Ten things the Green Party should do to build on its biggest ever success
2019 has been an unprecedented year for the Green Party of England and Wales. In English local elections, we won more councillors than ever before – doubling our tally in a single night. Following that, seven Green MEPs were sent to Brussels in the European Parliamentary election – four more than at the previous election. And now, the Greens are consistently polling above their best performance for General Elections.
It genuinely feels like things are changing. It feels like we’ve reached a critical point of no return. The only way now is surely up?
But we’ve been here before. In 2015, we saw a phenomenal membership growth, alongside receiving over a million votes in a General Election for the first time ever. We came upsettingly close to winning a second parliamentary seat in Bristol West. It seemed – like now – as though the Greens were going to keep getting stronger and stronger.
Fast forward to 2017, and the landscape looked bleak. Our membership had been decimated. Our vote share had been slashed. Much of the energy behind the fabled 2015 ‘Green Surge’ had dissipated. Obviously the Brexit crisis has changed things, and the recent uptick in Green fortunes can’t be put down solely to the usual ebbs and flows of politics. But when the dust settles in the post-Brexit realignment, where will we, as Greens, find ourselves? Where will our prospects for influencing policy and taking power look like? And how do we build resilience into our party to ensure that political shifts and shocks don’t impact us as drastically as they have done previously?
In short, how do we ensure the so called ‘Green Wave’ doesn’t fade away like the ‘Green Surge’ that preceded it? Here are ten things we should do to build on our success.
1. Change how we talk about climate change
It’s undeniable that one of the many factors propelling the Greens’ recent success has been the substantially higher prominence climate change has in the public consciousness. The school children who’ve been striking for action on climate change, and the Extinction Rebellion protests have both built on the work of anti-fracking campaigners Reclaim the Power and the international divestment movement in driving climate change up the political agenda.
The proportion of people who report being concerned about climate change has reached it’s highest point in over a decade. Recent polling has suggested that 76% of people would change who they vote for based on environmental policies.
So it’s no surprise that all political parties are now making a big deal about proposals for tackling climate change. Theresa May has made the utterly underwhelming commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Prominent Liberal Democrat MPs like Layla Moran frequently talk up their party’s climate credentials. And Labour have made a series of bold proposals including overhauling the financial sector to re-prioritise investment towards a just transition and bringing the UK’s energy networks into public ownership in order to re-orient them towards a sustainable and renewable focused future.
This means that the other parties are parking their cars on our lawn. They all know they can no longer ignore the impending climate catastrophe. The electorate simply won’t let them.
So this also means that the way we talk about climate change – and wider environmental issues – has to shift. If we don’t, our message will get lost in the shuffle. Practically, this means offering a genuinely radical vision of how our response would not only avert furthering the devastating impacts of climate change the world is already experiencing, but also how it would materially transform people’s lives for the better.
This has long been the spirit of our policy offering. But we need to ensure that our emphasis is right, and our policies are in the right place. Practically, this means spending a lot less time talking about single use plastics, emissions from ice cream vans, and people’s individual holiday choices. While these are no doubt important, they are small beer compared to ending the existential threat posed by the fossil fuel industry’s never ending quest for increased extraction and infrastructure.
Instead, we need to talk much more clearly about how we would transform the economy and society for a sustainable future – whether it be revitalising post-industrial towns as research and development or manufacturing hubs of renewable technology; providing an unparalleled investment in clean, green public transport to increase connectivity, and take cars off the road and planes out of the sky; or rerouting our economy away from linearity and mass production, towards circularity, reuse and repair that would subsequently enable shorter working hours and more leisure time for workers.
Ideas like these are already sitting within the vast swathes of Green Party policy. But they need bringing to the fore and bringing to life among the public. They also need joining up with the embryonic proposals put forward by Alex Phillips and others for a pan-European Green New Deal.
Failing to reframe the climate debate this way is extremely risky. Not only would it miss a golden opportunity to influence the direction of that debate, but it also risks us being outflanked on climate policy, rhetoric and narrative by the Labour Party, who, bouyed by grassroots pressure from Labour for a Green New Deal and others, are coming closer to a half-decent approach to climate change.
2. Stick to our radicalism – and go further
It’s not just on climate change that we need to re-emphasise our radicalism. Our wider policy commitments must also mirror this. It isn’t only climate change that the electorate are screaming out for action on.
