[A version of this article was first published by Nouse, the York student newspaper]
It’s become a cliché to say that party conferences are dying these days. Every September rolls along, and the newspaper hacks whip out the same pre-made lines about the dwindling turnouts, and the powerlessness of the (ageing) delegates. So it was refreshing to be at this Autumn’s Green Party conference, where stereotypes about the annual conference season could be shattered.
It was to a Brighton waterfront hotel that hundreds of Green Party of England & Wales members descended upon in mid-September – including around a hundred Young Greens (students and anyone under 30) and a solid sprinkling from our own York society.
And a fitting location it was, too. Brighton, somewhat famously, is bit of a Green Party stronghold, with Greens controlling the council, and with former leader Caroline Lucas as the city’s outspoken MP.
It’s an understandable place for the Greens to be rooted. Wandering around sunny London-on-sea, the vegan restaurants, vintage clothes shops, second-hand stores, and blossoming environmental and charity sectors immediately stood out. Under the scenes, it’s also a place where the council has introduced a Living Wage for all staff, slashed executive pay, prevented services from being privatised and become the world’s first ‘One Planet City’ – i.e. genuinely sustainable in terms of resource consumption. But it wasn’t the location that made the conference different.
Firstly, anyone can turn up. Unlike other party conferences which operate on a ‘delegate’ system, any ordinary member can go to the Green Party’s six-monthly gatherings, which operate on a progressive payment scale. For students and the unwaged, it’s about thirty quid for the whole four days, with a hefty hardship fund for those who can’t afford it. Many of the events are free to the public, with cheap observer passes for those that aren’t. And the members who do come actually get a say, too.
That’s because all party policy is made by members at the twice-yearly conferences. No out-of-reach bureaucrats or Labour-esque Executive Committees determining what to discuss (or side-line). It’s all done on the conference floor – one member, one vote. You’ll often see leader Natalie Bennett or the ‘People’s Caroline’ herself sticking up their voting cards in front of you. Sometimes they’ll lose, too. Even what makes the agenda is determined by members in an online vote.
Raise your hand and you can make a speech, ‘no confidence’ the Chair or vote for more discussion time. Anyone can submit policy, amend it or propose emergency motions. Hell, they even unanimously passed my one calling for the government to abandon the sell-off of Royal Mail.
And because anyone can turn up and have their say, it’s got a very different feel to the usual ego-festivals that are the mainstream parties’ conferences. Suits are de facto banned. Careerists are essentially unheard of (jokes about why any careerist would join a small party aside, please). Cliques, though a problem in every organisation, are mostly dismantled through open socials and workshops.
No conference is perfect. There are diehards who turn up to every one of them (myself included). Not everyone can spare a whole weekend, especially not a four-day one, to trek to far-flung places. They can be confusing, frustrating and disappointing (especially when you lose a vote). But it’s the democracy, and the unprecedented openness, that makes Green Party conferences different.
Oh, and humour too. A week after the Green Party conference ended, Labour delegates were flocking to the same city for their annual talking shop. Here’s what they were greeted with – a billboard of Caroline Lucas reading: ‘Welcome to Brighton – Home of the true opposition in Parliament. PS. Labour is down the hill on the right’. Win.