[Cross-post from The Yorker]
It’s one of those jokes that has a distinct ring of truth to it, but the phrase ‘dear leader’ is one used with not all that much tongue in cheek about Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas. It’s a veneration that will flavour the next couple of months we pick our next figurehead after Lucas announced that after four years in the role, she’ll be stepping down in September.
Being the kind of party that we are, it is only in 2007 that we actually created the role of leader – and for some on the left of the party it is still a position of contention. But since the office was created membership has soared (many of the new recruits are students), the party has its first council, and the Greens have gone from fourth to third party in London – ahead of the Lib Dems. No small feats for a few years.
The next steps, however, are crucial, and will determine which direction the party takes. The most important shift that can be made, and I think must, is a move towards the North. The recent local elections boosted Green representation in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, with a record number of candidates fielded in the North West and Manchester. Last week also saw a defection from the Lib Dems in Solihull, near Birmingham, the Deputy Leader of the Lib Dem group who realised that to oppose austerity, it’s wise to be part of a party consistently doing that.
But at the moment, at least off campus, recycling pops into most people’s heads when they think ‘Green’. That’s a perception that needs to change – and the places to make that happen are the areas hardest hit by the cuts – Yorkshire, Newcastle, Birmingham, Lancashire.
I’m not suggesting any dramatic shift. But with Caroline Lucas standing down to make way for fresh blood, it would be a symbol of changing times if the Greens elected a leader who comes from somewhere facing the brunt of the coalition’s slash-and-burn policies. A leader perhaps not from, dare I say it, a professional background.
There is a huge space in the political sphere of this country for someone who can offer leadership to the rising discontent felt by library closures, dying Sure Start centres, the near-abolition of EMA and the tripling of fees. All of which, when raised by the Labour Party, are met with the battle cry of not ‘stop!’ but ‘please, could you possibly slow down a bit?’
Caroline Lucas was and is that figure – but with fresh leadership elections next month, ‘seize the day’ should be the phrase of the moment. All three main party leaders come from wealthy elite backgrounds – Clegg, son of the chairman of United Trust Bank, Miliband, offspring of the left intelligentsia, and Cameron…well. There’s only so many times you can read the word ‘Eton’ before you realise that it has given us 19 Prime Ministers and yet educated just 0.00035% of our population. It’s time to buck the trend.
One problem – it’s incredibly difficult to do so unless you can actually make a living. By that I mean the only way someone from an ordinary background can be expected to take on a full time role is if they’re actually paid for it. And that’s not the case at the moment. A motion is expected to be put forward to the next conference in Bristol that the role of leader is paid, so that activists who don’t have paid elected roles are able to take the helm.
With around 60% of MPs coming from professional or business backgrounds, it’s up to a different party to the main three to turn the tide. Contrary to the ‘middle-class’ myths surrounding the Greens, there are plenty of people out there who fit the bill, too. Just don’t ask me for any predictions.