Conservative Party at prayer” — a local Anglican Church hosting an environmental panel. The event was attended by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury, Thérèse Coffey (then-Secretary for the Environment), Green Party activists, Ramsay and Conservative Councillor Richard Rout. The congregation: a grey sea of fashionably dressed parishioners. I was probably the only person under 30, and one of five under 40. A pensioner, dressed in fashionable workwear, sidled up to me and joked that “Coffey doesn’t know what she’s in for”, and there was an audible grumble as she entered the church.

Various stalls lining the church outlined local concerns, everything from newts and birds, to the greatly disliked plan to run a series of pylons from Norwich to Tilbury to connect an offshore windfarm to the national grid. There were few — Green, Conservative or other — willing to make any kind of case for the potential efficacy of the pylon plan. No one, politician nor voter, mentioned that the cost-of-living and climate crisis, alongside energy security and Net Zero goals, might warrant speed over caution.

Outside, a tall man in a tweed suit, with a voice like Laurence Olivier, identified himself to me as former Conservative Councillor Michael Gower. “I’m a Tory Green! Don’t you believe it,” he bellowed. After asking him what “Tory Greenism” consisted of, Gower told me it’s “about doing things on the ground. I’ve been planting trees and testing water quality. Tories are local activists! We don’t like Sizewell C, and we don’t like the onshoring of wind turbines!” But, after he’d finished, I was none the wiser. Was he a green Conservative or a conservative Green? Was there any difference? How did an objection to onshore wind farms square with his professed environmentalism?

If Suffolk is anything to judge by, the “Green revolt” seems to be powered by those with the wealth and time to force a change in local politics. Rather than a national movement, it will remain a narrow phenomenon, both generationally and geographically, unless it can reach beyond its established confines. Because elsewhere in Halesworth, life goes on.  Young farmers, builders, and tradespeople gather in the pub, easily ignoring rural England’s debate over the future of the nation. The young sink pints, murmuring the politics of dark complaint, while receiving no echo in the church just yards away.

Samuel McIlhagga is a British writer and journalist. He works on political thought and theory, culture and foreign affairs.