Saturday 4 August 2012

The issue of class in the Green Party leadership contest

The concept of class is a notoriously slippery one - is it about parents' social class, current jobs, education or purely economic?  Whichever category is used however it is clear that there is a decline in working class representation in the leadership of the main three parties and in parliament. York University Young Greens LINK have explored the issue in  a survey of the candidate in the current Green Party leadership election.

I found the Q&A reproduced below particularly interesting:

1.       What steps, if any, will you take to improve working-class recruitment, representation and election both inside and outside the party if you are elected? E.g. national recruitment strategy, shifting emphasis in interviews etc.
Caroline Allen: Local parties are at the core of this, talking to people from working class backgrounds is the best recruitment tool. We have great policies on social justice, which must be at the forefront of our media and campaigning work. But that’s not enough, we need to be embedded in communities and visibly working on the issues that affect those communities. I would want to develop a mentoring programme and advice to local parties and set up a body along the lines of Green Party Women, which has been successful in increasing women’s participation.
Natalie Bennett: As founding chair of Green Party Women, I’ve worked with others to improve the gender balance of GP structures and candidates. Advances were achieved by encouraging women to stand, and providing training and confidence-building sessions. This model could be extended to other under-represented groups, including working-class members.
We’ve also seen an encouraging shift, particularly in the West Midlands, towards targeting working class areas. Many join when they see we’re active locally – we must branch out.
Being politically effective, and speaking up for the most disadvantaged – benefit recipients, the disabled, asylum-seekers, is likely to more effective than any recruitment scheme.
Pippa Bartolotti:  The Green Party, as well we know, is a largely white, middle class organisation – despite most members wishing it to be otherwise. We spend too much time talking to each other in a white, middle class kind of way. How we change the way we communicate has to be a top priority, and I’m working on that now.
Greens have to be more outward facing, more involved in their communities, and step right outside their comfort zones in order to see why we recruit so few working class people. I like to roll up my sleeves and get involved, but a party leader; no matter how active and dedicated, cannot be everywhere.
However, the party leader does set the tone. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to continually speak to the party, but can speak beyond it. That, I believe is where I can make a difference – embracing working class concerns in honest language.
Peter Cranie: The fact that I grew up in council housing in a working class community will mean that my experience reflects that of many other people. It is crucial we have working class voices to represent the Greens, not just perceived middle class ones.
Will Duckworth: Yes. I do recognise this problem and only realised how bad it was when I attended my first conference and felt very uncomfortable.
I think that I am tackling the problem in my area. It is a deprived ward with predominantly social housing including high rise flats. We have stressed the party’s social policies and tackled many housing issues. We have promoted the importance of a living wage and the fight against cuts. When ordinary working people hear our social policies they like them and we have recruited a number of local people who could not be classified as middle class by any stretch of the imagination.
We need to grow more from these deprived areas and ensure that local parties are aware that we can work and win in working class wards and it increases the diversity of our membership. We also need to promote ordinary people within the party.
Richard Mallender: Reducing all of a person’s life, experience, expectations, education, etc. effectively to “Are you working class?” is incredibly simplistic.NonethelessI firmly believe that there are far too many MPs that have no real experience of working for a living, that have gone straight from university to political internships, to being paid party hacks and then, perhaps after a trial run at one general election, are handed a safe seat in an area they know nothing about and representing people they neither know nor understand.
I firmly believe that our policies can & will benefit the ordinary members of society. The citizens’ income, for example, benefits the least well off in society while eliminating the poverty trap caused by our current benefit system.
Alex Phillips: One of my key pledges in this campaign has been the need for local Green parties to embed themselves fully in their communities. This means relationship-building with groups outside of our typical demographic e.g. resident associations, Women’s Institutes, faith-groups and trade unions. We also have to bear in mind that for many working class people, political activity might be a luxury and they might be unable to become Green Party members. By becoming a better reflection of the communities Greens seek to represent, local parties should then endeavour to approach all known Green voters in their community and ask them to join the party. Recruitment has to be the first step of being able to then improve working class representation within the party and as public representatives. At the same time, we need to develop our relationship with trade unions and trade unionists. Joining striking workers on picket lines with a Green rosette is a big gesture. I hope to join Remploy workers in solidarity next week.
Romayne Phoenix: If elected I will put our party at the heart of the battle against austerity, privatisation, and ecological vandalism – addressing the concerns of millions within a realistic framework for a ‘jobs rich’ zero carbon future.
Working alongside others to create a mass movement against capitalist inequalities we will attract supporters, voters, members and candidates from a wider range of the population and then we can work to promote those who are least represented in politics.
Socialists, trade unionists, and environmentalists should see the Green Party as a natural home.
I am supporting a Membership Strategy motion to Autumn GPEW Conference.

