‘Progressive Alliance’ takes centre stage at London leadership hustings
The London Green Party’s leadership and deputy leadership hustings were held on Monday in St David’s Church in Islington, North London. On a sunny evening, the open church provided a great space for a largely excellent hustings. My one reservation was that, much like the coverage of the leadership campaign as a whole, the hustings was dominated by the co-leadership candidates Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas (even in her absence due to the Commons vote on the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system).
This time they dominated because their proposal for the Greens to form a Progressive Alliance with other ‘progressive’ parties (Labour, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru) at the next general election was one of the main dividing lines in both the leadership and deputy leadership hustings. Not that the plan wasn’t challenged (it was), but the co-candidates must be happy that the largest topic of discussion was one of their choosing.
Discussion at the hustings as a whole was based in electoral and political strategy, as opposed to party policy. Each candidate told their own stories and experiences, and affirmed their commitment to Green Party policies of environmental sustainability and social justice. Though it must be said that Clive Lord, a candidate for leader, urged a return to the party’s roots through a greater emphasis on environmentalism. David Malone, also a candidate for leader, joined the minor dissent by stressing financial and economic policy as the key to achieving the rest of the party’s manifesto. The main focus, however, was on strategy.
Proportional representation and the ‘Progressive Alliance’ aimed at achieving it became largely intertwined in the leadership debate, and took up much of the time. Every candidate supported proportional representation, the question was whether to make it a focus for the party. Some, such as Simon Ashley Cross, argued other strategies should be the focus, in his case particularly arguing that the Green Party needs to get out into the communities, and be up front at every political protest. David Malone argued that to get voters to support electoral reform which is obviously in the Green Party’s interests, we need them to want us to win, and only sound financial and economic policy can achieve that. Even among those who accepted proportional representation as a priority, the proposal of a Progressive Alliance was not agreed upon. Against Jonathan Bartley, David Williams argued that electoral reform should be a separate priority for a Green Party only campaign.
During the leaders’ debate other strategic matters were also raised. Clive Lord argued that the party’s electoral strategy should attempt to draw in different groups of voters than it has recently. Even Conservative Party voters could be convinced by the Green message, he insisted. He pointed to the large vote share achieved in the 1989 European elections, which he believed contained many subsequent Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. David Williams also told the party that we need to reach out to new voters. He felt that the regions beyond London and the South-East are full of potential Green voters. David Malone also thought his preferred approach of focusing on sound economic policy would appeal to new voters, who don’t listen to you if you can’t answer the “and how will you pay for that?” question. Simon Ashley Cross argued that boosting funding and membership would be key.
The issues around the Progressive Alliance were also discussed by the candidates for deputy. Amelia Womack gave it her full backing. Andrew Cooper was more cautious, arguing other forms of cross-party cooperation were possible. Shahrar Ali and Alan Borgars stressed that, whilst it may be a good idea, it must be agreed by members both at conference and in local parties. The need to appeal beyond London and the South East also emerged in the deputy leadership debate. Andrew Cooper raised this point and Kat Boettge, who could not attend, did likewise in a statement which was read out.
The deputy leaders’ attention also turned to racial diversity in the party and its voters following a question on the issue from the audience. Shahrar Ali objected to the proposal from Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley to set up an equality commission, arguing instead that we need action now. Störm Poorun, again through statement in his absence, also raised this issue. A further interesting strategic debate about how the deputy leader could help achieve electoral success developed in the deputy leadership hustings. Alan Borgars and Shahrar Ali spoke of their ability to motivate grassroots activists. Andrew Cooper pointed to his history of electoral success in Kirklees as a councillor since 1999. He argued the Target to Win approach, of which he was a pioneer, had a track record of success. Against this, Amelia Womack argued that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to winning elections, and that we may often need to go beyond Target to Win. The candidates for deputy also debated the role of the deputy as compared to the leader. All argued that the deputy had to support the leader to create an overall stronger leadership team. This focused on three areas: media, grassroots and elections.
The three are clearly connected but the candidates gave each a different emphasis. Shahrar Ali pointed to his ability to take on the difficult media interview in support of the leader. Alan Borgars and Amelia Womack argued that deputy leaders were well placed to engage the grassroots from a position in the central party – both said this was particularly important for our young members. Andrew Cooper stressed his election winning record, and argued that the deputy could support efforts to get councillors elected. Councillors, he argued, are key to further success. We wouldn’t have Caroline Lucas MP without Pete West, the first Green councillor in Brighton. (Or the subsequent work in Brighton of our excellent MEP Keith Taylor, this Brighton native might add.)
Overall, the hustings was a strong debate focused on strategy, particularly on Progressive Alliances and proportional representation. The candidates seem confident in the party’s policy platform. What concerns them now is how to put them into practice. The focus on the Progressive Alliance may have been a shame as it takes time away from other ideas. Alternatively, it may simply be that it has resonated with members (for good or ill) more than any other proposal. In which case it deserves lengthy consideration by candidates. We’ll see what the members have made of it at conference.