Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why isn’t the Green Party breaking through?

As we curl up at home on these grim winter nights, a highlight has been my creeping addiction to Borgen. This new Danish political drama focuses upon the female leader of a minor party, who suddenly finds herself thrust into leading a coalition government as Prime Minister. There is a distinct similarity to the journey taken by the Green Party in the last couple of years. It hasn’t hurt to see one of the key partners of this coalition is a politically savvy and successful Green leader at the cabinet table, reminding us once more how more seriously our party is seen within other European electorates.

It’s an intoxicating mix, yet as the political and economic environment deteriorates seriously in the UK and all three major parties come out in favour of a cuts agenda that patently isn’t working, why isn’t the Green Party rapidly climbing up the opinion polls in line with the public mood?

Talk to many Green Party members and a rosier picture emerges. These last two years have yielded crucial breakthrough moments for our party. After thirty plus years, we finally have our first Member of Parliament in party leader Caroline Lucas. We now run our first local authority in Brighton and Hove, protecting the elderly, vulnerable and children. A modest amount of headlines followed these amazing successes, but not a sufficient amount to have shifted perceptions of the party by the national media and public.

In the immediate aftermath of these victories, the party has rightly consolidated. Our priority has been to ensure that constituents are represented effectively by their MP and manifesto pledges are met by the local authority. The aggressive attacks mounting on the party in Brighton and Hove is a testament to the hard work and commitment of the local party in the city and the disquiet our opponents are experiencing at our steady progress.

But where is the strategy to move forward nationally? Across the country, hundreds of local parties are tirelessly working towards the next victory, yet there is a faint impression that we are resting on our laurels when we should be taking the fight to the coalition and Labour. Our recent achievements shouldn’t be the high point of our success - they should be a launching pad for our next big leap forward. We need to be hungry for actual power – as the state’s provision for the most vulnerable is stripped away, exacerbating inequalities, we need to be there promoting alternatives, not just complaining at how unfair it all is. But where is the next Brighton Pavilion? The local party in Norwich is the only place with an outside chance of success.

Caroline Lucas has rapidly grown into a towering public figure. She is respected across the political spectrum to speak truth to power and is outshining the majority of national politicians. But where is the next Caroline Lucas? I fear that we are not investing sufficiently in building capacity amongst our activist base to nurture the next generation of politicians. As party leader, Caroline has an obligation to ensure the party functions to create such an enabling environment. Understandably, there are only so many hours in the day for her to act as party leader, parliamentarian and constituency MP, as well as retain some work / life balance. Heaping this amount of responsibility onto one set of shoulders is dangerous, but the party’s structural deficiencies aren’t helping here.

The role of Party Spokespeople is a case in point. The vast majority of green party members aren’t even aware they exist, let alone who they are. I challenge you to look over our website. The only people showcased are our national politicians: MP, MEPs and GLA members. It’s exceptionally difficult to ascertain who these spokespeople are – they aren’t elected by the party membership and they have no public duties that we can measure their performance against. The policy areas they cover aren’t consistent with the UK Government’s Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet portfolios, so we are unable to allow them to build ongoing public profiles or make it easier for the media to ask them for comment on issues of public concern. This model is undemocratic and unaccountable in a party that professes to be stronger than others on participation, democracy and fairness. Where underperformance exists, we have no mechanisms to monitor and evaluate this and no recourse to remove people who damage the party’s reputation. We wonder why we are sometimes seen as unresponsive to the big issues confronting the public, without looking at how we are presenting ourselves at a most basic level to them.

We need to bring these individuals out into the public eye. They should be elected to these positions by ordinary members and held account for their performance. These are ideal positions for us to build a cadre of experienced, professional politicians that become trusted figures for the public, doubly important whilst we are kept out of national elected office.

Until we invest in the next generation of Green political leaders, all eyes will remain on Brighton and Hove, placing our colleagues there under enormous scrutiny and pressure and without acknowledging the vast network of capable Green political figures up and down the country. Without opening up the party to a new generation of voices, the opportunities available to the politicians of Borgen remain the stuff of television drama.


  1. There's very little to disagree with here, Stephen. The model of our sole MP/Leader/most influential voice being the same person is really problematic, and fantastic as Caroline is, its clear that no-one could do all of those jobs to the maximum they deserve. Rightly, she is focused on being a brilliant MP for Brighton - but, as a result, I see very little strategic thinking coming out of the central Party.

    This certainly isn't Caroline's fault, but is an issue of party culture and internal democracy which has been a serious problem for years.

