The Ecologist, May 6 2012
After some of the biggest breakthroughs in their history, the Green Party now faces a leadership election; what happens now? Are the Greens ready to take the next big leap forward?
The mood of optimism and confidence at the Green party conference in March was palpable. Jenny Jones, the mayoral candidate, took the stand in a glittering silver jacket and told the audience: “I think the progress we’re making is so substantial! [cheers]… The BBC has decided that the greens are now in the second tier for media coverage with the libdems [cheers] and I now stand an excellent chance of coming third!” Even more cheers. It really did feel like a sunshine moment.
After all, the UK Greens now had an MP, two MEPs, and minority control of Brighton and Hove council. Membership had been steadily rising (the man sitting on my right had just come over from the Libdems), and so had donations.
Moreover, after a few years of limited political recognisability (the days of David Icke also thankfully long gone) the party had a star. Caroline Lucas’s media profile was rising unstoppably, significantly outstripping all the rest of the new parliamentary intake, except perhaps Louise Mensch. She was managing to operate at an extraordinarily high level as an MP, already serving on the Environmental Audit Committee, the Energy Bill Public Committee and as co-chair of the APPG on fuel poverty, as well as half a dozen others, while also contributing regularly to debates in the house.
Perhaps most importantly however, the Greens could talk about political and economic policies that no other party dared articulate. While Labour and the Conservatives split hairs over the rate of debit reduction, the Greens were boldly calling for a Robin Hood tax, for progressive taxation, for an increase in corporation tax and in capital gains tax and a crackdown on tax havens. And while everyone else spun helplessly in the orbit of the quest for infinite growth, the Greens were in a position, surely, to open up a new, vital discussion about limits to growth and the steady state economy.
But within a couple of hours of Jenny’s speech the mood had soured. The next significant meeting on the agenda was about Brighton and Hove councillors, who had recently ended a long and bitter battle over their budget by voting – all except one councillor – with Labour and the Tories on the amended budget. Here bitter disappointment erupted. “What is the point of being in power if you have no principles and do exactly the same as the Labour party?” roared one member. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” shouted another. Within the next few weeks several members would leave in protest. And soon afterward Lucas would step down as party leader. Were the old problems closing in again?
Founded in 1972 – the year that issues like population growth and sustainability really began to register with politicians and the public – the Green Party (known as PEOPLE to start with) was always supposed to be about a different kind of politics. Attempts in the 80s, 90s and early noughties to modernise the party and move it into the mainstream became battles from which all emerged with scars, but little modernisation. But in 2005 a group of members got together and began to talk about strategy. “Before then the party had mostly been run by people who wanted to do politics differently,” says Brighton councillor Matt Follett, who was policy adviser during the general election. “But to my mind that meant unsuccessfully. It seemed to me that we needed to be a bit more conventional here. It’s all very well to win the argument, but you can still be ignored. But if you take seats and votes then something in the mainstream will really begin to shift.”
The first change that needed to take place, thought the modernisers, was to have one leader in place, instead of the longstanding Green party tradition of joint principals. Against some fierce opposition (to this day economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato finds it “disempowering for everyone”) they successfully got the change through. Caroline – “who had been initially nervous about the whole idea” according to Follett – was duly elected leader, and then selected as parliamentary candidate in Brighton where the Greens had made a strong showing in 2005. And then the party began to really focus.
“The only way we could win Brighton Pavilion is by concentrating all our resources on one target,” explains Caroline Lucas, “and that was quite a big ask for everyone else around the country, but we really concentrated on this and that allowed us to do things that we’d never done before like focus groups, hoarding advertising, social media.”
Gratifying election success was the result, followed a year later by a victory that some regard as even more significant; gaining minority control of Brighton and Hove council. A year on, however, the realities of political life have begun to emerge, and are raising, as conference showed, difficult questions for the party that must be answered.
