Last weekend saw the Green Party of England and Wales’ autumn conference, and the formal announcement of the Green Party’s new leadership team – Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley as joint-leaders, and Amelia Womack as Deputy Leader.
Lucas and Bartley’s victory was not a surprise, but perhaps the size of their victory was (87.7% of the vote, 81% clear of their nearest rival). This is despite some displeasure at the manner of the announcement they’d be standing (an article in the Guardian the day before formal nominations opened). Lucas had previously suggested she may continue with the decision she made in 2012 – to step aside from the leadership so that, among other benefits, more faces could make a name for themselves, and build a national reputation. Deputy Leaders Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali among those suggested as possible candidates, as well as MEP Molly Scott-Cato.
There have been some grumbles that Lucas and Bartley should have waited a few weeks longer, and that they effectively ended the leadership contest by announcing in the way that they did. Given that Caroline Lucas is the overwhelmingly most qualified candidate running for leadership podium, Bartley was effectively guaranteed a place at the top without scrutiny – it was known in advance that he wouldn’t have to work anywhere near as hard to win over his doubters as whoever became Deputy Leader would do. At the grassroots level, we’ve heard plenty of complaints against the newly elected Leaders, not because of any solid criticism against Bartley, but simply because he’s not a particularly well known figure in his own right. In fact, even among Green Party members Bartley is probably most widely known for a Twitter exchange with Louise Mensch earlier this summer. (Bartley reported the cheers in his local hospital on false reports that Jeremy Hunt had been replaced as Health Secretary – in Mensch’s view, this was enough to make him a “scumbag” and a “loathsome tit”.)
We’ll be writing a separate article looking at Natalie Bennett’s impact as leader soon, but, in brief, we agree with Adam Ramsay’s opinion that the growth of the party in recent years is partially down to the many hours of hard graft she’s put into promoting the party up and down the country, working to keep the leadership team attached to the grassroots, and showing a genuine interest in those she meets. By sheer coincidence one of the co-writers of this piece met Bennett in their first week as a member of the Green Party, at a mid-sized event where she spoke to every single person individually. We can recall being taken aback that she seemed genuinely interested in our reasons for joining the party, eager to get more information on how and why the party had broadened it’s appeal. Her interest dramatically contrasted with our previous experience of meeting people in relatively powerful positions (MPs, mayors and corporate executives), who from our experience tend to display a fleeting interest in the opinions of the lower orders, if that. Bennett spoke with campaigners on how the party could help with locally specific issues, went to the local radio studio to be interviewed, before returning for lunch and strategic discussion with the local party officers, all while finding the time to tweet regularly on the day’s breaking stories. And that was, from what we’ve seen of her schedule since, a very normal example of her schedule, well outside of the election cycle.
It’s normal for political journalists to look for conflict between the big beasts of any political party, and the same has been true of Bennett and Lucas. However, from our understanding, where there’s been conflict between Bennett and Lucas, it’s been over messaging, rather than the substance of what the Green Party should be. From what we’ve heard, whereas Bennett has often sought to portray the Greens as the party of radical transformation, Lucas’ approach has been to present the same policies as being obvious, sensible solutions which will benefit nearly everybody.
As a result the co-leaders’ speech reached it’s final few minutes before either of the leadership pair mentioned Universal Basic Income in their speeches, despite it playing a prominent part in the 2015 election campaign, and having made a stronger inroads into public awareness since then. (Switzerland has conducted a public vote on the issue, Finland’s government have been looking at the practicalities, and Labour are apparently considering making it part of their official policy.)
Using the admittedly unscientific method of google-hits, Caroline Lucas’ name comes up less than half as often alongside ‘universal basic income’ as it does alongside ‘insulation’, an issue which, for worse and better, is a lot less radical sounding. It won’t excite people in the same way, but it’s a logical, sensible policy, which reduces waste, lowers the amount of energy required to heat a home, and provides employment for the insulation installers – in the medium to long-term, benefiting everyone but the energy companies. It’s not as bold and attention-grabbing, but a sensible proposal, one which is difficult to disagree with – if the Green Party’s overall messaging alters perceptively over the coming months, it will be in this way.
