Why the Green Party should elect a ‘Shadow Cabinet’
This guest post is by Jonathan Kent, and was first published on his blog, The Headstrong Club.
This September, when the Green Party of England and Wales meets for the first time as a party represented at Westminster, members will be asked to vote on a proposal to elect a Green Shadow Cabinet.
In some ways it’s a significant step, just as it was a big step to elect a ‘leader’ rather than two ‘principal speakers’.
There has been a lot of sympathetic support, some scepticism and some opposition. But let me, briefly, set out why I believe this is the right step to take and why this is the right time.
In some ways the Green Party set out from its inception in the early 70s as ‘People’ to be an ‘anti-party’ – hence the steadfast opposition to the style of leadership and organisation shared by the big UK parties.
But after thirty odd years of clinging to the fringes a new generation emerged, a pragmatically minded and ambitious generation, that sees green politics as more than a gesture or a protest. We see it as a framework of principles by which our society can become happier, healthier and sustainable. However we have come to accept that it will be none of those things if we indulge our penchant for opposition and yell impotently from the sidelines.
The Green Party faces a challenge – to continue to professionalise whilst keeping its soul. I believe our soul is hardwired into our commitment to the rights of the individual, to empowering communities to take control of their own futures and to the belief that power should flow upwards. It’s indivisible from our desire to have a country and a planet that we can leave our grandchildren and they theirs.
Green thinking emanates from these core beliefs and colours our approach to every area of government and life. Yet for too long we’ve largely been heard on issues that the media and the wider world consider to be ‘green’ – primarily the environment and peace.
However any serious Green Party needs to communicate its thinking in every area and nothing signals our intention to do that more seriously than our electing a Green Shadow Cabinet.
Let me say at this juncture that I’m not irrevocably wedded to the name. There is a touch of hubris about it. However as a descriptive term it leaves us with the least room for misinterpretation. The Green Shadow Cabinet’s purpose would be to shadow the main cabinet portfolios – though with only 13 members (including our leader and deputy) some briefs, for instance Foreign and International Development, might need to be combined.
By choosing to establish such a body we do a number of key things:
We widen the franchise within the party. The Greens are more than the Caroline Lucas fan club (though while I’m about it I’ll squeeze in a quick ‘Yay Caroline!’). We have talent in depth. Our leader and deputy are not islands of sanity in a quirky and unelectable party; they’re merely the two considered most able from a considerable pool of talent and ability. The GSC (one can never have too many acronyms) rather than detracting from the lustre of the leader will surely add to it. Furthermore by electing the shadow cabinet as a single list we maximise the opportunities for people of diverse views, from every region, of different races, both genders and a multiplicity of sexual preferences to be represented.
We make the party more democratic. Presently the External Communications Coordinator recommends candidates to GPEx. If Alistair Campbell or Andy Coulson had played such a role under Tony Blair or David Cameron we would have heaped ridicule upon them. To those who say you can have too much democracy in the Green Party I would say this; trust the members. Their choice of leader and deputy showed they have common sense aplenty and they’ll soon sort the wheat from the chaff amongst the GSC candidates.
We shift the elected centre of gravity of the party decisively away from administration and towards policy and towards the voter. The Green Shadow Cabinet would be as outward looking as GPEx and GPRC are, necessarily, for the most part inward looking.
We ensure the making and communication of policy are brought more closely together. Each shadow cabinet member will handle one or more key briefs and will coordinate policy development in that area with members from each region contributing to the process. The Green Shadow Cabinet and shadow spokespeople will be better placed to respond to the 24 hour news cycle to communicate our wider agenda when opportunities come up. We have a panel of clearly identified policy spokespeople, with a mandate and who meet regularly as a body to discuss policy and the way we apply it and put it across.
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, as we start to mirror the activity of government in other ways we stop thinking about governing in an abstract and sometimes idealised environment and become more disciplined about considering the real world implication of the policies we suggest.
If we do choose to establish a Green Shadow Cabinet I believe it will be another step on a journey towards our becoming a serious force in British politics with various emphases on ‘serious’.
It may be a while before we are ready to participate in government. Indeed it may yet be a generation. However if we start acting now as we mean to go on not only is that time likely to be nearer but when it comes we might be better prepared to decide who we best do that.
And you last paragraph, to put it bluntly and frankly, is utter bullcrap.
No Jonathan – that is all of your own divination.
We want a review of internal party structures before having any shadow cabinet.
