The Green party reported a huge spike of membership in January, helping it overtake Ukip and even the Lib Dems – but as its spring conference opens, can it sustain growth through the general election?
Has the Green party become a force to be taken seriously, or is it still a fringe movement best forgotten by Westminster rivals?
This is becoming another crucial question as the UK’s two-party system continues to warp and fracture, bringing huge uncertainty and shocking new political realities.
The three “main parties” have already been forced to adapt to the successes of the UK Independence Party, charging forth into new territory, and the Scottish National Party which aims to wipe out Labour in Scotland at the general election.
With only one seat in parliament, it might have seemed easy to dismiss the Green party of England and Wales as an ineffective political force in the long history of the two-party system.
But Green party membership soared in the last three months of 2014, and continued into January as the party overtook Ukip and even the Lib Dems, who are plainly suffering after nearly five years in a damaging coalition partnership with the Tories.
Green leader Natalie Bennett is poised to join other party chiefs in the leaders’ debates, if only the politicians can decide what form they should take – but the prospect itself reveals how far the Greens have come in a short time.
Green membership doubled between March and December 2014, reaching 30,900 by the end of the year.
There was then a huge surge in January, as new members topped 44,713, and on a single day that month the party recorded a new intake of over 2,000 new members.
A spokesperson said the party was unable to keep up that pace, but was still able to register over 1,000 new members each day for several days afterwards, as new members dropped down again to the hundreds.
So why the big jump? And can the party possibly keep it up?
The Green party carried out a survey of 5,000 new members at the start of this year to find out why they had joined.
It found that 2,000 of those new members had voted for the Liberal Democrats in the last general election, with 1,000 of that number saying they had previously supported Labour, the spokesperson said.
The Liberal Democrats have suffered huge falls in opinion polls since they joined a power-sharing agreement with the Conservatives in 2010, leading to some dire predictions of how many seats they might be left with after 7 May.
Their membership figures for 2014 tell a story of stagnation, although they did continue to rise slowly over the 12 months – so at least the party can say it has not lost members overall.
The Lib Dems say that in “the most difficult of circumstances” they managed to “reverse a decade-long decline in party membership”.
During 2014 the party’s membership crept up steadily, from 43,451 in the first quarter to 44,680 by the end of the year.
All of which may cast doubt on the existence of a direct link between party membership, perceived popularity and electoral prospects.
At the end of February the Green party leader suffered what she called an “excruciating” interview at the hands of LBC radio, as she struggled to explain the detail of her policy on social housing. She and other party members quickly doused the flames of the publicity disaster.
And what happened to new member numbers? In the whole of February the Greens managed to pile on another 15,000 members, and by 6 March almost 3,000 new members had been added, bringing the total to 55,775.
Did that excruciating moment deal a significant blow to the Green party’s appeal? It may be too hard to tell, but their achievement in attracting new members demands respect, now that they have overtaken the new force Ukip and even one of the parties in power.
The SNP has quickly become an established force after its strong showing in the Scottish referendum campaign, pegged at 93,000 members in mid-November.
As for the two big-hitters, Labour says its membership has risen to 194,629, while the Conservatives recorded 149,800 in September – although a spokesman insisted their number was more like 225,000 today “if you count on the same basis as Labour”.
The Tories say their membership relates to people who pay £25 or more a year, and have been “declared centrally via audited accounts”.
Questions will remain over the Greens’ policies and whether they can flesh them out fully – and defend them effectively – by the time the election comes.
But their ability to sign up new members has caused everyone else to take notice, perhaps proving that this year’s electorate could be one of the hardest to predict in recent memory.