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Conservatives’ Voting System Overhaul Turned Mayoral Elections into ‘Negative and Divisive’ Race, Says Green Candidate

Zoë Garbett on a tense London mayoral race, how the Greens plan to push Sadiq Khan, and how she got her seat

Mayor Sadiq Khan and Green party candidate Zoë Garbett during an LBC London Mayoral Debate before May 2. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

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The Conservative Government’s change to the voting system turned the recent mayoral elections into a “negative and divisive” race, the Green Party’s London mayoral candidate has told Byline Times

Zoë Garbett argues that the switch to First Past the Post for mayors and PCCs encouraged fear-based campaigning about “letting the other side in” if people voted for smaller parties. 

The change, which scrapped voters’ ability to cast a second preference or “back up” vote, was made without significant debate as part of the Conservatives Elections Act in 2022. The Act also introduced mandatory voter ID for the first time for Westminster and English local elections. 

Sadiq Khan repeatedly urged Green and Lib Dem voters to “lend me your vote” due to the perceived risk of Conservative Susan Hall AM slipping in through a divided left-of-centre vote. Garbett tells Byline Times she would have put Khan as her second preference, had the choice not been removed for her. Khan, who opposed the voting system change, would have reciprocated. 

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“The whole narrative was around the voting system,” Garbett told this outlet. “It affected campaigning arguments, the manifestos came out really late, and [the debate] was more around ‘don’t vote for them – if you vote for these people you’re going to let this person in’. So we did well considering the context,” the former NHS worker says. 

The shift in debate is nonetheless “depressing” Garbett adds. But she still secured around 6% of the vote and came within 70 votes of joint third with the Lib Dems on May 2. 

The Greens retained three seats on the PR-elected London Assembly. But Zoë Garbett was fourth on the PR elected list – meaning she wasn’t initially elected.

Three days after the election, longstanding Green AM Siân Berry announced she was standing down, handing Garbett her seat. It led to significant criticism, including from Labour figures, several of whom described the move as “cynical”.  

Garbett tells this outlet that Berry’s decision to step down was not planned, but admitted that it had been poorly received by voters. 

“It wasn’t a strategy. It wasn’t a plan. We wanted to grow our team. We wanted to get me in as soon as possible. It was very much Siân’s decision to step aside to get me in now, so that I can work on all this stuff that I’ve been talking about, and that she can spend more time on the Brighton campaign,” the Green Assembly Member says.  

Two-term AM Siân Berry had previously said she would stand aside if she got elected down in Brighton Pavilion in this year’s General Election, where she in turn is running to replace Caroline Lucas MP. 

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“We keep getting asked if it was planned, but you can tell by the way it played out, but it definitely wasn’t because it wasn’t managed the best from a comms perspective,” Garbett tells me. 

She also reveals that Berry tried to quit on the night of the count, so Garbett and the two other Greens would be introduced as the three Green Assembly members without major fanfare. 

“She ended up being in office for three days, which obviously isn’t [ideal],” Garbett says. I appreciate that it didn’t land [well]…but hopefully people can see the reasons that we’ve done it and can see how willing I am to just get on with it,” she adds. 

Garbett remains positive about the Green Party’s influence on London’s political landscape. She pointed out several key policy areas where the Greens have previously had a substantial impact. “Sadiq [Khan] supports rent controls because of the work of Greens in City Hall. He saved youth centres because of us too,” Garbett claims. 

But she appears sceptical that Khan will reach his ambitious 2030 Net Zero target in the capital after Khan ruled out moving to a pay-per-mile, smart road user charging system for drivers – in the midst of stiff Conservative opposition. 

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Garbett criticises the Labour administration’s reluctance to overhaul road user charging in the capital, a policy she believes is essential for reducing transport emissions in London: “Just how is he going to meet that kilometre reduction and emissions from transport without pay-per-mile charging?”  

The London mayoral election saw the Green Party receive plenty of media attention – partly as the public broadcasters were obliged to give them substantial coverage.

Outside of the dedicated campaign period though, it is often right-wing Reform UK – who picked up their first London Assembly seat this time – who get more attention. 

The media gap is “really, really frustrating for us” she says.

“Every time we’re on BBC Question Time or any [program], people take so much interest in us.” Those appearances don’t come around very often – though perhaps they will do so increasingly as the Greens present left-wing critiques of a Keir Starmer-led Labour Government. 

The Greens are also likely to face growing scrutiny, alongside any positive coverage. The past week has seen probes into new Green councillors, including Mothin Ali, who was forced to apologise after saying that securing his Leeds council seat on May 2 was a “win for the people of Gaza”. There was also heavy media criticism of him shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is the Greatest, in Arabic) after he won his seat. The Green Party is investigating but has not suspended him. 

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Garbett acknowledges that the party is “definitely” going to get more scrutiny: “We’ve got more scrutiny locally, and that’s really positive. It shows that people are paying attention and that we absolutely need to make sure that everyone we put forward is solid and in line with our values.” 

However, she suggests that some of it has tipped over into abuse, branding recent attacks on Zack Polanski AM, who is Jewish and against the Gaza war, “really horrific.” 

“It’s hard. I’ve had a lot more abuse in the last couple of months,” Garbett adds. 

Garbett’s profile is likely to rise further in the next few years, as the new deputy chair of the Assembly’s housing committee, and with roles on the policing and planning committees. If there’s a Labour Government in Westminster, the London mayor could be getting more powers, making the role of the scrutiny body more important still. 

Garbett and her two Green colleagues will be both a critical friend, and an occasional thorn in the side of Sadiq Khan as he navigates the next few years. 


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