As currently conceived, the leader will be able to choose the portfolios, as far as I’m aware, or if there isn’t to be an election based on expertise, then that will have to be the case, which leaves the system open to abuse: the leader will be able to select favourite members of the Party to posts and will centralise power even further in areas like Brighton and Norwich, where no doubt it will be claimed that being the “shadow cabinet member for X will improve greatly the electability of that person”.
There’s the beef with the proposal – there will be no review and not attempt to democratise our internal structures first. So stop bastardising what I say.
answer me this; should we have unelected policy spokespeople or elected ones? We have unelected ones at present.
There’s no joking involved. We need to demonstrate a mastery of the issues on which people vote. We need to be seen as a party which is sufficiently in command of real world issues to be taken seriously when we debate with other parties.
This motion is simply fixing one aspect of that – the current system by which spokespeople are appointed and the manner in which we deal with emerging political issues between conferences. It doesn’t preclude or undermine our efforts to organise locally nor should anyone wish to do so.
This is all about focusing on the deficiencies of the current system, or at least one aspect of them.
Far from saying that this move isn’t a good one if I understand Jim correctly he thinks its an issue that needs addressing as part of a wider overhaul.
What you and Larry have in common on this issue is that you don’t address the deficiencies of the current system, you don’t suggest alternatives, you resort to invective, personal attacks, cliche and the sort of language that indicates a paucity of thought.
Jim has made a sensible and constructive contribution. He’s pointed out what he thinks are specific flaws. You might usefully do the same.
Meanwhile you and Larry might also make it clear where you stand on other issues of party democracy. Do you support having an elected leader and deputy? Do you support the direct election of party representatives? Do you have workable alternatives?
The impression I am starting to form, and please do prove me wrong, is that you and Larry represent a strand of thinking within the party that can’t marshal sufficient support to win democratic internal contests and thus oppose any measure which gives the membership as a whole a vote.
I’m with Jim on this – internal structures need fixing, not jokingly mimicking the three boring parties, that it is in our interests to distance ourselves from.
Aside from that, Larry makes excellent points, and also, why the F*** do we need a shadow cab? We have ONE MP, not 50. This motion is utterly ludicrous, and should be voted down as such, and attention instead should be focused as Jim states, on the deficiencies of the current system. Let’s not throw the baby out with bathwater here.
Ha, Richard Lawson can talk – didn’t you tell your constituents to vote Lib Dem as you stood down to let them through? Not really going to take what you say without a bucket-full of salt!
You don’t need to convince me that the current system is wrong. My concern about a ‘poor’ GSC mainly revolves around lack of clarity around our structures.
If there is a disagreement between GSC, GPEx and GPRC how do we make sure the process of accountability is working properly.
For example a GSC member, as I understand it, might launch an initiative or campaign. What if they are ‘off message’ or are pursuing their own agenda? The media team says ‘hold on’ and the GSC members goes ‘I’m elected, you’re not – nah!”
GPEx don’t like it, can’t sack um. Leader does like it, can’t boot them off GSC. Can GPRC deal with them?
All organisations get problem members sometimes – it’s how you deal with them that’s important – I think it’s unclear with the GSC proposal.
“I also worry that a poor GSC could actually alienate more people than it brings in.”
Jim, I think this is where we’ll have to agree to disagree albeit in the best natured of ways.
You are absolutely right; the party could make a poor choice and elect bad candidates to a GSC. The power of the leader to allocate portfolios could mitigate this somewhat however they’d still be in a Green Shadow Cabinet.
But that misses the more profound point. Democracy is all about choices, some good, some bad. We could, as a party, choose a bad leader or deputy. Even if we hadn’t gone the ‘leaders’ route we could have picked bad principal speakers just as we could have chosen good.
Removing choice doesn’t necessarily make for better decisions. The British people have just distributed their votes at a general election yet got a government not of their choosing but of the choosing of a few of the people they elected. After Tony Blair’s resignation Labour members were denied any opportunity to choose their new leader. One might be forgiven for saying that didn’t work out too well either.
By the same token the External Communications officer might make bad recommendations of speakers to GPEx and GPEx might approve them. There are all sorts of routes that we, other parties and the nation could take to bad leaders and bad front bench teams.
The virtue of a vote is both that it subjects candidates to the rigours of an election process and that it brings in the wider membership. Yes some members might be rather detached from the day to day goings on within the party but in that sense they’re a step further away from us and a step nearer the average potential Green voter in as much as they see the party from afar.
But above all the basic principle of democratic choice goes back to those sentiments expressed by Thomas Rainsborough in Putney some 363 years ago; “truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”
As for government so too for those who would speak for democratic political parties such as ours – if they’re to represent us they must be chosen by us and to be chosen by us they must first persuade us.
