The general election is now recent history. But while Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties embark on the election of new leaders, What about the Greens?
Despite only winning one parliamentary seat, the Greens 2015 general election performance was surely a good one. Over 1.1 million votes (up by well over 300% on 2010), four second places, more third places and many more saved deposits than ever before, albeit from a record number of candidates standing. This came with a raised profile and yes, considerably more scrutiny. What’s more, it was all achieved on a relatively small budget.
Of course with Labour doing so badly in the election, could the Green Party might have done even better? Well yes, possibly; and I’m sure some useful lessons will have been learnt as a result.
But with bookings for its autumn conference about to open, where does the Green party go from here?
The green surge has certainly continued, with membership reaching over 60,000. But in the absence of greater electoral success, how do the Greens ensure this membership growth is not in vain?
When it comes to scrutiny, it is policies, presentation and personalities that seem to matter. Certainly there was confusion over areas of Green policy, with some of its long term and very long standing ideas selectively quoted by the media to make the Greens seem out of touch, extreme or just simply just silly. These were not policies in the manifesto, but they were nevertheless pounced upon by a right wing media and picked over with relish by political opponents.
So before the next election the Green Party will, I hope, re-visit and update some of its older policies; and also make a clear distinction between its long term goals, and more immediate priorities.
But given the country’s antiquated and unfair first-past-the-post electoral system, I think a different approach to elections altogether is needed. Indeed, I’d like to see the Green party in future place much less emphasis on a detailed manifesto, limiting it to just a small number of key policies. Instead I believe that the party should focus on highlighting the principles that would guide prospective Green MPs if elected. For me that would mean making the environmental message central, but keeping it linked very much to social justice and a fairer society. But as Bradley Allsop argues on Bright Green, the Green Party shouldn’t opt for an easy option, giving people what they want to hear. Climate change and inequality are massive problems and so the Green Party must continue to challenge the status quo.
The approach I’m suggesting would help keep the focus on the broader goals and message; and make it less likely that spokespeople become bogged down with details on policies that will never see the light of day (not in the immediate future at least). What’s more, given that Labour appears to have lost its ideology and principles, the Greens have an opportunity to fill a void on the left with a distinct message linking environmental action and social justice.
Of course nowadays, like it or not, politics is also about personalities. It shouldn’t be, but sadly, the media dumbs down politics to a sort of X-factor contest where performance of the leader matters more than policy. The Greens learnt this to their cost early on in the election campaign. Once Natalie Bennett experienced her infamous brain-fade incident the going immediately became tougher. Whether she runs for a further term as Green Party leader remains to be seen, but like it or not, the choice of leader will be an important factor in future Green Party success.
There is though a world outside of elections. In recent years Greens have been good at reaching out and building links with like-minded organisations and individuals. Continuing down this path, making common cause with community groups, student unions, trade unions, and campaign bodies, will make the Green party more accessible and relevant. As part of this I’d like to see the party maintain its leading role in opposing fracking, and put itself at the centre of the anti-austerity movement and the campaign for electoral reform. Locally there may also be some limited merit, if the circumstances are right (and it’s a big if), in electoral agreements or alliances with progressives in other parties, but any such move must be approached with extreme caution.
So what about the rapid increase in Green Party membership? Vital for building a stronger organisation, but also presenting a challenge of sorts. New members need a sense of purpose and belonging; and there is plenty of talent to develop and experience to widen. Having once been involved in the Labour party, I know how easy it is to become disillusioned. So it is important that new members are welcomed and engaged. If the democratic and grass roots culture of the Green Party works properly, this shouldn’t be difficult. But like any membership organisation there is always a danger that people are put off with needless bureaucracy, domineering activists and/or badly run meetings.
Looking at Green Party organisation, funding will always be a problem. But I do hope it can up its game on press and PR. A professional approach to administration; and to leaflets, flyers and websites are also essential. But at the same time Greens should be proud of their difference to the Westminster bubble. After all, it is the establishment parties that so many, including myself, have lost faith in.
I’m sure there is a promising future for the Green Party, despite the prospect of five long years of Conservative rule. Only time will tell. In the shorter term there are elections to come in Wales, Scotland and the London Assembly. If the preparation for these starts now, the Green Party should see more success in the future.