Saturday, 18 June 2011

Weathering UK political instability: Greens VS Lib Dems

Coalition politics have brought a pleasingly unpredictable edge to UK politics in the last year or so. For all the uncertainty political parties are negotiating, the new political playing-field is forcing all of us to re-examine our core values. We are having to respond to a rapidly evolving public mood and this means a useful questioning of political assumptions across a wide range of areas where bland consensus has reigned in recent years. None of the main parties are particularly managing this awkward transition well. This includes the Green Party too.

In spite of what appears to be widespread disapproval of the cuts agenda championed by the Coalition Government, nobody has yet been able to explain convincingly why the Conservative vote remains so solid, especially after an aggressively radical and uneven first year of office. Yet they flatline below the threshold at which they could try and rule alone. At most, David Cameron can probably retain the grudging respect of the public - but in my view, they have already concluded that they don't particularly like him.

The inability of Ed Miliband to set the electorate alight and draw a line under the excesses of the New Labour period means that he has regained only those voters now horrified with a Conservative-led government. Mainstream public opinion remains deaf to Labour, in spite a record in office which beyond the obvious failures around bank regulation, rising inequalities and Iraq, had some merits. In Miliband, I'm sensing a desperate need to place himself carefully in the centre ground on issues which is lending him an air of a Westminster politician, compared to the seemingly instinctual magpie-like political positioning of Blair.

Nick Clegg's reputation has nose-dived at twice the speed of his party's poll ratings. The compromises of power damage him more than any other because of how he played to the public yearning for a better, cleaner politics during the last election. Regardless of how he paints his modest successes, such as removing the worst of the NHS reform programme, his early behaviour in office couldn't conceal his obvious pleasure at being in power. His parliamentary colleagues (and to a much lesser extent, activist base) remain tarred with the same brush. Of all the three main parties, however, my gut tells me that they have the potential to drag their support back to 2010 levels. By the end of this term of office, he will have enough examples of how he curbed Tory excesses to earn some grudging recognition and the most visceral anger will have died down.

But where does this political instability leave the Green Party? I'll be honest - in spite of the historic victory of electing Caroline Lucas to Parliament and the establishment of a minority Green Council, we should be doing substantially better. Look at the statistics - we made only modest gains nationally and only substantially where we already had a record of success. Recently, I argued that widespread capacity-building at local authority level should be our prime focus now before investing heavily in another Parliamentary seat - and I'm more sure than ever that we should stay this course and invest widely in our smaller local parties.

From the perspective of the two main parties, the Lib Dems don't pose a threat right now. Here in Brighton, they are such a spent force that we don't consider them in our calculations that often. Nationally, we'd be wrong to dismiss them or the lessons their progress has for us. Two key elements of their history are worth remembering:

1. This week's impressive Green by-election victory in Rochford District Council has caught many commentator's eye due to the unseating of a substantial Conservative majority. The location of the seat has raised eyebrows in Green circles, but this success mirrors the strategy played by the Lib Dems over the last twenty years. This involves reflecting very clear national values and messages, but then explicitly targeting individual seats through engagement in solid local community activism. Our national profile will get us a hearing, but our commitment to local issues will be what converts hearts and minds.

2. The other lesson Lib Dems can teach us is that by exercising real power, we can now be seen to be achieving concretely on our policy aims and having a discernable effect on communities. Without doubt, this is a double-edged sword and those constituencies in this position have their work cut out in balancing new responsibilities with maintaining a growing local party, especially where electoral victory depletes the number of activists. The pressure is on for Brighton & Hove Council particularly to deliver on both counts and I'll be reporting back on our progress over the coming weeks.

The press and other parties may have written of the Liberal Democrats, but we cannot. We are fighting both them and Labour for centre-left voters, yet they have a party machine explicitly built around targeted community activism. We may have the advantage of not yet being tainted by proximity to power, but their organisation has a twenty year head start in the battle to convince voters that we truly speak for their villages, towns and cities.

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