Too late for new amendments and my prediction is that this will get refered back.
By magic bullet I mean that what people think it will achieve is by no means certain. A new set of national elections on top of our already under contested set suggests that we’re in need of getting some other basic problems sorted before we add more bricks on top of a shaky foundation.
I’m pleased we’re looking to funding regional organisers, and to my mind it is this sort of support that we most need in the party at the moment. The media operation is well structured and although I do have my worries about political drift I think more active party members who feel like they can have say in the political direction of the party is key…
I also worry that a poor GSC could actually alienate more people than it brings in.
Well Jim I’ll support an amendment on the name – if there’s a better option. The current title is there simply so we all know what we’re talking about. And I do see this body as playing a major policy coordination role – though the motion is explicit that in no way would the GSC replace conference as the final arbiter of policy nor would it or should it preclude members tabling policy motions to conference.
Nor do I see it as a magic bullet. For instance John Nott’s draft of this took out my suggestions for the streamlining of GPEx and GPRC and left it to thosae bodies to report back with a plan.
There are two routes to tightening up the party’s internal mechanisms – a global reworking put forward in a single motion or a number of separate initiatives that would do the job incrementally.
The problem with the former is that it risks simply multiplying the objections so that whatever is passed might be so watered down as to be ineffective. The problem with the latter approach, of which the above is an example, is that the various initiatives are not properly joined up.
It’s a difficult choice. Given however that every Green Party members are most independently minded the latter approach may be more practicable.
We simply need to push on with the other areas of reform and do our best to make sure they do indeed all join up.
“I also think you underestimate the depth of expertise in the party” I’m not sure I do – there is a wealth of talent in the party and we often don’t utilise it well enough. My problem with the current spokesperson system is partly that it puts good people into a position where they find it hard to do good work.
The other main problem is that half the members don’t know we have spokespeople and all the press don’t know.
I think the name will be a big stumbling block – there will be people like me who think that politically it will look like over-reaching to the outside world and there will be others who thinks it strikes at the heart of our philosophical ethos.
Sadly there are those who seem to think *any* proposal strikes at the heart of our philosophical ethos but if there are enough of them on this question the motion could fall on this point alone.
Which would be a shame because i think it’s aspirations are worthwhile.
I do agree that the current patronage system is unworkable and possibly part of the problem, although I’m not entirely convinced that all party positions need to be elected – the executive, the regional committee and the committees (eg policy) are all elected, as are regional and local party posts – where we draw the line is a question of balance rather than principle.
Personally I’d like to see us elect the ero, as they/you do in Scotland for example.
There are moves to restructure the political committee to make it more flexible and able to react at short notice which will help the leadership take more of a political lead but I’m yet to be convinced that a series of press facing shadow cabinet members are what we need at the moment, more than, for example, a good strong orientation on building solid local structures.
It kind of smacks of the magic bullet theory of politics to me at the moment.
Jim, yes, I agree that the shadow cabinet (or whatever we want to call it – I’d be equally happy for a name change) wouldn’t necessarily actually match the positions in cabinet. This is perfectly normal – neither the Tories, nor Lib Dems in opposition exactly matched the Labour cabinet – they had posts matching their own positions.
Likewise, I agree that it wouldn’t solve many of the problems you identify – however, what it would add is some collective political (rather than organisational) leadership. And that might be a good thing.
Sorry – quite right Gary.
Sorry, I should clarify that Labour’s Shadow Cabinet is elected by the PLP, i.e. MPs, not the membership as a whole, as is the proposal for Green spokespeople here.
all well made points. With regard to government and opposition teams – for the most part (members of the house of Lords excepted) they generally do have a mandate albeit from constituency parties and then the electorate.
Moreover it’s worth noting that from 1923 until Labour came to power in 1997 the Labour Shadow Cabinet was elected by the party.
I also think you underestimate the depth of expertise in particular areas within the party however I’d happily back your proposal to fund a small research department (or even as a possible alternative / supplement to see whether it might be possible to set up a green think tank outside the party). However a research body and a shadow cabinet needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Nor does it get away from the fact that we really need spokespeople on the major portfolios and that we need to select them somehow – and I’d hope you agree that election – with the rigours of making a case for one’s election that will entail – is preferable to the current system.
I just hope that all the counter arguments tabled at conference will be as constructive as yours.
Interestingly, the Labour Party does have an elected Shadow Cabinet, and will be holding elections for that after the new leader is known.
While I agree with a lot of what’s in this post I think you do a better job of identifying things that need to be fixed than identifying a solution to them, in my view. I particularly agree with your point that there is more than a touch of hubris about the name.
