Only connect: lessons for the Green Party from Labour’s divisions
“Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” E.M. Forster
The Green Party is, on the whole, united in message and focus. We want to tackle climate change, inequality and the democratic deficit, and argue for a radical green economics as the solution to this triple crisis – at home and internationally.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen the catastrophic result of a latent split within a political party suddenly coming to the fore. The Green Party has had crisis moments both in the public eye and internally, but clearly nothing on this scale. Focusing on our unity of purpose and the diversity of our movement, what are the strands of circumstance and activity that could disunite our party? How can we avoid making the same mistakes the Labour Party has made in recent months?
1) The generational gap
We are fortunate to have active groups: Young Greens and Green Seniors. The inspiring increase in the Young Greens’ membership over the last five years has contributed to a stream of policy motions designed to push the party’s policy and practice in a more progressive direction. At the same time, we have seen some older members becoming wary of a shift away from environment/climate in terms of public policy emphasis, and a desire to bring the party back to core values. There is a need to acknowledge the relevance of both lines of thinking, without getting into personal attacks. The best discussion I ever had at conference was after a workshop on education, because it got the participants beyond the dichotomy of “libertarian/statist”, provided genuine space for friendly dialogue, and humanised the discussion. An hour of talking through perspectives might ward off a year of disgruntled frustration. So we need more members to take on mediating roles between these differently-framed groups. In short, to connect with those they disagree with.
2) Green/libertarian and left/socialist strands
As a result of our General Election platform being more immediately and obviously left-wing in emphasis, the older debate on green v left, social justice v environment, big state v libertarianism has faded slightly from our national level debate. We are hearing more and more candidates for internal positions talk about the need for environmental and social justice to be inextricably linked in our thinking. Explicitly left candidates have simultaneously been more willing to state this position, but at the same time not overemphasise it. The corollary to this is that many members – particularly in the run-up to the COP21 talks in Paris – called for a move back to a core climate change emphasis, not least because of the rise of Corbynism. We must never sacrifice either our social justice or our environmental justice aims on the altar of political positioning. The Green Party must develop to become a party for all people, regardless of their previous voting habits or particular policy interests.
3) Urban/rural divide
The green/left discussion follows neatly onto this question: how to speak to constituencies/wards that have traditionally always voted either Labour or Conservative, due to the nature of the rural/urban divide and our outdated first past the post voting system. My own constituency of Bristol West is a great example: Lib Dem from 2005 to 2015, Labour from 2015, but with a large Green swing (26.8%) last year. We welcomed Green activists from the surrounding counties who were startled and energised that every door they knocked on there was a friendly potential (or definite) Green voter. If those same people went home and used the same messages – anti-austerity, pro-migrant, human rights – they probably wouldn’t get so far. In this regard – and to solidify a strategy for winning seats – we need effective twinning between a region’s parliamentary target seat and its promising council targets elsewhere. Trade-offs (“we will come and help you this year to get an MP, if you come and help us next year to win three council seats”, etc.) should be more explicitly encouraged across the board.
4) National/local messaging
It’s not just the Labour Party that has internal issues. The Lib Dems have suffered from their unwillingness to build national narratives into local election campaigning, relying solely on the (otherwise extremely effective) strategy of “community politics”. They have tended to develop policy proposals as a direct result of whatever the community wants, and not a prescription from the centre. This has led to people being unsure what they stand for, or whether they stand for anything at all – especially if there is a discrepancy between their national leadership and their local aims. Greens must take the “both/and” approach. We should not compromise on our core national policy platform (communicated by our leadership team), but we should develop local green aims in line with community wishes and emphasise our role as honest, independent and hard-working community champions, particularly in rural areas. Green messages can win over former Conservative voters, but they need to be sensitively explained.
5) Policy and practice
Having a progressive policy platform that moves with developments in the world is crucial for any modern political party. When you are still emerging as a political force, the keys to the kingdom of the party’s ideological and policy basis seem more important than ever to individual members, not least because of the conflicts we can observe (and learn from) in other parties. “If I’m to stick with this, it has to reflect my values.” However, for the Green Party, the fundamentals of our policy approach have been consistent for 40 years: put people and planet before profit. There may be the odd aberration (or, yes, stinking monstrosity!) in our Policies for a Sustainable Society, but generally speaking we are in a good place in terms of our platform. The progressive values of most members will lead to minimal energy needing to be put in to get policy motions passed. (I often get told “such and such a policy” is the reason that someone can’t join the Green Party. They might be surprised at how easy it is to change, simply by getting involved and submitting a motion.) So we must be wise with our use of energy. It will be far more beneficial for members to spend time planning ahead for their next local target ward election campaign than working on and submitting large numbers of policy motions to, let’s face it, negligible effect on the outside world.
Conclusion: the beast and the monk
Going back to the E.M. Forster quote I began with: who are the beast and the monk in our internal processes? I think we all have our views on this, but for me the monk is our tendency to desire ideological purity, and the beast is our tendency to create long-standing arguments rather than resolutions. If we can communicate more genuinely across our various internal strands – “only connect” – then we will be building a sustainable future for our party, and we will not die.
I am standing to be elections coordinator so I can contribute to the task of making sure our values are represented on local councils and in Parliament to a greater extent. With my experience as a former Green council group leader and as Bristol West constituency coordinator, I think I am well-placed in terms of age, position and temperament to create more opportunities for helpful interactions between members that works towards this end.
Rob is standing to be the Green Party’s Election Coordinator and has a website outlining his candidacy at robtelford.com.
You can find the full list of candidates for the upcoming GPEW elections here. Any other candidates wishing to contribute a piece to Bright Green should email: firstname.lastname@example.org