Roses and Thorns
It’s now three months since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. For Greens, it’s posed some interesting questions.
For a start, Greens didn’t really know how to respond to the new political context. The party positioned itself as the left party for so long (and rightly), but few had thought about what might happen if the Labour Party actually turned left. Suddenly, the political space for the Greens appeared to shrink dramatically. And for a while, there was silence.
But when the time came, Greens welcomed the election of Corbyn – albeit in varying terms. Both Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas praised his election as a boost for progressive politics. Members were cautiously pleased.
There remain, though, some crucial distinctions. While membership fell back slightly, most Green Party members have thus far stuck around. Why?
- Greens are in it for the long game. It says something that it’s a truism, but few in the Labour Party think Corbyn will last the full five years. Even many in Corbyn’s camp think he’ll be out before 2020. The Greens are pretty solid on their feet – it’s serious business being in a party, and it’s a choice people don’t make lightly. Many in the Greens are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to ostensibly left-wing Labour. It seems like a wise move. Years of the Greens being socialist won’t be undermined by a few trembling months of a progressive Labour Party under Corbyn.
- Only the Greens are pushing hard on issues like democratic reform and environmental action. Labour has thus far remained silent on policies such as reforming the House of Lords, introducing proportional representation or keeping 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, as is effectively mandated by the science if we are to keep below catastrophic levels of global warming. Given these are policies that few in Labour – including Corbyn – appear to feel strongly about – and that they are policies Greens feel very strongly about – the lack of overlap is clear.
- The Labour Party machine appears un-reformable. Any attempts to deselect right-wing MPs will be struck down before they get off the ground. The 91% non-/anti-Corbynite Parliamentary Labour Party remains the most influential part of the Labour machine – after all, it is they who vote on our laws. So a shift there looks unlikely anytime soon. Just last week, the Labour right triumphed in the influential backbench committees of the PLP. They are not going anywhere. Talks of a coup are not even behind the scenes – Labour are in open revolt against their own left flank – and the potential upcoming vote on Syria will bring the crisis to the fore.
- Westminster Labour is not Labour in Brighton, Glasgow, Manchester or Cardiff – council chambers are, needless to say, not echoing with Corbynite speeches across the country. Politics, for most people, is not party conferences. It is the local. And at the local level, Labour has a lot of answer for, if you’re services are being outsourced in Hull or your housing estate is being sold off in Lambeth.
- Political traditions matter a lot in politics. And the Greens have a fundamentally different approach to politics. In next May’s devolved (and proportional!) elections in London, Wales and Scotland, it will be the Greens pushing for radical grassroots democracy, for real public engagement, for direct action against housing evictions and climate change, and for a new way of doing things.
The Greens aren’t blowing in all directions like a weathervane – and they certainly aren’t going anywhere.
The Labour Party is in a period of flux, and the Greens are still navigating a new and confusing political terrain. But there remains a place in British politics to praise the good and challenge the bad from outside the Labour Party. The Greens aren’t blowing in all directions like a weathervane – and they certainly aren’t going anywhere.
What it comes down to one is thing: Labour is far too broad a church to remain a consistently left-wing party. Under First Past the Post, it is a party of both neoliberals and Marxists – a contradiction that can’t be reconciled.
All the best to socialists in Labour, but my place is in a party that’s comfortable with being radical.
There weren’t many big headlines from this Autumn Green Party conference, which drew to a languid close in sunny Bournemouth on Monday. But it was a mixed bag in the aftermath of both the General Election and Jeremy Corbyn’s swoop to power in Labour. Here’s ten things I took away from the weekend:
1. Corbyn felt like the ‘elephant in the conference hall’.
While Natalie did mention Corbyn in her speech – to the chagrin of some in party HQ, apparently – there appeared to be little debate in Bournemouth about what the role of the Greens is now that there is a left-wing Labour leader. A pretty big question, to say the least.
Deputy leader Shahrar Ali’s speech focused on the concept of ‘truth in politics’ – a fairly philosophical talk on his core values. And Amelia Womack’s speech focused on the Greens’ role in the General Election, next year’s devolved elections across the UK, and the Greens’ vision for society. But not much on Corbyn – even from members.
2. It was a pretty big event – but didn’t necessarily feel it.
There was no buzz. As one activist put it to me: “The venue wasn’t great; the plenaries felt so sparse and empty – we weren’t quorate for ages on Sunday and lost half an hour of plenary because of it. It all just felt like we were collectively in a major funk.” It didn’t feel like there was a surge going on – sadly, because there isn’t anymore.