I’d also point out, pedantically, that neither the cabinet nor the opposition’s shadow cabinet is elected – they are appointed by the leadership. that’s quite important because you need to be able to sack people – if they’re elected you can’t do that.
The current system of spokespeople is bizarre and utterly ineffective and we do need to sort it out but I think we need to look at some of the reasons why it doesn’t work.
First we might like to think about the fact that the government and opposition spokes people are full time politicians, often with staff and a department, even if a small one. Our spokespeople are appointed and then left to their own devices, if committed and talented they can make a small impact, but experience tells us they find it an uphill struggle.
GSC does not address this problem.
I’d also say that if we want to start setting the political agenda it’s worth creating structures that fit with our priorities rather than artificially replicate a government we are a long way from being.
I’d rather have a research department and a (small) series of campaigning organisers than an ineffectual band of media focused amateurs who are just as impotent as the spokes people who went before them.
Just to say, great post – I’ve always thought the current system is both odd and in need of change, and you make the case brilliantly. Those above who argue against, we’ve had a group of spokespeople for years, but, as mentioned, they have been appointed rather than elected. Time for democracy.
Yes! Excellent OP.
If anyone can convincingly make the case that it’s a democratic step backwards to replace a system whereby spokespeople are recommended by one official and approved by GPEx with one where they’re directly elected by members then I’ll happily see the proposal amended or dropped.
But so far no one has substantiated their objections. Indeed when people use terms like ‘cadre’ beloved of Leninists and other entryists I suspect it says more about them than ever it says about this proposal.
By choosing the 11 candidates who gain the most votes from among all the members it maximises the chance that this body will represent the widest possible range of views and include the most diverse possible cross section of members.
However it will most certainly limit the influence of those groups within the party who through dint of organisation and shouting loudly hope to wield an influence out of proportion to their actual support. I most certainly hope such groups will have a voice on the GSC – but only in proportion to the number of members they manage to convince that they are right. For if they can’t convince large swathes of the party of their views how on earth are they going to convince anyone else?
As a Green Party member who is unable to attend conference I would have appreciated a chance to vote on this.
In fact I would have preferred the party to address the democratic deficit (internal democracy) before electing a cadre to a “shadow cabinet”. Until internal democratic mechanisms are in place let Caroline continue to speak for us. She’s directly elected to do so.
On the other hand, Larry, it might not be a Bad Thing for a group of people to gather together to look at what Parliament is up to, to shadow systematically and authoritatively the shenanigans of the ConDems. You assume that they would centralise power, but equally, they could collect ideas from the PfSS and the membership and place them in the public political arena, thus empowering the party.
It’s up to us to design the system properly, with checks and balances to insure against centralisation within the Party.
As a Green Party member for over 20 years, and a Leftist for 15 years before that (and still one), might I take fundamental issue with this piece.
1) I agree it was a “significant step” ro elect a leader–albeit a step in the wronmg direction. The current centralisation of power within the Green Party is anathema to fundamental Green principles–but you want to take it further.
2) Your counterposition of “pragmatic” to “gesture” polirics is a canard–the real question is how do we effect Green politics without succumbing to the blandishments of mere “ambition” and “pragmatism” (this latter code for accepting capitalism).
3) Power can not, repeat not, flow “upwards” if it is centralised in a mimicking of the parliamentary game of Leaders & “shadow cabinets”.
4) I agree, Green politics needs to be more than “the environment & peace”–it needs to be linked to social justice, opposition to racism, support for those workers & communities struggling against capitalism, including the current Condem attacks on basic living conditions. Not a mention in your piece–yet that is exercising voters far more than Cabinet games.
5) How fatuous, to believe there can be just “two considered most able”–what an insult to other GP members!
6) You speak of shifting a centre of gravity rowards “the voter”–what amorphous populism! Where is the role of a party in seeking to shape opinion, rather than merely defer to it?
7) You give the game away when talking of seeking to “mirror the activity of government”–how tame. The point is not to ‘mirror” the status quo, but transcend it. Have you learnt nothing from the disaster of the Irish & German Greens in government? Evidently not…
8) A Green shadow cabinet would be another step on the road the Greens becoming a pale shadow of their former selves, a group of New Labour-lite clones representing no threat to the current political/economic system whatsoever. The point is not to “participate in giovernment” but to use any power we get to encourage a fundamental transformation of society. In that, our strategic guide would far better than any parliamentary cretin, be Gramsci–fighting a ‘war of position’ prior to a ‘war of maneouvre’.