After a decade of austerity, public services have been squeezed, cut, outsourced, sold off, abolished and privatised left, right and centre. This has left us with an NHS far divorced from its founding principles, starved for cash and creaking under the weight of ideologically motivated neglect. Our social care system is on the brink of collapse – with public funding disappearing and private providers collapsing.
This is not only a national scandal, but also an open political goal. We should be making clear that we need to halt, reverse and unpick the vampiric privatisation of our NHS, and calling for a new approach to social care, along the lines of health care: publicly run and accountable, free at the point of delivery and properly funded.
Health and social care aren’t the only parts of our society that need an overhaul and repair though. If the Brexit crisis has shown us nothing else, it is that our democracy is fundamentally broken. Long the party of radical democracy, the Green Party needs to continue offering a halt to the anti-democratic trend our politics is heading in. Naturally this means replacing the archaic first past the post system with a better one, along with binning the yet more archaic House of Lords.
Those are important first steps. But we also need to think of democratic reform in the sense of transferring power – to borrow a Labour Party phrase – from the few to the many. This means looking at our entire constitutional set up, from what decisions are made where, by whom and why. Brexit or no Brexit, this will remain a fundamental question of our times.
A radical democratic approach, in keeping with core Green political philosophy is required. Re-evaluating and altering our local government set up, to allow more decisions to be taken locally. Looking across the globe for new models of democracy, such as participatory budgeting. Removing the gag that has been placed on unions and civil society by repealing our reactionary anti-trade union laws, repealing the elements of the 1994 Education Act that stymie the ability for students’ unions to engage in political activity, and overturning Nick Clegg’s vengeful Lobbying Act. All of these are proposals not currently being offered by any other party, and would go some way in redressing our democratic deficit.
And of course there are other areas where the Greens have uniquely radical approaches. We need to be more vocal about these too. Calling for an extension of freedom of movement beyond the borders of Europe in our proposals for migration policy, rather than wedding ourselves to the continental jingoism that clings to the status quo a la Change UK and the Liberal Democrats. Recalibrating defence policy away from our cold war past and neo-colonial present – through decommissioning of nuclear weapons, relinquishing the UK’s membership of NATO and heavily regulating the arms trade.
All of these should be central planks of the Greens’ platform.
3. Create a clear plan for how we would utilise the power of local government
We now have our largest number of councillors in the party’s history. Across the country, Greens have been entering into ruling coalitions on a not insignificant number of councils. Should our electoral success be repeated in future years, that number will grow, and the number of Greens involved with directly running local authorities will grow too.
As such, we need to be crystal clear about what we want to do when we take office and power. Our 2019 election commitments had some eye-catching elements, including pledging to keep land in community hands. But the main political programme was uninspiring. It failed to articulate how we could harness the power of local government to transform people’s lives.
There are countless good ideas out there already. Preston council’s modern municipal socialism where procurement contracts are granted primarily to small local businesses, regenerating the local economy in the process. Nottingham City Council’s publicly owned energy company that keeps bills low and sources from renewables. Utilising pension funds to invest in socially useful industries and projects, rather than fossil fuels. Utilising local government purchasing power to drive up human rights standards in supply chains – like Lewisham and Tower Hamlets have done.
We need to make sure that when we take office locally we know what we want to do with that office, and are ready to deliver a political programme which reshapes our communities.
4. Develop the next generation of Green public faces
Over the past ten years, we’ve been served by a fantastic crop of political leaders. Caroline Lucas, Natalie Bennett, Adrian Ramsay, Amelia Womack, Sian Berry, Jonathan Bartley and many more have taken the Green Party to the next level. Now it’s time to add more to those ranks, and develop the next generation of Green figures that have a profile in the wider public.
Already, there are obvious candidates to step up into these roles. Alex Phillips has proven an exceptional communicator, all the more so since being elected as an MEP in May. Her colleague in the European parliament Magid Magid needs no introduction in Green circles. Both Phillips and Magid are very well placed to be increasingly put into the public spotlight, and generate name recognition among the electorate. Over the last few weeks, they have both been an asset to the party in broadcast interviews and through their comment pieces in the national press. Driving up their airtime, public events and column inches will pay dividends.
