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 (

Friday, 22 July 2011

Why politicizing aid has hidden costs for African LGBT communities

The situation for LGBT people in African states continues to deteriorate at a frightening pace. The frequent scapegoating of homosexuality in public debate means that there is a danger of these communities becoming collateral damage in a number of diplomatic rows between the UK and African governments. Troublingly, growing "aid scepticism" amongst politicians and voters here in the UK has the potential to make matters worse.

Last week, the UK Government cut £19M of it's £90M aid programme to Malawi in response to ongoing issues with governmental corruption and a deteriorating human rights record. We aren't alone - the European Union, World Bank and several other European countries have curtailed their support in Malawi. Concern over the effectiveness of aid and the disconnect between the desperately poor population and the governmental elite is widespread in the international community. There is genuine cause for concern that taxpayers money is going into the pockets of politicians and business whilst dissent and civil liberties are curtailed. This particular aid cut is newsworthy because the UK has traditionally been Malawi's greatest donor and in recent months an increasingly fractious relationship has developed between our country and President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Secretary of State Andre Mitchell's decision on Malawi is consistent with the new doctrine promoted by the Department for International Development (DFID) since the last election. Whilst international aid remains the only government department aside from Health protected from austerity cuts, a stringent new regime of transparency and accountability has taken root that insists upon measurable value for money in our spending. Even this hasn't been enough to ward off the increasingly shrill calls for cuts. Backbench Conservative MPs and increasing numbers of voters argue that we should be putting public services in the UK first before lending assistance abroad.

As I commented upon a few weeks ago, David Cameron has been keen to draw the connection between our commitment to international aid and making the moral case for LGBT rights internationally. Malawi has a particularly bad record on the human rights of gay citizens, with homosexuality criminalised and the arrest last year of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chumbalanga, who were freed and pardoned after an enormous amount of pressure, both within Malawi and from international solidarity and political leaders. Accusations that foreign organisations are trying to promote homosexuality by stealth are regularly reported in the local media.

Unfortunately, the UK's unilateral withdrawal of aid has caused an uproar within Malawi and our government's stance on LGBT rights has given President Mutharika an opening to blame the cut on a western gay agenda. This has neatly taken the heat off the accusations of corruption and bad governance leveled at him. According to LGBT Asylum News, the government has been publicly accusing opposition protest marches of being gay and funded by homosexual paymasters, something that is gaining traction after being reported on state television. This view plays into wider public concerns around western imperialism, worsened by the realities that this loss of money will mean for a country still struggling with widespread poverty.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but there are things we can consider. Work is needed to gain a clearer understanding of where resources are used effectively on the ground and working with in-country civil society organisations with strong reputations to ensure aid gets through to those who need it. If this means working around the Government, then so be it. We also need to tackle the politically-damaging argument that western donors are funding NGOs that promote homosexuality. This toxic narrative will continue to proliferate unless we can effectively counter it . And as I've said before, we need to bring the LGBT communities into our deliberations - above all, they know the political context much better than we do - and are directly in the firing line in this crisis.

The situation in Malawi clearly illustrates the political complexity involved in international aid. It is obvious that we need to take a more nuanced approach to promoting LGBT rights in African states, ensuring that aid gets through to those most in need, whilst building capacity within developing countries and tackling corruption. By that measure, the UK Government's approach in Malawi last week has failed on all four counts that matter.

Monday, 18 July 2011

What we learnt when we broke free of Murdoch's stranglehold

The acres of newsprint covering the tribulations of the house of Murdoch in the last two weeks has been staggering. It has blown away consideration of other crucial news stories, such as the humanitarian crisis unfolding in drought-hit East Africa and the Coalition's new privatisation plans for public services. As ever, whilst I cling optimistically to the vain hope for a balance in media reporting, I can't ignore the fact that this breakdown in trust represents a crucial juncture for both the elected and the electorate.

