Monday, 28 November 2011

Boom or bust? Championing a revitalised Green Party Executive

One of the savviest investments by the Green Party in nurturing it's democratic health over the last couple of years has been to invest in the Member's Website. As I wrote earlier in the year, using this private space to lay out all potential policy motions to our conference has allowed members to more easily input into honing and redrafting these so that they are smarter and more likely to be passed at conference. Whilst the Member's Website is still finding it's audience (I'd encourage all members to visit and subscribe to the LGBTIQ Greens section!), it has been heartening to see policy motions each receiving a solid audience and in some case, forensic analysis that can only improve the quality of debate within the party.

Amongst the usual diverse mix of policy and campaign motions, what has struck me has been the push for new roles for the Green Party Executive (GPEX). Alongside the agreement at last party conference that the Welsh Leader become a member of GPEX, both the Young Greens and Green Party Trade Union group have called for representation on this body. This does lead me to wonder whether members feel there is an absence of support for these sections of the party. Are these motions a reflection that GPEX is failing to champion the priorities of parts of the membership? Could there be lessons for our policy-making process, that people feel unable to effect change without being "in the room" at the Executive level?

Some experienced activists are already warning against inflating the membership of GPEX further, arguing that it makes it harder to manage the party. Whilst I'm still undecided on how I feel about these motions, I do wonder whether this would necessarily be so problematic: additional members of GPEX could increase accountability across a wider range of areas, improve access to ordinary members into the decison-making process and could ensure that roles are more manageable in size for those people interested in serving the party. Presenting a plurality of viewpoints and ideas in these debates, when chaired effectively, could produce more a more participatory organisation.

Either way, with a consistent inability to fill all the roles on GPEX or to contest the majority of positions sufficiently, shouldn't we begin with reforming those positions we currently have to ensure they are fit for purpose, attractive to a greater number of serious candidates and are supported sufficiently to enable hard-working officers deliver on their responsibilities?

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Big Green Leap Forward: Welcoming submissions from guest writers

If the last few months of campaigning amongst the membership have taught me anything, it is that there are more amazing and talented people in the Green Party than ever before. It really does feel that with the substantial leap in members over the last couple of years, a renewed sense of purpose and urgency has transformed the party’s outlook.

As regular readers know, one of the original aims for this blog was to provide space to talk about how we can construct a modern Green Party, one that could be capable of speaking to the whole electorate. I hope in some ways it has been successful in putting issues on the agenda and reflecting an optimistic vision in how we can broaden public interest in our campaigning. With a substantial (and heartening) expansion in readership since it began, there is an obvious appetite for this type of analysis.

Would you be interested in writing a piece for the blog over the next few weeks? I’m looking for members of the Green Party, or critical friends, who want to put forward ideas for how we can make the next leap forward in public profile and membership numbers. How can we become a mass membership party and yet still retain our core values of participation and inclusion? Where should our limited resources be placed to make most impact? How do we nurture the next generation of Green leaders?

If you’re interested in submitting an article for the blog, please drop me a line (stephen_a_wood@yahoo.co.uk) to discuss your ideas for a post and I’ll be happy to work with you to bring your ideas to a wider audience.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Launching the LGBTIQ Greens strategy for 2011-2012

Over the last couple of months, the Committee for the LGBTIQ Greens group has been working on a strategic plan for the coming year. I thought it would be useful to share our thinking behind some of the key areas we will be focussing our attention upon. For members of the Green Party, the full summary of activities can be found on our Member's Website.

Organisation:
To ensure the group is sustainable for the longer term, we thought it important to create stronger foundations for the group to build upon over the coming years. This means drafting and ratifying a constitution for the group that clearly outlines our aims and objectives, roles and responsibilities for elected officers, as well as making the their elections much more democratic and transparent.

We also realised that many of the activities we hope to undertake this year will require financial resources, so will work upon a method by which we can start modest fundraising efforts to build our capacity. This will occur alongside a refreshing of our external appearance and ensuring regular practical resources are available for members nationally to access and use in their local campaign work.

Communications & increasing our reach
We were also keen to make the best use of the communication avenues available within the Green Party to get our message and activities out to the greatest audience. We have set ourselves firm targets on expanding the number of people in contact with the LGBTIQ Greens, be that through our section on the Member's Website, via our website, our Twitter or Facebook feeds or through our mailing list. This will be coupled with more consistent communication about our achievements with members, so members can hold us to account and hopefully are inspired to contribute their energies too.

Externally, we are aiming to look at procedures around Press Work, to ensure that we are publishing material reflective of collective views, of high quality and working in partnership with other external communications stakeholders within the national party to reach the right audiences. Likewise, we are aiming to involve many more people in spotting news opportunities across England and Wales and sharing responsibility for this element of our work.

Policy & campaigning
Similarly, we are aiming to examine the policy-making process for LGBTIQ Greens, to ensure it is accessible and inclusive to the concerns of ordinary members, especially as we will need to examine our manifesto for the European elections within the next few months.

More broadly, we felt it was essential that LGBTIQ Greens plays a greater role within our communities, both as partners and leaders. To that end, we will work to build ongoing partnerships with some LGBTIQ community and campaign organisations in the coming months, especially around areas such as transgender rights that have traditionally been less well-served.

Support and Regional Focus
At the LGBTIQ Greens AGM in September, one of the striking things that I heard was the appetite for ordinary LGBTIQ members to feel part of the Green Party, but many reported that this wasn't always easy in local parties where they felt in a minority.

To begin addressing this, we have decided to try and organise a number of regional events, so as many members as possible have the opportunity to engage with other LGBTIQ individuals in a supportive environment. If anybody want to come forward and work with us to organise other events in their local area, we would love to hear from you. In the longer term, we want to look into the possibility of a mentorship and leadership programme to nurture the next generation of LGBTIQ activists and elected representatives.