Another issue that Lucas and Bartley are likely to push is the idea of ‘electoral pacts’ with Labour, which they have mentioned at various times in their campaign. The idea, in basic terms, is that one party would step down where the vote would allow victory for a third party – most commonly the Tories – who are philosophically further away from both parties. Lucas has previously said that “It doesn’t make sense for parties of the left to be constantly fighting each other, and meanwhile the Conservatives come through”.
The problem with this proposal is that it’s difficult to see how it would work in practice. Most of the areas where the Green Party are strongest are areas where Labour hold power, or where the tussle for a Parliamentary seat is some combination of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The only places where Labour standing down could elect a Green in a seat Labour couldn’t win are probably Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion seat, The Isle of Wight, and at a push, a handful of other seats in the southwest of England.
A more workable approach may be for the Green Party to offer to stand down in a limited number of Labour – Tory marginals, provided Labour select a candidate whose values overlap with those of the Green Party. It’s important that any alliance is done properly, however. Speaking at a panel that took place during the conference, Lucas said that alliances must be “something from the ground-up, not being imposed from the top-down.”
Even if the leadership wanted to impose a pact against the wishes of local members, they would find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, because of the way the party is structured. GPEW runs as a federal system, with each local party being independent up to a point – so a local party, rather than a local branch. This means that there’s no way for the national or regional party to enforce a shortlist on the local party as happens with Labour, and has happened in UKIP. In the Green Party, the local membership makes the final call on this type of decision.
Amelia Womack has, for the past two years, been one of two Deputy Leaders alongside Shahrar Ali. Like Bennett, Womack has spent a huge amount of the last two years travelling up and down the country promoting the party and interlinked causes, and a decent number of younger members in particular have cited Womack’s performances as persuading them that the Green Party vision is achievable.
Both Andrew Cooper and Ali (the second and third placed candidates respectively) were very strong candidates. Cooper (our preferred candidate) has been a councilor in Kirklees since 1999, was one place short of becoming an MEP for Yorkshire (hardly a Green stronghold) in 2014, as well as being a strong anti-fracking advocate in his area, who we feel would have offered a counter-balance to Lucas and Bartley’s south-east bias.
Dr. Ali has performed well as Deputy Leader, is a superb public speaker, has a PhD in philosophy (his doctorate focusing on the morality of lying), played a large part in forming the ‘Greens of Colour’ organisational group to help the Green Party expand beyond it’s stereotypical membership, and literally wrote the book on why people should vote Green.
With both Lucas and Bartley being based in the southeast, and being rooted by being a Parliamentary politician and primary carer for a disabled son respectively, the responsibility for keeping the Green Party of England and Wales leadership connected with the membership will fall even more strongly on Womack’s shoulders. But, as her collection of train tickets attests, it’s a challenge she will be enthusiastic about taking on.
Jonathan Bartley’s Tory roots have been heavily noted in coverage of his election. On Twitter, Nicky Morgan congratulated her former colleague while the journalist Iain Montgomerie has spoken highly of the man who worked on John Major’s internal election campaign in 1995.
We’ve seen these shared by Labour supporters and non-Greens, with the implicit message being that there isn’t that much difference between the Tories and Greens. But by 2010 Bartley had come to see himself as a “floating voter” who was “very, very angry” at Tory policies.
The father of a disabled son, Bartley was unhappy at the difficulty of finding a non-segregated school, and caused discomfort to David Cameron by pointing out that Tory proposals would make the situation worse (“At the moment there is a bias against inclusion, not a bias for it, as your manifesto says”) which Channel 4’s Fact Check backed up. Bartley pointed out his unhappiness with Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat approaches to the issue, and became a Green Party member around 2011.
As the Green Party’s Works and Pensions spokesperson during the 2015 election he went up against Iain Duncan Smith, accusing him of suppressing a DWP report examining the link between 60 suicide and benefits sanctions. Following the debate, Full Fact found Bartley’s version of events was broadly correct. Bartley also seems to have a strong knowledge of how our government is obfuscating their attacks on the welfare state.
