“You’re wrong, it simply isn’t going to happen” – so said the first of many emails and texts when, in February 2012, I suggested the Greens could overtake Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick in that year’s mayoral contest.
Unsurprisingly most of the more strident messages came from disgruntled Lib Dems but there were a few from Green supporters who wanted to know if I genuinely thought they had a chance of emerging as City Hall’s third biggest party.
It was the first time anyone in the media had suggested it and many in the party would’ve been content to just to hold on to their Assembly seats which were seen by some as crucial to advancing and normalising the party’s message ahead of the General Election.
While nationally many Green themes might still seem a little exotic, in London tackling air pollution, reducing the number of journeys made by car, increasing the amount of domestic waste recycled, encouraging walking and making cycling a mainstream activity are pretty much the centre ground of politics.
That wasn’t always the case – Tory London Assembly Members used to joke about how Ken Livingstone had once agreed to spend money on promoting walking simply in order to get Green support for his budget.
But today it’s an activity promoted by their own Mayor who also believes in retro-fitting buildings to make them more energy efficient, thinks buses, cars and Taxis should emit less pollutants and is spending £900m on making London a cycling city.
There are a lot of factors for this greening-up of City Hall – including court action over poor air quality, the threat of EU fines and lobbying by groups such as Clean Air in London – but a good part of the credit belongs to Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson who’ve spent 15 years persuading colleagues in different parties and lobbying two mayors to make London a cleaner, greener city.
And it was Jenny’s passion and deep-rooted knowledge of City Hall, plus her experience in tackling both Ken and Boris, which helped her give a run of credible, effective hustings and media performances during the 2012 elections and so secure more votes in the mayoral and London Assembly list elections than the Lib Dems.
But with Jenny and Darren both stepping down from the Assembly next May, the party is now looking both for a mayoral runner and a new slate of potential AMs for next year’s election.
Clearly the party can’t win the mayoralty but with so little attention paid by the wider media to the Assembly elections, who they pick for the mayoral race and how they perform will be crucial in deciding whether the party retains its current two seats, or even picks up a third.
Unlike many in Labour, smart Greens know that the electorate isn’t going to keep bashing the Liberal Democrats forever and so are concentrating on how they can actively persuade people to vote for them, rather than lazily assume votes will come flocking their way.
And they know that Caroline Pidgeon, the most likely Lib Dem mayoral runner and a highly effective campaigner, will also be fighting hard to win the few extra percent needed in the Assembly PR vote to take her party back up to the three seats they held pre-May 2012.
Winning an extra seat on a non-executive scrutiny body may not seem a huge win compared with Labour and the Tory’s hopes to take City Hall’s ultimate prize of the mayoralty.
But for the Greens it could secure their status as London’s third biggest party, an asset they regularly use to argue for more media coverage and will next year argue entitles them to be included in every mayoral debate and given media parity.
For the LibDems an extra seat would allow them to show the party is once again in the ascendancy and give members and supporters hope that national fortunes can be improved in 2020.
And at City Hall where the time you get to question the Mayor and his (or her from next May?) key staff depends on the number of AMs you have, this extra seat means more exposure, more media coverage and more chance to be seen fighting for Londoners.
Of course, without the personal votes that Ken and Boris – both big, electoral powerhouses – come with, it’s possible that both parties could pick up an extra seat meaning the mantle of ‘third biggest party’ will go to the one which picks up the most votes.
This is why all the Green candidates used a hustings this weekend to make the case for presenting a manifesto – the party members agree this rather, as happens in some parties, the candidate deciding it – and campaign which reaches out beyond the party’s core vote and addresses the concerns of Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative voters.
Not everyone in the room seemed delighted at the calls to adopt more “credible” and moderate language, or, as Islington councillor Caroline Russell described her approach, to frame what’s said in a way that seems “rational” and “sensible” to people outside the party.
But with all candidates united on this issue there’s no electoral downside in making the case for a big-tent approach that can’t be caricatured by the media.
I left the hustings clear that those at the top of the party and those who want to represent it at City Hall have big ambitions which they believe can be credibly realised.
The party now has more members in the capital than ever before, boosting their campaign machinery beyond anything any previous Green mayoral or Assembly hopeful could rely on.
Coupled with the media coverage they expect Jones’s 2012 performance to guarantee them, higher than ever public interest in multi-party politics, and a ‘clean slate’ election absent Ken and Boris, London could be where the much-hyped ‘Green surge’ finally takes hold.