If you have any feedback or questions around the strategic plan, please don't hesitate to contact me directly to discuss further. Likewise, if you would like to contribute any time or expertise to any of the activities, each of the Officers responsible would be keen to hear from you.

Friday, 28 October 2011

How the Right began setting the agenda for LGBT rights

When opening a broadsheet newspaper in the last few weeks, you can’t have failed to see a disproportionate number of column inches devoted to a shift in policy from the UK Government towards LGBT rights. Making international aid conditional on a good track record on LGBT rights is now floated as a concrete policy, with countries such as Uganda and Ghana in the firing line for cancelled aid. On the face of it, we seem to be seeing a Conservative Party in power that has genuinely changed their tune on gay rights. Wrong.

Of course it is important for LGBT rights to play a greater role in our foreign policy outlook. There has been lobbying for years from UK activists to achieve this and steady progress under the Labour Government. However, this isn’t an area you just blunder into with a sledgehammer. The cracks in this new approach are already beginning to show – earlier this week a coalition of all the major African LGBT and human rights organisations
released a strong statement illustrating their disquiet over the UK Government’s stance and calling for a more nuanced approach. Additionally, the UK approach to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place this week has ignored the efforts and undermined years of lobbying from LGBT groups in the global South, whilst stepping forward to speak for others without any sense of history... or irony.

Once again, these UK activists and politicians are ignoring rule number one of working on international development, which is to start by listening to the lived experience of those you are campaigning to support. The truth is that activists in other countries have a more sophisticated sense of their own political contexts, know what strategies will work best and where to apply pressure. For those of us who want to see a more just and equal world, this means we must listen, pledge solidarity and apply pressure as and when requested. We are running the risk of being viewed as arrogant amateurs who think they know best: the worst kind of colonialism repackaged for the 21st century.

We are already seeing the unintended results of this policy strategy. In a number of African countries, homosexuality is portrayed by a hostile media and political elite as an imported cultural abomination. Reduction of international aid, (still desperately needed in severely poor countries) will be blamed upon Western imperialism and LGBT communities in these states will be convenient scapegoats. This can already be seen in Malawi, where this is another stick with which to demonise communities already under siege.

A cynic might wonder whether this threat to reduce UK aid to homophobic states is a progressive sheen to a longer-term policy of reducing aid levels. Why isn’t the UK Government pledging to provide aid directly to those NGOs with a proven track-record in extending human rights to LGBT citizens? The Department for International Development (DfID) gives virtually no financial support to the inspiring, frontline work these groups are undertaking under the harshest circumstances. Behind their progressive headlines, are we seeing the limits of Compassionate Conservatism?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Re-launching the LGBT Greens in England and Wales

In the last few weeks, my blog posts have been a little bit less frequent than I would have liked. Other commitments have made their bid for my attention, so apologies for the radio silence from me. With the political ground shifting under our feet on an almost weekly basis, you’ll be hearing more from me in the coming weeks!

One of the most exciting things I am working on at the moment is the new team leading on the national LGBT work for the Green Party. At our recent AGM at autumn conference, I was elected as Chair for the coming year and the existing team has been joined by a number of fresh, enthusiastic activists I’m hoping you’ll hear more from over the next year.

We are talking about our aspirations at the moment and are hoping to publish a strategy for the coming year fairly soon. As some of these aims will be around improving our ability to get out our message and activities to the broadest audience possible, I thought I might cheekily use this space to highlight ways you can help us hit our targets and keep in touch!

  • Visit our website, which contains details on our LGBT-specific manifesto commitments, as well as news, activities and glamorous photos of the LGBT Greens Officers!
  • Follow us on Twitter to keep up to the minute on our work and our response to news as it happens.
  • For Green Party members, we would appreciate you subscribing to the LGBT Greens section of the Member’s Website, where we are providing reports, minutes and campaign resources.
  • For Green Party members, we hope you’ll provide your email address so that you can be subscribed to our moderate-traffic LGBT Greens email list. Contact Nigel Tart to be added: tart@ntlworld.com

We’re not an exclusive group either, so support and interest from anybody committed to equality and building diversity in politics is equally welcome. Please encourage anyone you think might be interested in our work to get in touch or start following us!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Piercing the white noise of party conference season

We hear all too frequently these days that party political conferences should be scrapped, but I have to disagree. I've spent the last three weeks knee-deep in policy announcements, soundings from fringe events and the shifting of political allegiances between key figures in their parties. For the Green Party, generally thrust in the media shadows around this time, this presents an ideal opportunity to view the platforms of our political competitors in forensic detail, enabling us to glean insight into the roads ahead and the pitfalls that threaten us.

Of our main two competitors, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, I sensed that they remained unable to cut through to the public mood. In both their embrace and impotent loss of power, these parties have turned dialogue inwards and focussed upon their internal concerns. As a consequence, the level of political debate felt muted and weak, oblivious to the economic precipice the country stands upon. The growth strategies of all parties remain unfinished and whilst they continue to shy away from putting meat on the bones of their philosophies, they will be ignored by the electorate.

However, I do think that the Green Party runs the risk of embracing the same level of complacency. In much the same way as the Liberal Democrats have had their heads turned, our recent modest electoral success has satiated some of the political hunger that has driven us for the last 20 years. My concern will be that the leadership of the party will find it easier to put all our eggs in the basket that Brighton and Hove Council represents, as well as our local MP, rather than force us to take risks and invest in new campaigns nationally. The "wasted vote" argument does hold sway still in vast swathes of the country and will only crumble under the sustained efforts of elected local Green councillors. I'm keen for us to focus less on parliamentary fights and more on capacity-building broadly across regions, such as the North-West (who narrowly missed electing a further Green MEP). Experience teaches us that the Green vote hardens when voters see us in action on their behalf.