Bartley is also the founder and until recently a director of Ekklesia, commonly described as a ‘liberal Christian’ think tank who describe themselves as being “rooted in a strong commitment to social justice, nonviolence, environmental responsibility, nonconformist styles of Christianity”.
This ability to make left-wing points with right-wing language could prove to be a useful asset to the party. Bartley may be particularly able to make the conservative case against the Tory Party – arguing that we as a society should be doing more to maintain what is good about our country, rather than doing whatever makes the highest profits for corporate shareholders. That it is moral to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, even if that means higher taxes or lower corporate profits. In an article on Zac Goldsmith, written in 2015, Bartley argued against “the unrestrained economic model Zac Goldsmith and George Osborne both subscribe to”, and against Britain having become a nation where “property speculation is encouraged at the expense of those who just want a decent home. Polluters are favoured over those who want clean air to breathe. Cuts to public services are the result of pursuing credit-fuelled, and often illusory, growth. Everything is assigned a price. The highest bidder wins.”
Hopefully Bartley will be able to persuade other conservative-minded voters to follow his path, and persuade them that left-wing policies are most likely to deliver the type of world which they want to see.
During Lucas and Bartley’s joint speech, Bartley argued that “modern capitalism has delivered has delivered excesses which are not just divisive but morally unacceptable”, and that “inequality is a criminal and cynical loss of human potential” which requires “an economy in which people are paid not just a minimum wage but a real living wage, and where there is a maximum pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid. Where paying tax is welcomed as a way to share in the society that we are building together, and where a universal basic income offers genuine opportunity and security to all.”
In doing so, he demanded a more egalitarian society, in which everyone benefits from the talented reaching their potential. These are demands which we would consider fairly radical left-wing demands by the standards of our political mainstream, but phrased in such a way that presents them as common sense. That, we believe, is the way to build broad support behind a set of ideas.
For a long time it had been a common Green Party slogan worldwide to say that the party is ‘not left or right but forward’. That argument is a bit of a misnomer – policies such as investing in green technology, public ownership of the railways and environmental regulation require state investment, so the Green Party is a left-wing party. But the majority of people don’t see themselves in terms of left and right, they simply want a better world for their loved ones.
It feels like over recent years we’re descending into an ever nastier form of political discourse, with terms like Tory Scum, Cybernats, Red Tories, Blairites and Trots being thrown around as a way of disregarding anything a political opponent may say. Setting aside labels helps us to examine more closely what the person we may consider our natural enemy wants, and find a way to make him an ally. The Green Party stands for a softer, friendlier, more considerate form of politics, a form where we look past each others’ labels and try to find common ground. Bartley could prove to be an asset in winning converts not just to the Green Party, but the wider left.
The main issues we’ve had with the Green Party (and there have been issues) have been organisational ones. Basically, in large parts of the country the party is still understaffed and overworked. At the start of Womack and Ali’s spell as Deputy Leaders two years ago, the position didn’t carry a salary. Up until January 2015, when the ‘Green Surge’ brought in additional funding through membership fees and donations, Caroline Lucas’ Westminster office employed more staff than the Green Party’s head office.
What the Green Party needs is resources – both finance and people. If you think that you’ll be able to dedicate a bit of time to helping your local party grow, they’ll almost certainly have a use for your skills and time. Even if you don’t have the time, joining in as a semi-active member asking questions about local campaigning plans, you could be helpful in fine-tuning Green Party messaging locally. While we respect their fundamental aims, the Labour Party seems a particularly unpleasant place to be right now – just this week we’ve spoken to new members who’ve left Labour and join the Greens because of the viciousness of their infighting, which is sadly unlikely to change any time soon. In the Green Party, candidates and tactics are decided at the most local level, as the decision whether or not to co-operate with Labour or other parties would be. If you want British politics to be about working together rationally, this could be a good time to join your local Green Party, and work together for the common good.