Officially around 1100 people were registered to attend, according to a party press officer I spoke to – but there were probably more like seven hundred (max) present, at its peak – and plenty of empty seats in plenaries.
The Bournemouth International Centre was an ambitious venue, in all fairness. I was there just a few days before for the Liberal Democrat conference, and it was absolutely packed in the main hall, with over 1,000 voting and watching Tim Farron’s speech. Green Party conference, in contrast, didn’t have the buzz of Lib Dem conference (bizarrely, given the latter’s trouncing in May). There was plenty of confusion about the Greens’ role in this new political context – unlike the Lib Dems, who can now pitch themselves as the real ‘centre’ party.
3. Caroline Lucas’ call for electoral pacts between the Greens and Labour was the only major attempt to get to grips with Britain’s new political constellation.
With a socialist Labour leader, Caroline embraced the idea that ‘fighting in essentially the same terrain [as Labour] for the same issues and fundamentally the same belief set is madness, when it simply lets the Tories in’. ‘We are stronger when we work together’ – including on individual issues with Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP and others. Conference appeared to agree, given the applause.
The discussion continued in Compass’ event on proportional representation on the Sunday. Challenged by Compass chair Neal Lawson for the Greens to admit standing in Brighton Kemptown last election was wrong, Caroline Lucas accepted that was the case, arguing the ‘excellent’ Green candidate Davy Jones should have stood ‘somewhere he could win’ (as she emphasised on Twitter) – though it’s unclear where this would be.
4. A new generation of potential Green MPs is coming through.
Lucas’ launch of a new ‘Generation Green’ training scheme for top talent in the young ranks of the party is a bold and wise move, preparing the party for the future. Starting with five of May 7th’s election candidates, it will offer training from Lucas’ office itself.
5. London Mayoral candidate Sian Berry is a potential future leader.
Lucas ended her own speech with a tribute to her. With a seat on the London Assembly next year (she is top of the proportional list), she will be the capital’s most prominent Green – leading the Greens in a city with nearly a fifth of the national party’s ~65,000 members.
There are already soundings being taken as to whether she will stand – and encouragements. It’s unclear if Natalie will stand again, so these are interesting times indeed, a year ahead of next September’s leadership ballot.
6. The Greens are leading the way on the refugee crisis.
It was a stroke of both benevolence and political nous to hold a collection for the refugees in Calais – with dozens of items donated – nearly £2,000 was raised by the end of conference in cash. That’s a lot tents and blankets for the cold winter in northern France. The Greens were the only party to hold such a collection. Not only was it the right thing to do, it solidifies the Greens as the strongest and most consistent party on this issue.
7. Population Matters – the campaign group who oppose, well, poor people having children – still represent a major divide in the party.
The organisation, which has argued Britain should refuse to accept any migrants from Syria and backs an extremist ‘one in, one out’ immigration policy, caused a stir when the group’s opponents attended their fringe and asked rather hostile questions. It led to the three leadership figures to call on members to ‘oppose ideas, not individuals’ (Natalie Bennett).
Yet there are big concerns about the group, with calls for a ban given that they paid for entry to the conference – Shahrar Ali even raised the prospect of ‘cash for access’ in the leadership Q&A. Whatever the case, the whole issue is a continuation of the deep green/eco-socialists split that many thought was diminishing as the former wane in influence.
‘Green Yes’ received the endorsement of conference after an emergency motion was passed. But member support for the campaign may depend in part of the results of Cameron’s ‘re-negotiation’ of terms over the next few months. If social and environmental rights are stripped back, will Green backing take a hit?
9. The need for electoral reform is still on the agenda.
Natalie Bennett made it a focus in her leadership speech, it was the reason for Caroline’s call for electoral pacts, and both my own Electoral Reform Society and Compass held packed-out panel discussions on it, featuring prominent speakers. Meanwhile, conference voted to back the Single Transferable Vote for local elections (the ERS’ preferred system). The issue of fairer votes hasn’t died down in the party – activists are still, understandably, angry.
10. Bournemouth is stunning. More conferences in beautiful sunny beach locations, please. Oh, and Natalie Bennett unwinds by crocheting scarves. Just FYI.
Addendum: two other things – the Deputy Leaders of the Green Party will now be paid roles, as opposed to voluntary, opening up the positions to those from diverse backgrounds, and taking a lot of the strain off the current leaders who can now focus on their official roles full-time. It’s something that we at Bright Green pushed for strongly so it’s a major step forward for accessibility and equality in the party.
Secondly, there was a serious members-only debate about the future structure of the party – should we become a co-op, or a Limited Liability Company? Should we elect our CEO? It’s a decision that will come back to a future conference – keep your eye out on this site for updates…