    You're also spot on about Party spokespeople. No one knows who they are, there are massive gaps in coverage, and when you become one there is absolutely no guidance as to what is expected or how to interact with policy or press. The current model is thoroughly broken.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Matt. I completely agree, we couldn't ask for a smarter or more competent leader, but she is completely overwhelmed with responsibilities. Perhaps this strategic thinking on the internal party stage should be more obviously the responsibility of the Deputy Leader. That role needs to be more than just cheerleader-in-chief, but someone getting to grips with modernising the party.

    The spokespeople element really needs to be looked at - it's good to see a good amount of feedback via twitter that agrees with this.

  3. Hi Stephen, Good post, I think you identified some important issues. I've been banging on about the spokesperson issue for the last few years on Policy Committee but have been ignored. I know we have alot of expertise and talent in the party, but it isnt gettting recognised or utilised, which is a shame for everyone. I agree we need elected spokespeople with a set term of office and a set role / duties. It wouldnt be difficult to do, maybe a D motion is in order if GPex arent going act?

  4. I'd very much like to see a special convention called to properly discuss a lot of this stuff. Conference never suffices as it is busy talking minutiae of policy or getting media attention. If GPRC functioned as the guardian of strategy (which it clearly doesn't) it would have organised sessions to brainstorm what's wrong and where we go from here ages ago. There is virtually no big picture strategic thinking in the party at all as far as I can tell - certainly not communicated to the members, who mostly either get 'yay everything is great' or 'oh my god we need money now', with little explanation or moderation in between.

    I have to say I write as someone who is pretty disllusioned with the whole thing currently. I just don't see much enthusiasm for changing things amongst the 'people who matter', and an awful lot of intertia for the 'one more push' philosophy which will see us getting somewhere in roughly 2150....:(

    Gloomy former GPEX/GPRC/AGC member...

    1. Appreciate your thoughts, Caroline and Matt. It's true, we need to wrestle with this and the feedback I've also been getting on twitter seems to underline that any change would have a substantial impact on many parts of the party, including our policy-making mechanisms and our communication set-up. A motion to conference isn't probably sufficient to hit this in one fell-swoop.

      Perhaps we need to build momentum amongst the membership for a special convention as Matt suggests - and charge GPEX with setting a participatory exercise up with a number of lay activists with expertise across the whole range of GP internal structures.

  5. This is a good post Stephen and there is much to agree with Matt's comments. That said, I am a bit more optimistic about our pace of development.

    In practical terms, our membership is well over the 12,000 we need to be sustainable and is likely to remain so. This is crucial for the long term viability of the party. 10 years ago we had just over 5,000 members.

    In 2014 we need to win 4 to 6 Euro seats. We need to do that in order to genuinely spread out to become a national party, broaden the number of senior elected politicians we have and ensure we have momentum going into the 2015 General Election.

    The crucial challenge is then to contest every single General Election seat in 2015. With Caroline already in Parliament, and every seat contested, we will have a much stronger case for national coverage.

    Potential parliamentary reform may mean that the successor to the Lords may be elected by PR on the basis of General Election votes, so it is crucial we have the capability to mount a full national campaign.

    Right now we are making the political argument nationally that we need to borrow to invest for our future as a nation. We also need to be prepared to make that argument internally, to enable a step change in our campaigning ability.

    From 2004 to 2009, the NW region had just £3000 of national support. £10,000 of national support would probably have pushed us ahead of the BNP in the NW. We now need to campaign professionally on a needs led basis, rather than rely on an outdated model where regions are largely self-reliant financially. I think the party has started on this route finally, but there is a need to accelerate this process.

    I also agree with Matt's point about strategic thinking, and that is one of the reasons why I'm considering a return to GPEx.

    1. Thanks for your contribution Peter! I'd agree that the situation isn't too gloomy - in the piece itself I tried to highlight the amazing work the party is doing both in Brighton & Hove and in individual constituency parties.

      I guess my concern stems from a feeling that structurally, the party hasn't been making the most of the influx of new members we've enjoyed in the last two or three years. I'm a firm believer in investing in capacity-building and putting in place robust systems to make the membership process and inspiring and clear experience for individuals. Part of that is having a simplicity and clarity to our organisational structure, where the Spokespeople element doesn't help.

      I'm also keen not to be seen as criticising those members giving their time to take on these roles currently, just that they need to be supported properly, have a democratic mandate and have the skills needed to master a policy brief and public profile.

      Your fundraising issue raises another can of worms completely, and I suspect it's something I'd be keen to come back to more fully and write another piece upon!

  6. Good post and interesting comments