2.       Do you agree with recent proposals (outside the party) for working-class shortlists/quotas to improve the representation of ordinary people in politics?
Caroline Allen: I believe that the steps above are key, my experience with Green Party Women shows there are a raft of measures that need to be used, of which quotas could be one aspect. Mentoring is vital. Without support and encouragement by others in the party I would never have taken that first step as a candidate, I didn’t think I was the sort of person who stood for election.
I can envisage some practical problems with definitions, is it about background, job, education? I don’t see this as insurmountable, but they would need to be carefully considered.
Natalie Bennett: No. What “working class” means is very wide open to interpretation, and can only be based on self-definition, so likely to cause endless controversy. I saw a motion to the Compass AGM along these lines fall because it defined working class in terms of manual labour, which was very male-biased, as well as inaccurate.
However, while quotas wouldn’t work for increasing working class representation, real political effort will. We can’t ignore this question. We have to do far more than pass motions or create rules – we have to change our culture and be conscious of how we come across.
Pippa Bartolotti: Wherever there is underrepresentation of a section of society, quota-type mechanisms are the best way yet of retrieving balance.
Peter Cranie: I think the main problem with this approach is definition. Am I now more middle class than working class? I’m a graduate, I’m a professional (a lecturer) and I live in a nice part of Liverpool. We should look at all options though.
Will Duckworth: A tough one! I am happy about targets for representation of women but class is a bit more tricky. We need to get more ordinary people into politics but we must do that by making it more relevant and understand that a lot of what we expect of our politicians is very middle class: We demand a strong grasp of the English language and grammar, the ability to get up and speak in front of groups of people and to give erudite answers to philosophical questions. We can’t change that but we do need to recognise it.
Richard Mallender : I would be far happier with an elected commons comprising members with at least 10 years experience of holding down a real job, whether that be as a postal worker, train driver, teacher, local authority planner, lawyer, business owner, charity worker or whatever. I don’t think it helps to go for a quota of “working class” – how are you going to decide who is working class and who isn’t?
Campaigning in areas where there are high numbers of unemployed, where people live in council (or former council) housing, does win us support and new members who can then stand for election themselves.
We also need to increase our reach to ethnic minorities who are also under-represented in parliament, and we also need to see equality in the number of women in parliament. Parliament should reflect the nation it seeks to rule.
Alex Phillips: Yes. However, what is more important to me, far more so than class, is someone’s politics. There are many working class Conservatives, in the same way there are plenty of middle managers who might describe themselves as ‘socialists.’ Parties should focus more on getting the politics right before making overtures. As Greens we need to broaden our appeal and package our messages so that they are accessible to more people. It is frustrating for me as an elected representative that by and large (but certainly not exclusively) those who are voting for us are middle class. Surveys have shown that our policies are the most liked out of all the parties, what we need to do now is frame them so that people know what they are and how they are relevant to them: our policies on jobs, the economy, pensions, the NHS and education as well on climate change, transport and animal welfare.
Romayne Phoenix: Until Parliament ‘looks’ more like the population of Britain we won’t have political priorities that reflect the genuine needs or concerns of the people.
The Power Enquiry investigated historic drops in voter participation, but the student demonstrations, and 500,000 marching 26/03/11, showed us that people are politically active.
We have to campaign alongside people in the struggles ahead, as Syriza worked alongside the people in Greece. There are many strong working class candidates that we can persuade to stand with us and for us.
The benefits of gender balance shortlists is accepted and we can develop models to create balanced representation for government.

