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 ( 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.