LONDON The Green Party is on course to win its first seat in parliament at an election expected in May, with a campaign that will focus as much on economic worries as the environment, its leader said on Friday.
Caroline Lucas, who represents the Greens in the European Parliament, said her party was on the verge of an "historic breakthrough" after polls suggested she will beat the ruling Labour Party in one southern electoral district.
But with Britain emerging from the longest recession on record, economic worries have pushed climate change and the environment well down the political agenda.
The Greens, who took one percent of the vote at the last election in 2005, have given more prominence to social issues, like the minimum wage, pensions and higher taxes for the rich.
"People know us for the environment, we want them to know us for social policies too," Lucas told Reuters in an interview at her party's spring conference. "We are moving them to the fore."
Delegates said they hoped voters would turn to the party because they have had enough of the mainstream parties after a scandal over lawmakers' expenses claims.
"Now is the time when the Greens can have an effect," said retired lecturer John Hotti, 69, from west London. "People are fed up with the other parties and we offer something new."
They hope to build on the success of Europe's Green parties last June when they jointly increased their seats in the European Parliament from 43 to 51.
But they face the challenge of dwindling voter interest in the environment at a time of high unemployment and rising inflation and the big parties' pledges to tackle "green" issues.
Failure to reach a legal treaty at the Copenhagen climate talks in December and questions about some scientific reporting of global warming have troubled some environmentalists.
"When you've got the economy and high spending cuts at the top of people's minds, the environment is not something most people would think of," said Helen Coombs, deputy head of political research at pollsters Ipsos MORI.
Painting themselves as separate from the "cosy" mainstream, the Greens said they would end private funding in the state-run health service, raise pensions and limit banks' size and scope.
Founded in 1973 as the People party, Britain's Greens have had success in local government and European elections, but have never won a seat in parliament -- a fact they blame on Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system.
They have high hopes in several districts, including the Labour-controlled seats of Brighton Pavilion, part of the south coast seaside town, and Lewisham Deptford, east London.
While winning a single seat in parliament may be seen as largely symbolic, the party's leader said it would give them an important voice in the political system.
"We'll ask the questions that no one else does," Lucas said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)