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sharp reminder that we must guard against complacency in moving towards a more diverse membership that challenges such outdated views.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.