Isle of Wight Green Party campaign launch

Let’s face it – beyond Caroline Lucas, the Green Party of England and Wales is unlikely to be a significant party at the level of national government any time soon. At the very most Greens may win parliamentary seats after another two general elections, which means, nationally, playing the long game.

It’s a different story locally. In the council elections in England last year, Greens saw their best ever results, more than doubling their number of councillors from 178 to 362. This was part of a massive shift that saw particularly Conservative councils ousted from power and replaced with rainbow coalitions. Greens are now part of ruling coalitions in 17 councils, and often form a significant opposition on a further 100 or so councils. That may not sound much, when you consider that the traditional parties still hold 16,000 council seats between them, but the recent wins are impressive and set a trajectory for possible future gains. And, more importantly, Greens often punch above their weight and are the ones bringing about change in their councils.

For example, in York, Greens secured well over £130 million for climate emergency measures, including building passivhaus homes, a large-scale retrofit programme, restoring woodland and electrifying transport. The Green leaders of Lewes District Council have developed an ambitious plan to deliver more than 1,000 new council homes, at a time when most councils are building none at all or are selling off what they do have. In Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, Greens have pushed for radical action on homelessness. In Brighton and Hove, in Suffolk, and elsewhere, Greens have won victories on opening roads to pedestrians and cyclists. In Norwich, it was a Green Party motion that sowed the seeds for the council’s building of the now-renowned Goldsmith Street council housing project. And let’s not forget that it was Carla Denyer’s motion to Bristol City Council in November 2018 that kick-started the climate emergency movement in England and prompted a wave of council actions across the country.

The next leadership should be seeking to support and drive forward this momentum that is being generated by Green councillors and local campaigners. Crucially, that will mean bringing together local councillors’ and parties’ campaigns into clearly-articulated demands, as the climate emergency movement has done.

At the same time, the next leadership has to recognise and prioritise the fact that councils are at a critical turning point right now – many are facing obliteration as coronavirus has shattered the fragile remains of local authority budgets after years of cuts. Greens are in danger of losing local power bases if councils get swept up into undemocratic (that is, even more undemocratic than currently) “combined authorities” that are essentially run as public-private partnerships which give contractors and big companies massive influence. The next leadership will have to throw everything into fighting for the life of local democracy, which is also fighting for the life of Green politics.

But what the next leadership must not do is to talk about defending councils as they currently are. I know from personal experience that most people don’t care about councils, or only care when things go wrong. As Adam Ramsay has already argued in Bright Green, there is a great feeling of alienation and disaffection from what is perceived to be “politics” in general in England, and the Green Party has to show a radical commitment to doing politics differently. Nowhere is that more true than in local politics, where voter turnout is usually somewhere in the 30-40% range. But that is precisely where Greens can make a difference.

What Greens are doing through gains on councils is not only winning practical achievements to tackle climate and social emergencies, they also have the potential to change the face of politics. Many people vote Green in local elections because they are sick of the other parties, or, more positively, because they see that “Greens are the only ones who do anything round here”. By delivering on what they promised in election campaigns, elected Greens can start to rebuild trust in politics in a small way. But far more importantly, Greens must show that politics is not only something that has to be done by politicians. The Green Party’s leadership has to champion the message that yes, Greens are the ones who are actively delivering on what they promised in elections, but also that Greens are a party of radical decentralisation and giving “power to the people”.

Participatory local democracy and local autonomy are at the heart of Green politics, uniquely among parties in the UK. Greens have long championed grassroots-based models of decision-making and local action, from community energy companies and gardens to citizens’ assemblies, a form of activism that has been bolstered by the almost unprecedented rise in volunteering during the coronavirus pandemic. In order to “build back better” after covid, Greens must fight to ensure that the grassroots is at the heart of how we do politics, transforming democracy by giving power over local budgets and local government directly to citizens’ assemblies and communities.

If Greens do not maintain a vision of radically overhauling councils in this way, there is a danger that the pressure of trying to get elected and work within those councils’ very bureaucratic culture could lead to a kind of small-c conservatism and activists becoming isolated. I’ve seen that from personal experience of being a local councillor. Thus, the Green leadership must consistently articulate big-picture vision of change and work with activists to keep them inspired and in touch with the wider movement.

And that big-picture vision must draw on other grassroots campaigns at local government level from around the world, especially those that have foregrounded the voices of the most vulnerable. For example, the Fearless Cities movement that took off in Barcelona; or the movement to give people control over their municipal budget in the Durham, North Carolina; or the stories of grassroots union organising that were highlighted in a recent talk by United Voices of the World for the Young Greens. The next Green leadership must provide an internationalist vision as well as a localist one, placing the Green Party of England and Wales within the context of global demands for change.

Of course, a grassroots and local philosophy must by definition be bottom-up, not top-down. But in order to build an effective movement for large-scale change, Greens need a leadership who are in touch with and will champion the victories of local activists and councillors, while at the same time providing a clear and radical vision for how the foundations of local democracy have to change.

This article is the seventh in a series on the forthcoming Green Party of England and Wales leadership election. Bright Green has invited a number of Green Party members and activists to contribute their views on what the next Green Party leader should deliver. The articles in this series can be found here.

PS. Bright Green has big plans for the future, but we need your input. Take 2 minutes to see what we’re planning and tell us your thoughts.

Image credit: Cameron Palin