The other bitter pill to swallow from party conferences is the realisation that party activists from Labour and the Liberal Democrats clearly look as if they have reserves of smart, competent and single-minded politicians ready to step into power. We still need to identify and nurture unique voices within Green ranks, individuals with a rich level of experience. Otherwise, we will stack our fortunes upon the shoulders of our party leader and the scant other national figures, which isn't sustainable in the longer term. At our recent national conference, I was excited to see so many young activists full of energy and ideas, but many less of my generation able to step up to the challenges ahead.

Our employment strategy needs work too. As much as I have been one of the strongest cheerleaders for the common-sense approach of our New Green Deal agenda, I am fearful that it remains a relevant strategy for certain sections of UK industry. Whilst the knock on effect of it's success would be pumping more consumer spending into the wider economy, it does feel like a partial approach to a global problem from within our environmental comfort zone. What do we have to say to the broader range of professions under threat and experiencing flatline growth and job losses?

It's quite a gauntlet to lay down to my own party, but times have never been as serious as this. None of the other parties have come up yet with a compelling argument, so there is an opening for us to cogently speak to the fears and aspirations of the electorate whilst they conduct a conversation amongst themselves.

I have been pretty uncompromising in this post, for which I make no apology. But I'm keen to hear - what do you think the Greens should learn from the other party conferences this year?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Green Party Autumn Conference 2011: Day 2

As you might expect, the second day of conference is where party business intensifies. Once the national news cycle around the Leader's Speech subsides and remaining delegates arrive in the city, attention turns firmly to voting upon policy motions and the substantive discussions on the fringe circuit.

Things kicked off early with the Deputy Leader's speech. Viewed as a rallying cry to enthuse activists (the traditional role of Deputy Leader speeches), Adrian Ramsay's address can be deemed a success. That said, the content he chose resolutely refused to stray far from the script Caroline Lucas had laid down the day before and was therefore unlikely to interest news reporting for a second day, which is a shame. Within the strictures of his role, I would encourage him to continue to hone a distinctive voice and policy platform that both complements Caroline's and surprises the audience. This year I found his speech likeable, but underwhelming.

One issue that did rouse a great deal of debate was a seemingly innocuous motion to come out against the Government's Immigration Cap and reaffirm our commitment to a fair and liberal immigration system. In the end, it became quite an impassioned discussion and whilst there was understandable opposition to it due to the potential political mischief the media could make of our existing policy, at other times some speakers skirted dangerously close in my view to being racist. One participant even argued that environmental sustainability should always take precedence over social justice, something I have real political difficulty with. Thankfully, the motion eventually passed intact, but it was a sharp reminder that we must guard against complacency in moving towards a more diverse membership that challenges such outdated views.

Later in the afternoon, I chaired a fringe session with both Deputy Leaders of Brighton & Hove's Green Council, as well as number of Cabinet members and Councillors from my home city. It was a really great opportunity for members around the country to ask some pretty direct questions about our experience of taking power in a local authority and get a sense of some of the challenges we hadn't seen coming! In spite of being held at the same time as one of the keynote panels on inequality, we had a really substantial turnout and could have easily continued talking into the night. As a local party not noted for our large conference delegations, it was really heartening to see fellow members from home connecting with others around the country and sharing strategies.

Finally, I have to report that I was sadly not successful in my bid to be elected to the Green Party Executive. I really felt I fought as strong as a campaign as I could over the summer on this. Anyway, I'm staying chipper - political setbacks are good character building exercises! I really felt I got to understand the values and priorities of the membership through old fashioned debate and listening and hopefully gave members a healthy democratic contest to get their teeth into in a year when most GPEx roles were uncontested. Thanks to all of my readers who actively supported my candidacy, either through kind words or well-placed publicising of my blog articles on the subject. I'm weighing up where to put my energy next, but I've not done with contributing to the party. I'm as hungry for us to move forward towards success as ever.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Green Party Autumn Conference 2011: Day 1

Greetings from Sheffield! As delegates start drifting back in this morning from their night at the bar, I thought I'd write a quick report on some of the highlights and my reflections on the first day of conference.

The dominant event of the first day was the keynote speech by Caroline Lucas as party leader. Although she is always someone who speaks plainly, I was impressed to see a slightly harder edge in her address to conference than perhaps I am used to. Her speech was structured around a scathing, forensic analysis of the record for each of the other political parties and reminded both Green members (and those Lib Dems watching explicitly) why their failures in power rendered them unable to take moral leadership in dealing with the challenges we face over this Parliament. From talking to delegates plugged in to the media response to conference, her message has received real traction across the Guardian, BBC Radio 4 and 5. She has explicitly thrown down the gauntlet to Nick Clegg in his home constituency and whilst her request that Lib Dems disappointed by their party join us is not unexpected, it does give a novel sense that she is parking tanks on his lawn.

What else happened? For me personally, it was a slightly frustrating day, as the results from the Green Party Executive (GPEx) elections were postponed until today due to the lateness of the submission date for ballots. In a session which allowed members to question GPEx on their performance in the last year, I got a sense of how tough a role that will be too, although talking to some of the elected officers really underlined to me how rewarding it might be to support the membership across the whole party. Clearly, delivery of some fundamental systems being worked upon and rolling these out to local parties has to be a principal priority for the next year.

