Tuesday 2 August 2016

Some of the issues lurking beneath the surface of the Green Party leadership election

Line up at a hustings for leader and deputy. Amelia Womack was on holiday.

Written in individual capacity 

As the great Labour leadership battle storms on amidst thunderous roars, flashes of lightning and torrents of abuse, in a comparatively calm but neglected corner of the political firmament another leadership contest is taking place - for the leadership, deputy leadership and Executive of the Green Party of England and Wales.

News Thump: 'Green Party picks worst possible moment to hold leadership election' LINK takes a well-aimed satirical swipe at the Greens' failure to get even minimal coverage of their election but it is worth looking at some of the issues that are lurking just below the surface.

Some are not specific to this election but reflect longer term issues. An obvious one, now reflected in the Labour leadership contest, is the relationship between the Greens as part of a wider campaigning environmental and social justice movement and the Greens as an electoralist organisation.  The reduction of the party's campaigning (non election) budget to zero means that there will be few, if any, campaign materials available at the Autumn conference.  The recent emphasis on a 'progressive alliance' with other political parties, strongly supported by Caroline Lucas, raises all sorts of issues about electoral pacts, red (green?) lines, and what is meant by the slippery term 'progressive'. Much will depend on the outcome of the Labour leadership election where Labour support for proportional representation will be deal-breaker.

As Caroline Lucas is standing for the leadership on a joint ticket with Jonathan Bartley the progressive alliance has featured in many of the hustings. Concerns have been expressed that this concept has not been fully debated by the membership and rather than emerging from the party's very comprehensive policy making process has come from 'on high'.  Deputy leader candidate Shahrar Ali has called for full internal party consultation on the issue.  It is complicated by the fact that the Green Party is not a top-down organisation with centralised direction but one where local parties have autonomy. Final decisions on whether to contest seats or stand down in favour of an agreed 'progressive alliance' candidates rests with them.

In terms of joint campaigning with other political parties, independent socialists and environmentalists, trade unionists  and community groups this already happens on many issues including fracking, austerity, local government cuts, housing, union disputes, academisation, public transport, library closure and much else.  When we take part in such actions the lack of Green Party campaign material is a weakness.

There are those in the Green Party who view the progressive alliance with scepticism and others who go further in arguing that Greens should stand on their own policies which are inimical to Labour's commitment to economic growth.

The jibe that Ukip is more diverse than the Green Party has enough truth in it to require the Green Party undertake some serious self-examination.  The hustings photograph above illustrates, with the exception of Shahrar Ali (standing) the all-white nature of candidates for the leadership and deputy leadership of the party.  There is also a gender imbalance in the leadership contest with Caroline Lucas the only female although three of the seven deputy candidates are women.

Class is an area when the Green Party has come under attacks as an essentially middle class institution and although the membership is changing with the recruitment of ex-Labour activists and a thriving Green Party Trade Union Group, the public face of the Green Party is still middle class, white and largely London-based.

There are candidates in this election with working class roots or a record of activism in working class communities including Martie Warin from the ex-pit village of Easington in County Durham, and Cllr David Williams  now in Oxfordshire but originally from Salford.  Among the deputy contenders Andrew Cooper has represented the Greens on Kirklees Council since 1999.

The candidiates' views on working with trade unions can be read HERE

Turning to issues specific to this election the one to emerge early on was the joint candidature of Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley LINK. In giving up the leadership previous Lucas had said she wanted to open up the way for more voices to represent the party. Critics immediately suggested that standing for the leadership in 2016 as well as being the sole MP would effectively reduce the number of voices.  Party rules state that if co-leaders are elected then there will be only one deputy (Shahrar Ali and Amelia Womack were previously male and female deputies).  A further criticism was that by announcing their co-leadership bid early on Lucas-Bartley effectively discouraged other candidates. Given Lucas' prominence and well-deserved reputation, others were unlikely to come forward as they would expect Lucas to win.

The issue of workload is also being discussed by activists. Previously Natalie Bennett, Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali shared the official leadership positions supplemented by Caroline Lucas and the Green MEPs.  If Lucas is elected co-leader the official leadership is reduced by one. In addition she will have to combine leadership with the role of MP. As the leader spends a lot of the time touring the country, speaking to local parties and attending events this aspect of the role may suffer although the counter-argument is that Bartley will do the bulk of this work.

Although there is a strong case against the media dictating our leadership structures it is worth considering how the media, especially TV and Radio, will cope with co-leaders. It was a feature of the General Election that interviewers did not really understand that in the Green Party the leader is a spokesperson for policies decided by the membership.  They often expected Bennett to be an expert on every aspect of policy or to make up policy and initiatives on the spot. Combine that with a preference for one recognisable face and voice then we can expect Lucas to dominate the media with a blurring between her leadership and MP roles. Policy and strategy expectations will be deepened by her parliamentary role so on issues such as the progressive alliance she will be pushed to comment beyond existing policy.

Members' deciding policy is a jealously guarded principle in the Green Party and members are likely to oppose any erosion of that role.  Given the growth in party membership there are issues around managing larger conferences (at present any member can attend) and the possibility of switching to a delegate conference. Although the Green Party trumpets its democratic structures the current right of anyone to attend is counter-balanced by the issue of affordability. Despite differing charges for conference admission according to capacity to pay, fares and accommodation are expensive, so those economically disadvantaged are less able to afford to attend.

The concerns outlined above along with members who want to see Ali and Womack continue as deputy leaders has led to some members advocating a vote for RON in the leadership elections. RON stands for Re-open Nominations.  They argue that a  winning vote for RON would both enable a wider and more diverse field to come forward for the leadership and potentially allow Ali and Womack to continue as deputies.

Others argue that RON is extremely unlikely to win, if it did it would be an embarrassment to the party, and despite misgivings Lucas-Bartley is the only real show in town.

Declaration of interest: I have backed Shahrar Ali standing as deputy leader on the grounds of his effective communication skills  and his commitment to internal party democracy. We do not of course agree on everything!

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