But they aren’t the only ones. The May local elections saw a number if highly talented councillors elected, not least the seven Young Greens. Investing in training up these councillors in media, communications and public speaking would be a sound investment. So would supporting local parties to improve their local media work and digital communications.
We need an array of publicly recognisable figures to appeal to the array of people that exist in the electorate. The work to develop this needs to start now.
5. Build a strategy beyond target to win
The Green Party’s election strategy over the last few years has been incredibly effective. Our base of councillors has grown significantly. Greens in local government have gone from being an aberration to an increasingly normal presence. A key element of that strategy has been ‘target to win’.
But how does an electoral strategy based on slow, incremental change sit in the changed political context? What does the ‘target to win’ strategy look like in relation to a General Election where we could feasibly win a handful of parliamentary seats? How do we transform this strategy to step things up a gear and start to win at a bigger rate than even in 2019? How do we build an election machine that requires a movement while maintaining an election strategy that sees movement building as a distraction? Those are crucial questions that we need to answer if we are serious about seriously increasing Green representation at all levels of government.
The answers to these are largely still unclear. Up until now ‘target to win’ has served us well, but elements of its approach could be a hindrance rather than a helping hand. Looking globally at how other parties of the left have built and won power in similar political systems will be a good starting place. So will be looking to Brighton & Hove Greens – the only local party that can really be viewed as having a mass membership – and how they have delivered election success.
6. Prepare for a General Election now
Relatedly, the Greens have historically been good at dealing with elections that have a typical lead in time, that fit in the usual election cycle. We’ve been much, much worse at responding to surprises – whether that be by-elections or snap elections. Part of that can be put down to the necessary rigidity of ‘target to win’. But it’s also down to poor planning.
As each day passes, an early General Election looks all the more likely. It could come in the Autumn, around the time of Britain’s planned EU exit date. It could come sooner, if the new Tory leader fails to command a House of Commons majority. Either way, if we know that a General Election is likely round the corner, we should be planning to fight it right now.
Of lesser importance is the issues on which we should fight the election. Our messaging should obviously partially depend on the political context under which it is called, but the fundamentals can be worked out early.
What’s more crucial is getting our campaigning and organisational operation ready. We need to be identifying where our target seats are, building activist capacity there and pouring resources into them. If we don’t get started on this now, we’ll miss the boat and will be playing catch up throughout the campaign.
7. Build an army for the 2020 London Mayoral election
It’s not just an early General Election that’s around the corner though. In 2020, London will be electing a new mayor. We’ve placed third in London Mayoral elections twice now. Next year we should be aiming higher.
A confluence of factors makes the London Mayoral election a unique opportunity for us. A Labour incumbent always makes things easier – with disillusioned left wing voters more likely to lend us a vote than in an a scenario where they are seeking to oust a Tory. The Tory candidate is particularly unpalatable this time round – even compared to Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign in 2016. And Sian Berry being our candidate is major boon. She is already well known in London from her past two Mayoral campaigns and her work as a member of the London Assembly. Obviously her national profile boosts her yet further.
All this together means that it isn’t outside the realms of possibility that Berry could end up coming second in the first count. If that happens, and Sadiq Khan’s vote share falls enough, all bets are off as to who would enter City Hall as London’s mayor.
But this will only be achievable with a powerful campaign, rich with activists to nurture it. London Green Party benefits from only having local elections every four years. So all energy within the city can be pulled into the mayoral campaign. This is naturally a big asset – especially given the number of members we have in London.
But it won’t be enough. We’ll need to combine this activity with help from further afield. People from the Home Counties and the commuter belt can be shipped in to help with the ground campaign – canvassing, leafleting, public meetings, street stalls and so on. Those further afield can be utilised for wider work – propagandising and evangelising on social media, writing materials, doing design work, editing videos and so on.
An army of volunteers will be needed to fight the London Mayoral election. And getting that army into formation needs to happen quickly, before the long campaign kicks in properly at the end of the calendar year. If done right, 2020 could become another major milestone year for us.
8. Invest in the parts of the party that are delivering results
Exciting prospects are ahead for the Greens electorally. But as I’ve already suggested, they’ll only bear fruit if we take the right steps now, and invest in infrastructure in the meantime. A simple example of this would be to ramp up the existing Campaign School, which has already done an excellent job training the party’s campaign managers.