The other thing I noticed quite strongly yesterday was that the demographics of the party seem to be shifting. Earlier in the year, we ran an offer of free membership to Young Greens and it has resulted in an astounding increase in 1,000 younger members joining the party. You can really feel their energy and enthusiasm coursing through sessions - in a party of 14,500 people their arrival is an enormous shot in the arm for us. Membership has traditionally tended towards an older demographic (I do feel part of a slightly under-represented age range!) and whilst I can imagine challenges lie ahead in marrying the diverse outlook of our membership, I'm confident that this decision will be one of the single most important things the party could have done in the last year.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Green Party autumn conference 2011: Coverage starts here!

As regular readers will no doubt be aware, tomorrow marks the start of the Green Party's autumn conference in Sheffield. I'll be making the long journey from Brighton pretty early tomorrow morning and will be blogging daily from the conference to share some of the highlights.

Considering the stormy summer we've just gone through, it will be interesting to see how our Leader Caroline Lucas MP and Deputy Leader, Adrian Ramsay respond to the transformed political landscape. We'll also be taking the political fight locally to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with a conference open to the public and explicitly presenting our alternative to the cuts agenda the Liberal Democrats are presiding over in Government.

Keep coming back to the blog regularly for updates, breaking news and fringe reports over the weekend. For those of you attending, I'd love to hear your comments on the conference as it unfolds too!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Conservatives weaving a dangerous new narrative

As we head into party conference season, public debate has sharpened again on a variety of topics, as battle-lines are drawn between political parties keen to differentiate themselves from each other.

Nowhere is it more stark than in the recent outpourings from the Conservative Party, increasingly confident in asserting it's distinctive platform and radical zeal in "modernising" the state's relationship with voters. Across a varied number of policy areas, we are hearing voices articulating seemingly common-sense, mainstream viewpoints: tough justice for rioters, tackling moral sickness amongst a feral underclass, a generation of women using abortion as a convenient birth control method and police officers supposedly idle in unnecessary "backroom" activities and ripe for cutting.

This is an increasingly successful strategy, because it lays claim to the middle ground of public opinion and builds a collective "us" against those people struggling at the margins of society. The Conservatives argue that reasonable people living through tough and constrained times are doing the right thing, whilst being taken advantage of by those who play the system. For those feeling the pinch, it's a very persuasive argument and has the benefit of being easily explained, appealing to tabloid gut instinct and the British sense of "fairness". This simplicity of message has translated into a popular narrative over the last couple of months, while left-leaning parties struggle to articulate the more sophisticated rationale needed to explain the multi-faceted problems facing those people at the sharp end of life in the UK.

The indignity of it all is that in spite of deliberately aiming to divide and conquer elements of society, David Cameron is still widely described as a One Nation Tory. The Green Party needs to renew efforts to remind people that the Conservatives (and frankly, to a lesser extent, Labour and the Liberal Democrats) are not speaking impartially for everyone in society. We need to encourage people to follow the equally vocal expressions of anger we hear around some other issues, such as bankers-bonuses, illegal press activities and MP expenses to their final destination: a silent vacuum where robust policy-making should be.

The Green Party's pledge that "Fairness is fighting for" remains more relevant than ever - but we need to remind opponents squatting on our political ground that fairness isn't the province of the select few. Providing opt-outs for those rich individuals financing political parties and media figures making and breaking political reputations will just exacerbate division. Setting particular sections of society at each other's throats in order to quash coherent resistance to the Government's damaging policies will only lead to widened inequalities and an elite class further insulated from their responsibilities to others.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Taking the pre-conference temperature of the Green Party

With the Green Party Conference around the corner, I thought it would be good to revisit some highlights of the last twelve months and get a sense of the challenges ahead. A couple of weeks ago, I asked readers for their feedback - and coupled with an avalanche of correspondence from members around my current GPEX election bid, I hit a rich seam of answers!

Something that I've been aware of in the last year has been a fairly rapid transformation in the way that we view ourselves as a party. The biggest change focussed around my home of Brighton and Hove, where we followed the election of Caroline Lucas MP in 2010 by wrestling control of the local council from the Conservative administration. Leaving aside the substantial upturn in national media coverage these victories have given us, many people have commented upon a shift at all levels of the local party towards a more pragmatic, professional and voter-centred approach to the city. Here by the sea, you can sense the party rapidly maturing as responsibility rests upon it's shoulders.

Elsewhere in England and Wales, there have been modest gains for the party. Whilst the recent local elections gave a smaller boost in council representation than had been expected, they have been followed by a steady trickle of defections from other parties and unexpected Green gains. Alongside incremental increases in Norwich, members are heartened by the confidence being placed in them by the public in areas such as Solihull and Reading. The Welsh Green Party came the closest they ever have to a breakthrough and London Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones is shaping up to be a credible threat to Boris Johnson's record on policing and the environment.

Membership figures for the party are also continuing to grow past the 12,000 figure. Anecdotal evidence is showing that a significant number of these are experienced activists who feel let-down by the compromises of the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Making the most out of these newcomer's experiences within larger parties is already reaping dividends in our electoral success and also strengthens the hand of those party members pushing for social justice to be at the centre of our electoral appeal. Whilst we retain the credibility to speak out on the crushingly mediocre environmental records of our opponents, we are increasingly getting a hearing on the broader bread-and-butter issues that rate highly with the public, particularly those on lower incomes. The growth of left-of-centre and Young Green membership is giving us renewed credibility within national campaign activities and is something we must continue to nurture.

All positive so far. However, I suspect you'll not be overly surprised to hear that I received some less than positive feedback about the last twelve months too. You open the flood gates and you take your chances!

