06/09/2012 06:51 BST | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 GMT

With a New Leader, Where Next for the Greens?

For political parties, the arrival of a new leader is often a catalyst for change. Aside from election defeats, a change of leadership has often been shown to spark a period of internal discussion and -ultimately- change of direction. It is for these reasons that a change in the leadership of the Green Party -which has passed from the popular and well-known Caroline Lucas to the almost unknown Natalie Bennett is worth a closer look.

With the party's autumn conference approaching this weekend, a new set of local elections next year and rapidly approaching elections to the European Parliament in 2014 (which offer favourable opportunities for minor parties), the new leader has begun to outline her strategy for transforming the fledgling party into a national force. As she will quickly find, the wider environment is offering the Greens both problems and opportunities.

Like their counterparts in other Western democracies, over past decades the Greens have benefitted mainly from a broad process of value change that has seen more educated and secure citizens increasingly embrace progressive and post-material values, such as concern over the environment, human rights issues and economic equality. In the UK, analysis of Green Party support has revealed how the party is mainly attractive to the young and better educated, those who tend to be employed in the public sector and citizens who enjoy more secure and flexible positions in the job market.

In the current climate, these social bases of support bring new opportunities to the Greens, and these do not appear to be lost on the new leader. The "Bennett strategy" appears to be anchored in appealing to social groups that have long supported the Greens while reaching into the ranks of disgruntled Liberal Democrat and also Labour voters: left-wing citizens who are concerned over a lack of economic equality, sceptical that a globalised economy can deliver prosperity for all and -more generally- are concerned about quality of life issues.

If this is the strategy, then Bennett is not wrong to target a combination of the disgruntled and more affluent wing of Labour and traditional Liberal Democrats. As we know from research in political science, Green voters tend to identify with left-wing politics, and importantly for Bennett there is evidence that these voters are especially positive toward the (now unpopular) Liberal Democrats. In fact, Green support has been traced to University towns and urban areas where the Lib Dems have tended to poll well, and also to middle-class areas in the south of England where there are large clusters of young and highly-educated citizens. In contrast, the Greens would be making a strategic blunder were they to target those social groups who have suffered the most from the economic crisis, as these have never tended to vote Green.

This pattern of support differentiates the Greens from other minor parties, such as Respect that is strongest in more ethnically diverse and Muslim areas where there are high rates of unemployment, or the BNP that is strongest within working-class and mainly white enclaves that are close to more diverse areas. It is also worth pointing out that in contrast to these other minor parties that are either fragmenting internally or lacking large numbers of active foot soldiers, the Greens appear relatively strong going forward.

But there is also a populist angle here, and one that Bennett would do well to push. The bonds between voters and the mainstream parties continue to weaken, while political distrust remains high. Amidst these broader changes minor parties have certainly drawn strength, with their share of the total vote at general elections rising from 3.8% in 2001, to 5.7% in 2005 and to 6.4% in 2010. But there are specific opportunities here for the Greens, who unlike the BNP or UKIP appear as a more "acceptable home" for voters who are disillusioned with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Labour, argues Bennett, "just wants to cut a little more slowly than the coalition". Indeed, the Greens are on strong ground when talking about opposing the cuts, protecting benefits for those in need, revitalising the manufacturing sector and criticising the three main parties -but especially Labour that is a stable of potential Green voters- for failing to clamp down on tax havens and big business and bonus culture.

The task facing Bennett is to make this narrative both credible and clear. For example, voters are distinctly unlikely to warm to her talk about the need for credit unions and small local banks, but they are certainly receptive to a populist, anti-establishment strategy that also bangs on about a lack of progressive values and fairness in society. Similarly, while they may be willing to hear about a "vision for radical change", in the current climate they are unlikely to be won over by vague references to the need for greater investment in housing, jobs and renewable energy. But -that said- given the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg, and Labour's ongoing struggle to demonstrate economic competence, there is clearly enlarged space in the British party system for the Green vision.

Ultimately, however, much will depend on whether Bennett can build on her predecessors by packaging the minor party as a credible and legitimate alternative. Political scientists often refer to this challenge as overcoming the 'credibility gap', and achieving it is no mean feat. Building on the success in Brighton by targeting vulnerable Liberal Democrats and Labour marginals are the obvious way to go, but before the next general election further gains at the local and European level will be important to demonstrating that the Greens mean business. Bennett is not alone at looking toward these more favourable or "second-order" contests. UKIP has also set itself the (realistic) goal of finishing first at the 2014 European elections, an the Greens are also likely to meet a revived and well-oiled Labour machine looking to enact heavy Conservative losses.

The simple reality is that few voters ever genuinely believe that minor parties can take national power. Failing to convince them otherwise is what has sank many a minor party. With the notable exception of Brighton Pavilion (gained by the Greens in 2010) and Bradford West (gained by Respect at a by-election in 2012), minor parties have consistently failed to engineer a sustained national breakthrough. This is not to say that it is impossible, as the trajectories of the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru underscore. But it is extremely difficult. To the new leader of the Green Party, I say good luck.