The results of all the work have, for some, been disappointing. I spoke to a couple of members who have left recently, and they cited disorganisation, disillusionment after the decisions in Brighton and Hove, and a sense that if you were going to have to make compromises anyway, you might as well be with a party that has a chance of national election (Labour’s revival after the local elections have certainly been a contributing factor here). Meanwhile some still in the party admit – off the record – to profound disappointment with the lack of strategy and clear thinking in the party since the two election victories. Some feel that Lucas has not been entirely successful in getting more recognition and understanding for green policies. And even the most enthusiastic members admit that they are not exactly sure where the party is headed next.
What, after all, is the plan? Having got this far where do the Greens want to go next? Caroline Lucas – still leader when I spoke to her – outlines thoughts about the collapse of the libdems and concentrating resources on the Young Greens. She then lists the South West, the North West and the East as parts of the country that need to be particularly focussed on. When I ask what the party’s takeaway message is for voters, she says: “We’re working on it, but social and environmental justice – although probably not those words – are probably the key elements.” The plan, in other words, is being worked on, but is not fully in place at the moment.
Is this a problem? Well, surely the Greens should be making headway at the moment; if not now when? But some members, such as Adam Ramsay, point out that the leadership election will be a way to focus on these issues, and members (Greens love a good discussion) see that as a wholly positive thing. “For the last few years we’ve been either fighting elections or we’ve just finished elections,” says Ramsay. “There is a discussion to be had, and I think this is exactly the right moment to be having it.”
Let’s not worry that the elections will turn into an old-fashioned bunfight. In the last few years, after all, the Greens have shown that they have the ambition and discipline to change their parties rules, and then get an MP elected; there is every reason to hope that they will choose wisely, and, as numerous people have been quick to tell me, they have a number of excellent candidates to choose from.
Let’s assume, instead, that the elections proceed calmly and that a new leader is collectively approved. This new leader will head a party with several significant disadvantages. The Greens continue to be short of money, although they now have a professional fundraiser. They are also terribly disadvantaged by the UK’s political system; green parties in countries with proportional representation have made far more headway and Lucas is frustrated by the fact that there is no state political funding here: “I can’t believe we fight wars over democracy but we can’t come up with 50p a year for funding.”.
And there is and will always be a part of the party who are opposed to any kind of pragmatic politicking – because the Green party is supposed to be about a different kind of politics. One ex member was deeply frustrated by the inability of some members to understand that it was not possible to leap straight from the current state of affairs straight to a post-growth ecological economy; “steps and compromises have to be made on the way, but some people won’t accept that”.
But the greens are also at a unique moment in their history, a moment when, if they are wise they can extend their influence further than they ever have, if they continue to be as focussed and clearsighted as they have been up for the last four years. And, as I saw at the conference, the members, committed and passionate one and all, are also the party’s greatest strength. Some may have criticised the Brighton and Hove councillors, but many also leapt to their defence. The discussion of policy motions was calm, organised, and democratic in the extreme.
I spoke to one political activist who said: “When I first got involved with the party I expected to find a bunch of argumentative hippies. Instead I found well-organised, thoughtful people who were making tiny resources go miles.” (He did say a few of them were a bit reluctant to buy their round – but you can’t have everything!) The Greens have a young generation coming through that any political party would be happy to include in its ranks. And they also have an older generation who have spent an enormous amount of time thinking about environmental and economic issues such as a steady state economy and a post-growth strategy (the work in progress by the thinktank Green House on these issues could be crucial in continuing to bring these subjects into mainstream discussion). And studies have shown that, taken in isolation, green policies are more popular with the public than those of the larger parties.
The combination means, potentially, a powerful argument along with the young legs to carry it round the streets; it is a combination that activists love. But can it deliver a great leap forward? Lucas says, with characteristic honesty and thoughtfulness: “I recognise that the trajectory of our political progress, the timeline is well behind where we need to be, in terms of the challenges that we need to address, and I’m trying to find an answer to that myself… We can’t predict if change is going to happen but we need to make sure we’re in the right place…” She stumbles and I suggest: “I suppose what you’re saying is that you’re trying to at least provide some kind of answer if people do decide they want one?”
She nods. “Yes I think that is what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to get as clear as possible what an alternative route would be for a more sustainable planet into the future.” The answer that the Greens proffer may not be the one we take. But without their contribution the conversation will not be complete.