Disappointment still lingers about the missed chances of the Yes to AV campaign and how that has set back the prospects for electoral reform. For my part, whilst I was a real cheerleader for change, my disappointment has been redirected into the hard but necessary graft of building deep support across constituencies. AV would have been a useful short-cut: I know we have the values, talent and track record in our Party to get there regardless when we share best practice clearly.

Closer to home, the handling of a redundancy situation of a Green Party staff member has created a great deal of discord between ordinary members and the Green Party Executive over the last few months. Some of this has spilled out into the national press and whilst the case at hand is too involved to get into within this post, it has underlined the importance of a strong and accountable governance structure for the Party as we grow and evolve, to ensure we demonstrably live our values. As a candidate for GPEX, I'm aware of how exceptionally challenging the work is for elected officers, not just within their personal portfolio, but in acting as custodian to the party as a whole. Improving our decision-making processes for the future is as important for the welfare of GPEX members as it is for everybody else. Members must hold to account AND support those elected into office for the party in equal measure over the next year.

Finally, the perennial issue of finances will continue to trouble the party. Where resources allow, there does seem to be some support for re-balancing funding to benefit a wider number of local groups in capacity building, which I strongly support (especially if funded posts are results-driven in increased membership and party self-financing). We continue to run a slightly higher deficit than anticipated in spite of the money brought in by an increased membership, which will need to be monitored closely. Innovative funding avenues in line with our values will need to be explored to boost our reach and share the burden of running core party functions.

Yet in spite of these concerns, the overall impression I am getting from party members is one of optimism. The existential threat to public services and the yawning gap in wage inequality within the UK has given us something immediate and topical to stand up for. Whilst the Green Party continues to negotiate organisational growing-pains, the faith in what we can achieve continues to impress.

Roll on conference - and for those of you able to attend this autumn, I hope to get to know you in person during the fringe sessions!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vote in the Total Politics Blog 2011 Awards!

I wouldn't want to influence you unduly, but if you want to take part in the voting for this year's Total Politics Blog 2011 awards, feel free to click the link at the top-right of the page!

The rise and rise of the UK Feminista

Bucking the trend for August's silly-season, I've been pleasantly surprised to see some refreshingly even-handed reporting in the UK national press. At the weekend, the campaign organisation UK Feminista held an activist training weekend for aspiring feminist activists. Unexpectedly, in all the reporting I saw, there was none of the usual stereotyping and lazy criticism we've come to expect since the mid-1980s.

It isn't my first brush with UK Feminista. At the Compass conference I attended earlier in the summer, I was exceptionally impressed with how founder Kat Banyard portrayed the issues confronting feminists as a fiercely contemporary challenge to both women and men. She spoke passionately to current concerns about equality, employment, public services and tackling a culture of disrespect.

For many years, feminism has felt like a closed shop to many men who espouse feminist ideals. I know that for me, my concern around gender equity has been more readily channeled through my activism for LGBT equality, an area that is sometimes not immune to peddling sexist viewpoints. Yet I feel that UK Feminista have a good chance of broader-based success because they see men as crucial partners in making change happen. Their approach is more media-savvy, using social-media networks to get their message over and being very careful in choosing potent current issues that matter to everyone. Women, especially those starting out in the job market, are feeling the bite of the recession with reduced opportunities. The ladders of state support are being disproportionately kicked away from them. Interrogating fairness and inequality is high on everyone's agenda - from female low pay, to those living in deprived communities scarred by the recent riots, through to the lost of trust in political, business and media elites. Under such circumstances, sexism is an even less tolerable distraction.

And we need to challenge it now. An impact analysis by the Fawcett Society has shown that the Government's austerity cuts are hitting women hardest. Home Secretary Theresa May warned colleagues of this behind the scenes, although she was ignored. We shouldn't be surprised. Political parties are still dominated by wealthy men. With only modest improvements at the last General Election, women are still pitifully represented in the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat ranks.

There is an issue here for the Greens too. We have made great strides, with our Leader (also our first MP) being a woman, as well as our leading GLA Member Jenny Jones and MEP Jean Lambert. They represent a respected and inspiring "front bench" of female Green politicians, but I'm anxious that nobody repairs the glass ceiling they have shattered before the next generation of female leaders comes forward. I do wonder whether their prominence can lead ordinary members of the Green Party to uncritically assume that we've cracked the gender representation issue and side-stepped the pitfalls others have fallen into. That is something that we need to guard against.

We should constantly interrogate the way our party functions and how it encourages and facilitates engagement from women activists. I think the time is upon us to have a serious party-wide conversation about how we not only increase representation in our number of female politicians, but how we transform our political outlook as a party to embed these gains into the DNA of our party. The growing success of UK Feminista is a stark reminder that women-focussed policies are crucial to solving the complex problems facing this country and aren't something tacked on to political policy as an "added extra".

Whilst we have that debate, I'll also be keeping an eye out to see if UK Feminista start up a group in Brighton, because when society faces hard times and difficult choices, female equality will (as always) be the battleground on which it is fought.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Why UK riots are sounding the alarm on inequality

The scenes of widespread violence and looting across British cities this week have been a horrifying reminder of what can happen when a community chooses to turn it's back on each other. The disenfranchised in turn react to their exclusion by violently refusing to play by the rules of the majority. I spent the first few days of the rioting watching aghast from Amsterdam and Brussels, desperate for detail from parts of London I used to live in and unable to support those of my friends frightened by the violence around them. Whilst the immediate focus has rightly been upon the police re--establishing safety on our streets, the crucial task ahead will be identifying ways to prevent this happening again.