And you can see clearly why. By allowing a concentration of print and television media to fall into the hands of the few, politicians hand men such as Murdoch a knife with which to hold at the throat of the entire political establishment. An unelected Australian tax exile has dictated domestic and international policy in the UK for the last two or three decades, aggressively shaping public debate against our best interests. Rupert Murdoch has used his newspapers to ferment opposition to the European Union. Why? Because it's legislative programme represented a brake on his media monopoly. In circumstances such as this, there IS a legitimate case to be made for modest rebalancing of press freedom back towards those we democratically elected to represent our interests.

In recent years, the appetite for 24 hour news has made it even more dangerous to be outspoken about Murdoch's grip on our body politic. He has a 24/7 machine ready to hammer the reputations of those who oppose him. That's why I must praise Ed Miliband's performance in the last couple of weeks. We may not respect Labour's inability to stand up to News International previously, but we can surely appreciate why they felt politically powerless to do so. By putting his muscle behind key demands in this crisis that have now come to pass: the withdrawal of the BSkyB take-over bid, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks and closing down the News of the World, he finally seems to be making the political weather. As recently as two weeks ago, he was being lampooned for his stupidity. Yet it is the Prime Minister who is now finding himself increasingly close to becoming collateral damage as recriminations and arrests continue.

The truth is that politicians and political parties CAN survive without the patronage of the big media giants. As Labour and Tory MPs find their voices again, both they and political commentators are rediscovering the joys of free speech. If it didn't underline just how perversely twisted public debate has become, I'd find it amusing.

For the Green Party and Liberal Democrats, political parties beneath Murdoch's notice, this is nothing new. We've been used to the casual indifference of the press and have had to succeed by building relationships with voters directly. This means becoming embedded more in the lifeblood of communities. Consequently, we have built reputations in strong locally-based, bottom-up politics, which I believe are the antidote to mass-media led gesture politics.

So my response to the News International morality tale? Yes, we need to get a handle on press intrusion and start to regulate more firmly than before, although not to the extent that genuine press freedom is threatened. Regulating a tighter set of rules around what constitutes public interest could move us away from salacious tittle-tattle and back to necessary investigative journalism. Place limits on the amount of the fourth estate that can be bought up by one individual or business.

But for politicians, it means remembering the simplest of lessons from campaigning. That your reputation is forged voter by voter, speech by speech, one constituency issue and judgement call at a time.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Huffington Post UK: Introducing my new blogging sideline!

At the risk of becoming too self-referential, I wanted to write briefly to say I've started writing the odd blog post for the newly launched Huffington Post UK. I'm aiming to write my own particular brand of optimistic, Green Party, LGBT and equalities style postings for their slightly broader audience. Whilst the Huffington Post isn't without it's critics, I couldn't pass the opportunity up to try and get positive coverage of the Green Party to the widest possible audience, as well as encouraging bottom-up media stories, especially relevant in our post-hacking-gate times.

I hope you'll take a look at these as they arrive - my first post "How the Greens are quietly shaping the new political consensus" is an attempt to draw together some of my thoughts on the rapid changes we've seen on the UK political scene in the last year and how I feel the Green Party is capitalising steadily on them. For those interested, you can subscribe directly through the Huffington Post UK to be aware of my upcoming posts, as they arrive.

And whilst I'm on the subject, I wanted to thank the gradually increasing number of you who take the time to visit this blog each week - it has been quite an exciting experience so far and has taught me a great deal about my values, as well as how rewarding politics can be when you engage and try to change hearts and minds. Thanks again - and I hope you continue to pay visits to see how both the blog and the Green Party get on!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Can Black Britain hold up a mirror to the Green Party?

One of the things I come back to in my blog is a vision of the Green Party which is richer for the diversity of outlooks and perspectives it offers to modern Britain. When we look at the relative lack of members or elected politicians within the party who are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, it feels like we have some way to go. Where is our Chuka Umunna or Diane Abbott? Right now, we are holding up a mirror to a significant part of society that does not see itself reflected. Part of our difficulty in breaking through as a serious political force is because we don't appear to be a representative cross-section of multi-cultural Britain in 2011.