3. What life experience do you have that you believe would make you appeal to ordinary people? E.g. working on the minimum wage, living in affordable/council housing, state education etc.
Caroline Allen: My parents are both from working class backgrounds; as a child I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on Harold Hill, a council estate near Romford. One Grandfather worked for a garage door manufacturer until his pelvis was shattered in an industrial accident. Sadly he never really recovered, mentally or physically. I vividly remember the hospital visits. My father’s family were moved out of Islington when he was young because there was no decent housing, my Gran walked down four floors to get running water. I’m horrified that history is repeating itself.
Natalie Bennett: I’ve worked as a cleaner (including in a nightclub – not pleasant), as a farmhand (including in shearing sheds), on a factory production line (haven’t been able to stand raspberry jelly since), but I don’t think that talking about those experiences appeals to voters.
What we need to do is present our strong policies – the minimum wage a living wage, provision of generally affordable social housing for all who want it, decent benefits to support those who need help for as long as they need it – loudly, clearly and effectively, in language that is accessible to everyone.
Pippa Bartolotti: My education took place before I reached the age of 10, at a small, overcrowded village school. From there I went to Grammar School, and a year later became a victim of the new comprehensive mode of non-education…I left school at 15 and attended Art School; took all manner of jobs: barmaid, selling double glazing, driving spare parts around the country for garages etc to pay my way. I have worked full time since my 19th birthday, starting my own businesses so that I could be with my children as they grew up. One of my sons is adopted. Whilst working full time I was a Samaritan 2 nights a week – an experience revealing unimaginable hardships. Latterly I have become an Amnesty schools speaker where my role is to introduce older teenagers from a myriad of backgrounds to human rights. I have driven a convoy of humanitarian aid across Europe to Gaza, and been wrongfully imprisoned.
Peter Cranie: I think that in addition to my personal experience, the fact that I worked with and advocated for some of the least privileged in society will help.
Will Duckworth: I do live in an ordinary semi in a poor urban area with a Syrian family seeking asylum living next door.
I am told by my daughter that as an ex-teacher I am middle class but I taught in the area that I live and have taught many of my neighbours or their children. I was sacked from my job (wrongly – I was later awarded damages) and spent 18 months on the dole before my wife managed to find a job. The experience of being out of work and not knowing how to survive on the pittance they provide after degrading and humiliating you is one that is difficult to ignore.
Alex Phillips: I am from Liverpool, grew up in a Labour household and was always educated at local, mixed, comprehensive schools. I have worked on the minimum wage where I worked in pubs and restaurants, whilst living in Liverpool. I now live in ex-council housing. My life experience is much broader than what I have experienced as an individual; it’s about what I’ve seen around me. My younger sister was the first person in our family to go on to postgraduate education. Despite health problems she gained a first in her undergraduate degree at Nottingham University, and she then gained a distinction in her Masters at Liverpool University. Now, aged 25, she lives at home with my parents in Liverpool. The only jobs on offer to her are unpaid internships in London which she cannot afford to do. I have two older brothers from my father’s first marriage, and they have both been long-term unemployed. Various people in my family: siblings and cousins do currently or have in the past lived in council housing and have had to claim benefits.
Romayne Phoenix: My parents migrated from India and Ireland, meeting in London in the 1950′s.
I’ve been a single parent for four years. I know what it is like to struggle on a very low income, ‘one bill away from disaster’.
For my last two years as an elected councillor I lived and raised my three children on my allowance of £9,700 plus child benefits.
My local state Primary School was the ‘lowest achieving’ school in our outer London borough. I was very happy there and unaware how many of us had free school meals.

