The challenge for Greens

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett

When Natalie Bennett was elected leader of the Green Party last year, she was nothing if not ambitious. The Australian journalist set out a clear aim that by the end of the decade the party should have elected representatives in every major city and town across England and Wales.

Next week's local elections will provide her with the first opportunity to start living up to that commitment.

And the Greens clearly have some way to go. The last time these county council and unitary authority seats were up for election in 2009, the party won just 17 councillors. Overall, across all local authorities, they have just 138 councillors.

The Greens have some support in counties like Oxfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. But Ms Bennett tells me she wants to get councillors in places where they have none today, places like Essex, Surrey and Cornwall; and she wants to pick up more councillors in counties like Hertfordshire and the West Midlands.

So they are putting up more than 900 candidates in 94% of the councils that are holding elections, more than before but certainly not a full slate. The party is quite excited that they have a candidate in the Isles of Scilly.

The Green pitch to the electorate is in part quite traditional - promises that their councillors will protect the greenbelt and oppose incinerators. But there is also quite a populist strain to the campaign: they are opposing some spending cuts; promising to expand bus services and spend more on railways; and they are supporting more 20 mph road limits particularly outside schools.

The question is whether anyone is listening. Voters appear restive, often reluctant to support the larger parties. And yet all the opinion polls and recent by-elections suggest that it is UKIP that is poised to pick up the protest vote, not the Greens.

That is the challenge for the Greens, to shape their left-of-centre, environmental populism to pick up on the anti-politics mood so the field is not left open to UKIP.

Declaration of interest:I once worked with Natalie Bennett on The Times. And yes, it is true that she is the only party leader who knows how to shear a sheep.