I suggest that we consider the following actions over the next couple of years to transform our internal culture and organisation in a way that encourages increased membership and activism from within black and ethnic minority communities:

1. If we aren't doing so already, amend the membership process for new members to ensure we are collecting a raft of monitoring data around ethnicity, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. More than just collection, we must undertake regular analysis of the data to help us build a collective sense of ourselves. This will assist in identifying where we need to invest time and energy to nurture support amongst particular elements of the community. And if needed, undertake a retrospective monitoring survey of existing members to ensure we have a complete data set for the entire party.

2. Ask the Green Party Executive's Equalities and Diversity Co-ordinator to create space within the party for those groups (such as black and ethnic minority members) who want to self-organise. Work with these groups to ensure the key priorities they identify are accounted for within our policy making processes and do as much as possible to publicise their activities.

3. Look more closely at black and ethnic minority communities within our constituencies. Local parties need to start having conversations with audiences we don't traditionally work with. This means making ourselves available to churches, mosques or community groups, for example, undertaking listening exercises to hear which issues matter to them. Where these aspirations are consistent with our own, we need to start articulating them in ways that resonate with their experience and language.

4. Where we differ on crucial issues, such as around the social conservatism prevalent within some religious communities, we need to begin an active and honest dialogue in which we try to engage and influence their thinking as a critical friend.

These steps, for example could lead to the Green Party organising a series of community meetings with youth groups across the country talking about job creation and the new Green Deal.

Let me be candid though - as a white man, there is a limit to the role I can play in this change. I will play my part in challenging the Green Party to actively acknowledge our blind spot on representation. I can put energy into the necessary work of facilitating an enabling environment which allows talented and capable candidates of colour to come forward into leadership roles within the national party. But to have a Green Party that is inclusive in it's policies requires the facilitation and participation of every member, whatever their ethnic origin.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Accentuating the positive in Green politics!

The great paradox at the heart of green politics is that it sometimes seems as if we don't live our values. Even though we possess an inherently constructive philosophy, putting the longer term welfare and living standards of those who come after us first, we can be unfairly characterised as negative, restrictive and Cassandra-esque. Personally speaking, taking the sack-cloth and ashes route has never suited my approach to politics!

As a society, we are only a generation or two beyond want and poverty. Even now, asking people to go without the things they view as the yardstick of modern prosperity is a tough sell. We are advocating moderation and sacrifice in a world of excess and choice. It is one of the main reasons we can be seen as impractical and out of touch with the aspirations of voters. Unsurprisingly, it has left many voters with the perception that the Green Party is the preserve of those rich enough to have the means to adapt to a zero-carbon lifestyle.

Terrifying predictions of climate change, with the knock-on effects of water scarcity, food crises and forced migration of dispossessed people are pretty accurate reflections of what we might face if we don't get a handle on climate change. Yet this frightens people and seems beyond their individual capacity to change. The disconnect between these warnings and the practical response taken by our political elite leaves many wondering whether the problem really is that bad.

The Green's approach of honest truth-telling has taken us a certain distance forward, but we need to change gears now if we are to make further progress. We need to find new language and strategies to our campaigning that is aspirational. One that starts focussing upon the benefits to individuals as well as society of putting our policies into action. We need to make it attractive and not feel like hard work. This means beginning to sketch out the practical side of our vision as well as articulating how this transformed society would "feel" tangibly for people on the street. Frankly, we need to inject fun and nurture anticipation of what can achieved into our pitch to the electorate!

This week, Caroline Lucas spoke about the failures of the green movement in the Huffington Post UK in breaking through to the wider public. She argued that "fear isn't a great motivating influence" and her admission that we have been just as guilty of taking this stance will be challenging to rectify. Many Green Party activists are motivated by their passionate concern about climate change or injustice - and to be blunt, there can be a tendency amongst some to express this in black and white and uncompromising terms. We need to find ways to keep those objectives and concerns central to our political thinking, whilst introducing a step-change into how we bring that message out to the public.