4.       How would you define yourself in terms of class, and do you see this as important to your politics?
Caroline Allen: Middle class. Having benefited from a good state education and free further education I have been very fortunate to have been able to realise my dream of being a vet, a professional position. I work for someone else as an employee. It is important because I know that I have been lucky and had advantages that others, such as my parents, didn’t.  They pushed me for this very reason. Now even fewer people have these opportunities. I don’t like being judged based on my job and class, for me it’s about being empathetic and appreciating where you’re from.
Natalie Bennett: I’m middle class now, but my origins are working class. My parents were aged 19 and 18 when they had me, my father being an apprentice carpenter, and both left school with the equivalent of basic O Levels. My father worked three jobs at once at times during my childhood, including serving in a petrol station, while my mother did part-time secretarial/admin work. Those childhood experiences inform my politics, but I don’t think talking about them in the political arena
is particularly relevant.
Pippa Bartolotti: I don’t see myself as belonging to any class. My father was a self-employed baker and shopkeeper, and my mother did not work. My grandfather was an immigrant – an escapee from fascism.
Being largely self-educated, and a late comer to politics, I am at home anywhere. I do not look down on anyone and consider myself above no-one. My chief concerns are inequality, climate change and human rights. These three issues transcend class.
Peter Cranie: I live a middle class lifestyle now, with enough to get by, and our children don’t miss out on things we make a choice on (e.g. organic milk for the youngest). But a working class background enables you to appreciate that a lot of people don’t have those choices.
Will Duckworth: Working-class [NB: Will received a version of the question which did not contain the second half of this question]
Richard Mallender : My mother was a teacher in both public and private sector schools, my father worked on the production line in a tractor factory, and I have worked in the public, private and charitable sectors and have twice been out of work for over a year; what class would that make me?
Alex Phillips: My politics reflect my upbringing and my community. I grew up in a Labour household in a city with a deep Labour tradition. Am I working class? Honestly, I don’t think I am. Whilst my gross income is less than £12,000 per year, I share a two-bedroomed flat with my partner; I’m a university graduate and a qualified Teacher. But, would I describe myself as socialist? Yes. Without a doubt this is the most accurate description of my politics. Everyone is aspirational, parents want to see their children do better than them and, at the same time, children want to do better than their parents. What we need is equality of opportunity. As Greens, our job is to make this a reality.
Romayne Phoenix: Academics might define me now as part of the economic ‘underclass’. I would say that I am working class and identify with all those who depend on a system that should operate for the benefit of the majority but is being skewed towards the benefits of the few. Many industries and employment opportunities disappeared from Britain as companies chased profit margins and the same capitalist values are causing economic, ecological and sociological destruction. The issue of class, wealth and power is central to the struggle for a better future.

5. Have you:
a) Ever attended a university that is now in the Russell Group, such as Oxford or Cambridge?
Caroline Allen: Yes. I decided at a young age I wanted to be a vet, no-one from my family had ever been to university, I attended a state school. I was told I had better think of something else, getting in to vet school was very hard. I got offers from Edinburgh and Cambridge vet schools. A freezing day and the thought of outdoor farm work put me off Edinburgh.
At Cambridge I was geek, not elite. I wasn’t invited to the drinking/debating societies but hung out with people like me, was taught by some inspiring people and became a vet.
Natalie Bennett: No
Pippa Bartolotti: No. University was not in the vocabulary of my family. I am largely self-educated.
Peter Cranie: No
Will Duckworth: No
Richard Mallender: No -As far as formal education goes I went to the Valley Comprehensive in Worksop, then North Nottinghamshire College of Further Education, on to Teesside Polytechnic graduating in 1990 and then studied for a year post-graduate at the University of Aberdeen.
Alex Phillips: No
Romayne Phoenix: No

b) Ever attended a private school?
Caroline Allen: No
Natalie Bennett: The system in Australia is slightly different than here but the bare bones are that I attended a state primary school then, due to good exam marks, I won a scholarship to attend a private secondary school.
Pippa Bartolotti: No
Peter Cranie: No. When we moved down to England I was given some tests and they sent me to the grammar school, but I don’t support that system of education.
Will Duckworth: No
Richard Mallender: No
Alex Phillips: No
Romayne Phoenix: From the lowest achieving primary school my verbal reasoning skills were seen as remarkable and, in 1971, I was ‘awarded’ a ‘free’ place at a very local non state secondary school – on the basis of an interview. Advised by colleagues and teachers not to accept the place for me, my mother rebelled.
Children being divided up and separated in this manner at this age cannot be positive for society.

1 comment:

charles gate said...

The majority of the UK population are working class. Good to see our leadership candidates reflect that.