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!

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