For me, that means flipping opposition into opportunities. If we don't like something such as the central government cuts to Councils, we explain why our alternatives work better for the majority rather than carp from the sidelines. We don't wait for power to be handed to us before putting our ideas into action. Instead, we work in partnership with community organisations transforming their communities into the places we want to see, such as Transition Towns. Ensure that at the highest levels of the party, in the Green Party Executive and across our policy-making process, we continually ask ourselves the question of whether we are proposing legislation that is constructive, rather than negative. We bring civility and respect back into public debate, even when we firmly disagree with our opponents.

And finally, we make the attractiveness of social and environmental justice for the poorest and most vulnerable the litmus test of our policies, because this it is amongst those groups where inequality bites the hardest. Success for me means convincing these people that a Green society is a richer and more attractive place for them too.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Feedback on Brighton & Hove Pride: What do the community think?

As the countdown continues to this summer's Brighton & Hove Pride, I am in the process of looking at the recent history of the festival and writing a blog post that tackles the controversial decision to charge for entrance to the Preston Park party for the first time.

Due to the substantial amount of visitors from London and the South-East on the day, this is one of the crucial community events of the year for the city and a massive boost to the local tourist trade. Considering the scale of this shake-up to the format, all eyes are on the organisers to ensure that Brighton & Hove Pride does not experience any permanent reputational risk. In the current financial climate, a successful Pride Festival is essential for the continued viability of many LGBT community groups in the city.

I am keen to hear from anyone who has strong views on either side of this debate. For those with any intelligence on both the background history and the current state of play, I'd be keen to hear from you. Naturally, anything said confidentially will be respected and non-attributed. My aim is to constructively report on this controversial issue and the final article will endeavour to strike a balance between all views expressed.

Feel free to email me directly at

Saturday, 2 July 2011

My formal candidate statement for the GPEX Equalities & Diversity Co-ordinator role

The nominations have now closed for the Green Party Executive elections 2011. I have written the following 350 word statement for my bid to be elected to the Equalities & Diversity Co-ordinator role and this will be included with the voting papers for Green Party members. For those able to vote, I hope you will consider me as your preferred candidate - and for those not, I would love to hear any feedback you might have as to how the Greens could improve our record in this area.

At our best, the Green Party inspires people to picture their lives within our policies and vision. We achieve this when we reflect diverse perspectives amongst our membership. When we resonate with the aspirations of the general public. An effective Equalities and Diversity Co-ordinator must remove barriers to involvement, using limited resources to open spaces where everyone can contribute to building a representative political party.

Why am I qualified for this role?

Experience as a gay man has instilled a commitment to challenge discrimination. As an active member of Brighton & Hove GP, I have served as party Secretary during the General Election, where I joined hundreds contributing towards electing our first MP. I’m also chairing a major Constitutional Review for my party.

Professionally, I co-ordinate a research department in an international development charity. This involves managing heavy workloads, encouraging teamwork and strong communication skills. Experience as a union steward and currently as a board member for the Institute of Development Studies equips me for the complex challenges facing the organisation. I’m confident in my ability to handle the substantial workload and excited at the prospect of contributing my energies to the party.

What would I seek to achieve?

  1. Advocate stronger commitment to equality and diversity as a prerequisite to electoral and organisational success. Make the role transparent, measure progress, communicate achievements and opportunities more clearly to encourage new people to become involved. Work in partnership with relevant groups to ensure their ideas shape my priorities.

  2. Facilitate self-organisation for under-represented groups and support those that already exist to ensure their views are included in policy development. Consult members around capacity-building and broker resources through smart partnerships across GPEX and beyond the party.

  3. Broaden dialogue with under-represented parts of the wider community, such as ethnic minority and disabled communities. Support members conducting outreach to new audiences and facilitate shared learning through party conference and online resources.

Contact me by email: or phone: 0770 3120709 to speak further, either individually or as a party. Read my blog: for a sense of my values and priorities.