The impotence I felt in Europe is even stronger back home. After plowing through acres of newsprint and countless TV interviews, at first I had a real struggle to understand how the political context is changing. The press and politicians have run the gamut of explanations: at first it was black youth run rampant, then disaffected white young men, then gang culture breaking into the mainstream, police discrimination against ethnic minorities, cuts to Educational Maintenance Allowances and University tuition fees, joblessness and lack of parenting. The truth is that there may be a dozen contributing factors to this explosion, but there is still no excuse for criminality.

The Government has notably stuck close to right-wing simplistic form in arguing that the perpetrators are morally bankrupt criminals raised without discipline and respect. This sort of thinking leads you into an intellectual dead-end and conveniently places all blame at the door of the individual, not accounting for the impact culture and political choices make to this toxic brew. It also means they can stay firm on their decision to cut policing budgets in the next year. I'm as angry as anybody else about the havoc these rioters have caused to our cities, but blanket condemnation without understanding the context isn't going to prevent a recurrence. The priority for Government is to get the situation under control and then learn lessons from both the affected communities and professionals in the field.

I think that there two elements of Green political philosophy lurking here that we need to talking about: the gradual replacement of citizenship with consumerism and the gulf of inequality widening between the rich and poor in society.

The attractive embrace of individualism, consumption and a sense of entitlement has fueled political discourse in the UK since Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and has led to a society where value stems from which labels you wear, which restaurants or gigs you visit or where you take your holidays. Gaining our self-esteem from how others perceive us, rather than what we have achieved or contributed, has never been more worrying. This seduction has been made even more rampant by the rise of social-networking, where we form and project a number of identities to the outside world. How destructive must this hierarchy of importance feel to those without money, influence and voice? Look at the focus of the looting - opportunistic attacks on top brand names, such as sports and trainer stores, high-end electrical equipment and computer games. Allowing the market to reign supreme has made us all consumers rather than citizens. It leads to us devaluing our communities and responsibilities to each other. As always, it is the poorest who feel the effects most severely, as the quality of life deteriorates in inner-city communities and public goods such as libraries dwindle in number.

The destructive role that inequality between richest and poorest plays on a number of indicators, such as community relations, violence and social mobility has been heavily documented in recent years. The most articulate and common-sense argument for closing this gap is found in "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. If inequality widens between groups of people, they will inevitably distance themselves from each other and find the other's behaviour increasingly alien and incomprehensible. Much of the violence has stemmed from individuals living in relative proximity to wealth, but finding that affluence frustratingly unattainable. We need to urgently rebuild a sense of shared community and give everybody a stake in it. The time has come for the Big Society, but not in the way that conservatives have been expressing it. We need to continue investing in community infrastructure, the provision of career advisors and youth activities in deprived areas. The indicators of success in public policy-making should be to ensure that it does not deepen inequality amongst us.

What does it mean to the Green Party? I am standing for election this month for political office on the Green Party Executive on theEqualities & Diversity ticket and it is strikingly clear to me that this crisis makes this role more critical than ever before. I have talked a great deal in my election platform about the importance of broadening representation within the Green Party, so that the full diversity of voices in this country have a place at the table and a role in solving our problems. This remains more crucial than ever, but it is not the only element that needs to be pursued. To view the Equalities & Diversity Co-ordinator role merely in terms of facilitating inclusion is no longer sufficient after we've experienced this tragic wake-up call. Every sinew of the Green Party needs to be strained to close the inequality gap across our policies and if elected, I will work across the party and on GPEX to champion this at the heart of our activities.

NB: Since I published this article, Caroline Lucas has spoken in the Parliamentary debate on the riots and has given a strong speech touching on many of the points I raised above. It is well worth looking at.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The UK Greens year in review: How did we measure up?

In the run up next month's Green Party national conference, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the key issues that the party has wrestled with over the last twelve months, as well as looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Whilst there have been some notable obvious successes to our name, most prominently the formation of the first ever Green Council in Brighton and Hove, I am keen to hear from regular readers with their thoughts on the advances we have made in less publicised parts of the country, as well as views on the problems we have to face up to in 2011-2012. More than ever, we need to having a constructive yet critical look in the mirror at our performance.

How do people feel the Green Party Executive (GPEX) has functioned over the last year? Do people feel represented by the Green Party Regional Council (GPRC)? Has the election of Caroline Lucas to Parliament been exploited sufficiently to broaden our appeal nationally? Are our policy positions being communicated robustly enough to the media? What single improvement to the Green Party do you think could substantially improve our effectiveness overall? Do we have good answers to the big questions facing the country?

For those that are not members of the Green Party, I'd also be interested to know what your current view of the party is. Do you have any ideas about things we should be doing to become more relevant to a broader cross-section of voters?

I am taking a short summer break for a week to recharge my batteries, but I hope you'll start a debate in the comments section below or contact me privately to give me your views at (stephen_a_wood@yahoo.co.uk). On my return, I'll try and pull together views into a report card! I'm eager to enter the conference season with a strong sense of where we need to be putting our energies into in order to improve and make the most of our strengths. For me the crucial issue remains the need to bring inequality reduction and increasing diversity more firmly into the centre of our policy-making and partnerships. What is your big idea?

Monday, 1 August 2011

How to solve a problem like Brighton Pride?

Just before I head off on my summer holiday, I wanted to come back and discuss the upcoming Brighton and Hove LGBT Pride festival, which will be taking place on Saturday 13th August. I recently asked you for feedback on the decision this year to charge for entry. Thanks to all who contributed, although I wasn't ready for either the volume of responses or the polarized views I received! Whilst it was evenly-balanced, it was hard not to detect an underlying anger amongst some that the principle of free entry had been undermined.


LGBT Pride in the city has been a politically charged issue for many years, which isn't surprising considering the impact our particular festival has on the community. The weekend itself brings hundreds of thousands of people into the city, spending a vast amount of money with local businesses, both within and without the Preston Park party itself. As a result, the successful governance and running of the festival is monitored by many interested parties across the city, not necessarily just those known for their LGBT rights advocacy.