Another example would be to invest properly in the Young Greens. In this year’s local elections, the Young Greens election team mobilised dozens of activists behind a large number of ultimately successful local campaigns. They played a big role in electing seven Young Green councillors, as well as a handful of others – from Brighton to Reading and from Sheffield to Norwich.
All of this work was delivered without proper support from the Green Party. The Young Greens have been without a paid staff member for nearly six months, and have long received little financial assistance from the party. Other political parties have long recognised the importance of their youth branches. Just look at how important Labour Students were to the New Labour project. It’s time we recognised this too.
9. Build an ecology of wider infrastructure
Internal infrastructure alone is only one piece of the jigsaw. We also need to have a wider political infrastructure to support and develop the work of the Green Party. This should be self evident. When you scratch beneath the surface of Green politics, you realise how wafer thin the stilts are that it rests upon.
This isn’t the case for other parties – especially the Tories and Labour.
The Tories are assisted in their work by the cash of big business and the old aristocracy. They’re gifted policy ideas and political legitimacy by the institutions born to promote, uphold and normalise neo-liberalism – the think tanks, academics and international organisations. They’re supported into power by the media barons and the pages of the right-wing press.
Labour too has a deep and wide political ecology to support it. Trade unions, the socialist societies, Momentum. These pump funding, activists, ideas, policy, and energy into the Labour Party. Many of them do so through the formal mechanisms of internal Labour processes, others through creating external political framing that is advantageous to the party.
Conversely, the Greens have very little. The environmental and social justice NGOs birthed in the 60s and 70s which may once have been our natural allies are of little use, gagged as they often are by their reliance on tied grant funding, their charity commission regulations and their institutional conservatism. For the most part we lack an effective relationship with the unions that aren’t Labour affiliated. We don’t have the think tanks. We don’t have associated social movements. We have no real footholds in the mainstream media, and have virtually nothing in the way of an independent media (this publication being one of the few exceptions!)
This matters. Wider political infrastructure plays an important role in embedding messaging and values in wider society. It’s key in ensuring accountability of the party to a wider set of interests, demographics and social forces. And it’s also vital to maintaining long term resilience of the party.
Dealing with this issue will have to come from the grassroots. It will be a result of members establishing, building and fermenting new infrastructure that can help strengthen the Green Party in the long term.
10. Stop wasting time on old arguments, and focus on the future
The nine points above are all important. They’re all interrelated and many of them underpin each other. This point is an impediment to all nine of them.
Members who have spent time at Green Party conference or at local party meetings, will be all too familiar with two particular debates that we come back to time and again. They relate to what are pivotal movements in the party’s history.
As Adam Ramsay has previously highlighted, a turning point in the Green Party’s recent history came in 2013, when conference voted to amend our constitution to increase the emphasis the party puts on matters of social justice. I would argue that a similar moment came in 2016, when the following wording was passed into Green Party policy:
The Green Party recognises that there are many gender identities that are within, and outside of, the traditional gender binary of man and woman. The Green Party recognises that trans men are men, trans women are women, and that non-binary identities exist and are valid. We shall respect transgender and non-binary people’s identities as real. The Green Party shall include, and push for further acceptance of, transgender and non-binary people within all areas of society.
Both of these instances were in essence a restatement of the values already held by the bulk of Green members, and a refining of what was largely pre-existing policy. But they were important nonetheless. They were important because they confirmed, firstly that the Greens’ approach to the ecological crisis is inherently linked to our approach to the social, economic and political crises, and secondly that we are a party that loudly and actively supports the rights of trans people and rejects transphobia.
Sadly, there is a small, vocal and stubborn minority of members who seek to revisit these discussions time and time and time again. Despite their 1970s right wing environmentalism and alt-right backed transphobia having been rejected over and over, they are relentless in trying to shift the party to take a reactionary position.
If we’re going to set aside the time to have real and proper discussions about the kind of radical, pioneering policies we need to win power and transform society, we need to stop spending time endlessly having these debates. And if we’re going to build the kind of infrastructure and capacity we need to win election campaigns, we need to stop putting up barriers and creating a toxic environment for new activists.
And so to those people who want the Green Party to talk solely about the environment, and to those who want to side with oppressors: either accept that you have lost that debate or else leave the party, because it isn’t for you. We’re in the business of saving the planet, transforming society and being a vehicle of liberation. If you aren’t on board with that, move along.