Unsurprisingly, the cost for running pride continues to rise. In the last year or two a great deal of concern has been raised by the statutory authorities and the Fire Service about public safety at the park event, as attendee numbers have steadily grown. Without agreement to fence the park (at a cost of around £100,000), it was made plain that licenses might not be granted this year. Alongside this additional cost, clean-up costs and community policing are needed to preserve the quality of Preston Park, tackle anti-social behaviour and under-age drinking over the weekend. For the last two years, Pride has operated at a significant loss, meaning that profits haven't been available to plow back into local LGBT organisations, who are now operating in a harsh financial climate and desperate for support.


On a personal note, I'll be honest and say that charging for Pride is something I have always been exceptionally uncomfortable with. During the mid-1990s living in London, I have vivid memories of Pride being the centrepoint of my yearly calendar, a chance to show some visible political muscle against rampant homophobia and a place where we could come together to party, regardless of whether we could afford to pay. When financial problems meant our celebration was taken over and business brought in to run the event, transforming it into a ticketed "Mardi Gras" with a "parade" through central London instead of a march, I walked away aghast. Regardless of the gains we've made legally over the years, I believe more strongly than ever that there is a political element to our experience of being LGBT that we risk losing when commercial realities come to bear in guiding these community events.


Paradoxically though, I find myself angry that in spite of nearly 100 volunteers collecting donations with buckets last year, that it translated to approximately 13p donated per attendee. This means that a majority of people enjoying Pride didn't pay a contribution towards the running costs of the festival last year. I wonder how many of these are amongst those people who are railing against the introduction of a charge. Retaining a "free" festival can only work with contributions from the Council, the businesses who will make a profit out of their participation and from a community prepared to back up their wish for Pride to continue with practical support. Sponsorship monies are declining, especially for local businesses squeezed hard by the recession. The new Green Council, as I've written about elsewhere, is struggling with a diminished central Government grant and needs to prioritise public services for the elderly, vulnerable and children. That they are still contributing a donation, providing soft loans to Pride and stepping in to cover some of the costs of running the St James St after-Pride street party is to be welcomed.


More so than ever at this time of tightened belts, we need as a community (and as a city) to take individual responsibility for making sure Pride remains viable and reflective of it's values of inclusion, campaigning spirit and celebration of diversity. This isn't just in financial terms. In the new climate of the "big society", we need to accept that if we want to retain public goods, it will mean giving our time and political support to protect them.


This isn't to say the new system is perfect. I can already see a number of elements that could be improved upon:

  • We need clearer mechanisms to ensure that the low-paid, disabled and students are able to access reduced admissions similar to under-18s and to communicate the ticketing system more clearly.
  • A more robust approach is needed to ensure that those businesses (especially the gay bars) who benefit from the festival and the post-Pride drinks in St James St contribute a fairer amount financially and play a role in managing the event.
  • After criticisms from the local community, we need to bring a plurality of different voices to the management of Pride, allowing individuals from the black and ethnic minority, youth and disabled LGBT groups more influence in the planning of future events. We must ensure that the voices of private profit do not dominate and that prices are kept as low as possible.
  • We need a public demonstration that raising a profit for Brighton & Hove Pride means investment in our struggling community groups all year round, not just fattened the wallets of businesses. The benefits of buying a ticket need to be underlined.

Some voices are calling for a boycott of this year's Brighton & Hove Pride and calling for an alternative celebration on the beach. Whilst I would never argue with someone exercising choice, if anything is going to kill Pride and the benefits it brings to the city, it will be significant numbers staying away. As somebody who has happily contributed a significant donation to the buckets at Brighton Pride for the last 13 years, I'm saddened that it has come to mandatory ticketing - but I will be there on the day, ticket in hand to show my support in Pride's efforts to invest in the essential work being quietly undertaken by community LGBT organisations all year round. I hope I will see some of you there, either passing by the Green Party stall or in the dance-tents.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Verdict on the first few months of Brighton & Hove's Green Council

As people start drifting away for their summer breaks, the dust is settling on the first three months of Brighton & Hove's new minority Green Council. Now the fake war of words around protest camps in the city and the petty politiking around Traveller encampments has died down, we have started seeing the emergence of real issues that will make or break this Council. Speaking with Councillors, watching streamed Council meetings and following the twists and turns of debate between our political opponents and the local media, we can already see the contours of battles ahead that hold both promise and warnings for my colleagues.

In the last few weeks, we have had some real cause for celebration. The Council is now intending to bring forward the introduction of a living wage for it's own workers and establishing a Living Wage Commission for Brighton & Hove to examine the opportunties and challenges in rolling this out across the public, private and third sector in the city. With rising inequality hitting women and the vulnerable more savagely as the national cuts bite, this is a discernable step forward and a rallying call for what Greens can achieve if given political authority.

Work is moving forward on a number of other crucial fronts, such as a new city-wide climate change plan, an increase in house building and a re-examination of our strategy for the South Downs. The latter change could be one of the more lasting achievements of the Green Council and I would encourage the Cabinet not to take their eye off the ball here. Alongside good governance, it will be essential for us to have flagship, visible and lasting policy successes to our name by 2015. Linking up our new National Park more robustly with the city has the potential for expanding our attractiveness as a tourist destination for new audiences away from the city centre, bringing revenue and jobs to the outer wards. Broadening accessibility, infrastructure and communicating this well are essential pre-requisites for making this work, but could serve to secure our reputation as the green capital of the UK.

The other positive improvement we are already seeing to the work of our Council is that consultation and participation are now definitely key elements to our work. With each announcement from the Green Cabinet, we are hearing a great deal about how we will be consuting more widely with community groups, unions, business and third sector organisations. If we are to achieve policy changes in Brighton that stick, we need to be basing our decisions on informed debate with the community. So far our record has not been without it's missteps, but there does seem to be a sea-change from the approach taken by our precedessors. As a new administration with limited experience in running a Council, this strategy doesn't hurt us either, because the process will throw up potential political problems at quite an early stage of discussion.

So, where are the problems? We are now at the mercy of our manifesto and public statements before the local elections. The realities of holding power mean that with the best intention in the world, there will be times when we need to take a different route to that publicised earlier. The charge that we will continue to hear, at least for the next 12 months or so, is that we fought on a platform of resisting all cuts. I'm seeing this regularly thrown back in the face of the Cabinet during meetings as the detail starts to emerge of how the Council budget is balanced. The truth is very clear. In our city-wide GreenLeaf newspaper, we explicitly promised to "Resist to the greatest extent possible, Government cuts" and talked of areas that we could cut without hitting front-line services. This was echoed in our Alternative Budget, which clearly laid out areas where funding would need to cut in order to protect front-line services for children, older people and the vulnerable.

We need to challenge this distortion every time it is uttered by our opponents. Common sense, let alone the written evidence, dictates that we need to still balance a budget with more limited resources. We have our local MP, Caroline Lucas, fighting the cuts on the national stage - the Green Council needs to blunt the impact from voters as much as we can. Two areas that we haven't started tackling yet are our pledges to cut £0.7M of management costs from senior Council Officer roles (especially as this funding was earmarked to go back into Connexions) and the cutting of Councillor allowances. Whilst I personally support decent Councillor allowances, so that running for these elected positions are practical options to more than just the independently wealthy, I am nervous that a lack of movement on these points is leaving us open to charges of acting in self-interest once in power. Politically, this is especially dangerous right now.

I've been impressed with the leadership shown by our new Council Leader, Bill Randall and the command of detail shown by Jason Kitcat as Cabinet Member for Finance and Central Services. In these initial months, it has been essential to have credible figures fronting the Cabinet during a difficult transition. That they have managed to do so with grace and good humour is to their credit. Whilst other members of the Cabinet have taken to their new roles with real confidence and energy, there is the impression from some that they are still finding their feet and are uncertain in their portfolios.

The summer break will give a short respite, but we need everyone firing on all cylinders by autumn, because I have no doubt a savvy opposition will start targeting weaker performers once they have had time to regroup. The Conservatives are already going for the jugular in a particularly unsubtle way, with regular digs at our naivety or lapsed pledges. Labour are playing a better, more dangerous game. Gill Mitchell is taking a consensual, team-player attitude and raising opposition to our policies without rancour, always putting the low paid first. Taken together, this will be a potent mix and could cause problems for the unwary.

Overall then, a strong beginning from the Green Council, with several of our key manifesto pledges inching closer to being fulfilled and the outlines of a strong distinctive policy offer to the public. This is tempered with a need to keep mindful of our flank on some lesser manifesto pledges and internal support to less confident Cabinet members. Yet that said, there has never been a more exciting time to be a Green Party member!

Monday, 25 July 2011

What would I do if elected to GPEX as Equalities & Diversity Co-ordinator?

As part of my election campaign for the Green Party Executive (GPEX) Equalities and Diversity Co-ordinator, I wanted to share a number of the key activities I would hope to to take forward if I was elected to serve by the membership:
Organisational change:
  • Act as an advocate for equalities and diversity across our activities and bring that perspective explicitly to GPEX deliberations.
  • Improve transparency in the role by providing regular reports to members, including using the Members website to communicate.
  • Ensure that all activities and achievements are publicised regularly to the membership and demonstrate clear ways to get involved.
  • Undertake an assessment of our membership application process to ensure we are collecting useful information on our members.
  • Conduct regular analysis of our monitoring data and report progress to the membership.
  • Consult with key stakeholders across the party and integrate these perspectives into a formal E&D strategy for the next two years.
  • Build a robust network of activists across our local parties who will champion equalities and diversity work and feed ideas back to me.
  • Investigate potential funding opportunities to support this programme of work, both from within and external to the Green Party.

Working with members:

  • Meet regularly with the self-organised groups such as Green Women, Young Greens and LGBT Greens to ensure that their priorities are being communicated to GPEX.
  • Build knowledge and capacity amongst self-organised groups to ensure that they are able to integrate their issues into the policy-making process.
  • Work with self-organised groups to assist in making their activities and decision-making processes are transparent and accessible to members.
  • Facilitate the creation of self-organisation for those groups of members currently under-represented in the Green Party.
  • Facilitate working links between the various self-0rganised groups across the party, so that their outputs complement each other.
  • Organise fringe events at the Green Party Conference to share best practice and raise the priority of equality and diversity within the membership.
  • Work with Green Party Conference organisers to build upon recent improvements in accessibility and engagement for disabled members.

Outreach beyond the Green Party:

  • Follow up on the excellent report undertaken by members into BME engagement with the Green Party and try to roll out some of their findings more widely.
  • Make links with national organisations campaigning on equalities issues and build formal partnerships around key policy issues.
  • Encourage external organisations to attend Green Party Conference and participate in fringe events.
  • Support members conducting outreach work to under-represented groups, such as ethnic minority and disabled communities.

I hope this is a representative example of the work I hope to take forward over the next two years. I'm keen that this isn't a one-man band, so hope that some of this programme of action excites you into getting involved. If you think I've missed something fundamental out, please get in touch (stephen_a_wood@yahoo.co.uk).