Green Party co-leaders Jonathan Bartley and Sian Berry

In some important respects, the next Green Party leadership team will inherit a much strengthened organisation. By comparison with 2018 – the last elections to the positions of leader and deputy leader – the party is larger to the tune of over 10,000 members. The party’s councillor base on principal authorities across England more than doubled in a single year.

Our signature gains, in the form of seven members of the European Parliament, reflected a surge of Europeanism in parts of the electorate; some of which can be attributed to clear messaging to an audience captivated by Brexit polarisation. Gains at a local level, however, can be attributed to a longer term professionalisation of the party’s election machine, which allowed the party to punch well above its weight in respect of active members and supporters.

Until Covid-19 rudely interrupted, the party was campaigning in full swing for the next round of local and mayoral elections. Confidence coming off the back of May 2019 was palpable, and healthy polling numbers in London indicated that Sian Berry’s flagship Mayor of London run was looking strong.

Nevertheless, there are respects in which the Green Party – and crucially the environmental justice movement of which we aspire to be the political arm – is much weakened. These aspects need our attention if we are to make progress towards genuinely transformative political change.

Moving on from our mistakes

As I wrote following the 2019 general election, the party’s performance at the polls in December flattered a campaign which had been in many ways disastrous. Eager participation in the Unite to Remain pact reinforced Brexit polarisation along explicitly liberal lines, which could never assemble a winning left majority. Making a travesty of our central message that this was a climate election first and foremost, it demoralised activists. It rested precariously on marginal gains, encouraged sniping at the Labour Party from rightwing positions. Other calamitous mistakes – from occasional anti-union rhetoric to islamophobic talking points – only compounded the problem.

The external political conditions have now changed utterly. Brexit is primarily a question of ‘how’ not ‘if’. Keir Starmer is leader of a Labour Party intent on triangulating its way to government without a commitment to transformative change. Covid-19 has turned our world upside-down. The social and political formations in British politics have shifted enormously and continue to shift.

In these radically changed political circumstances, what matters now is what social and political formation we want to build and lead, and how we go about doing that. How do we design and implement a strategy that acts as a foundation for campaigns that avoid the opportunism and incoherence of 2019?

This is where our new leadership comes in. For while in the Green Party the leader and deputy leader only form part of a larger executive, the influence they wield is undeniably huge. Here are three of the key ideas that I believe should guide them in their task.

1. Long-term political strategy

The Green Party needs a robust long-term political strategy to serve as a firm basis for the next five years.

Green Party policy represents the most serious attempt to grapple with the demands of the climate emergency. The scope and scale of transformative social change required to achieve climate justice is massive, and our radical policy reflects this.

But to be prepared to fight for and win this change, we need a robust strategy to identify how we want this change to come about. What will the social and political coalition behind our programme look like, and who will it comprise? Where does our power lie in society, and how will we exercise it? What is our relationship with mass-membership institutions, including social movement organisations and trade unions? What would it look like for us to be on the cusp of achieving this change, and what is our route to that point? What do all these questions entail for how we do politics in the immediate term?

As soon as we contemplate these questions seriously, it becomes clear that Unite to Remain represented a step away from the coalition needed for transformative change, and towards a contingent alliance of diehard Remain supporters who likely wouldn’t stick with us for a transformative Green programme. It is exactly the absence of such a robust, detailed theory of change that left us vulnerable to destructive and opportunistic moves like that one.

The next Green leadership team needs to spearhead the development of a political strategy that can act as a bedrock for a transformative Green agenda. Not for the sake of re-litigating past mistakes, but for the sake of the radical Green solutions that we know are desperately needed.

2. Politics of liberation

The next Green leader needs to be prepared to stand up for the rights of the oppressed. This can sound like a cliche, or worse a platitude. But in this political climate it is nothing less than the utmost moral imperative.

As the Conservative government calculatedly whips up a tempest of racism and prejudice, Keir Starmer is steering the Labour Party ship onto the rocks and the Liberal Democrats are still in harbour. It has never been more vital for Greens to be resolute in anti-racism, our support for LGBT+ rights, and feminist commitments.

We can take heart in some of the best examples of progressive Green campaigning. The recent Greens of Colour social media campaign ‘Five demands for racial justice’ was a great example of how our liberation groups are our most radical political voices. The LGBTIQA+ Greens petition to Liz Truss, and their joint work with other LGBT+ political party groups, were exemplary.

It is the duty of the next Green leader to give substantial resources and airtime to our liberation groups. Not only that, they should ensure that the Green Party’s organisational strategy is judged not only by its representation of minority groups, but importantly its accountability to them. Our membership, electoral, campaigns, and overall strategies must be joined-up in their commitment to break oppressive hierarchies.

Crucially, the next Green Party leadership team must be prepared to recognise fully and without any qualification its own shortcomings. Many members were shocked at the comments Jonathan Bartley made on radio and on TV in December stating that he would wish to ban Halal slaughter. More shocking, however, was the fact that Jonathan’s apology didn’t face up to why and how the comments were islamophobic in the first place. The party itself has never publicly commented on the matter.

Without an apology that recognised the full nature and origin of the islamophobic tropes in question, the party was positioned to play the incident down rather than confront it head-on. Comments appearing on Green Party fora to defend the incident were allowed to fester and grow, rather than being slapped down by the leadership. Rather than looking at this as a chance to address our own problems and make ourselves totally accountable to the anti-racist values we espouse, many preferred to approach this as an issue of personal criticism. Members who raised the issue and demanded steps to rectify it were told by some that they were deliberately jeopardising Green chances at the general election, or that they were being too public. Some members have considered leaving the party over the response to the incident, a fact that should shame all of us.

The next Green leader must recognise that capacity for self-criticism is a virtue, and that anti-racism has to be cultivated always and everywhere. Our Green values demand no less.

3. A plan for movement-building

The next Green Party leader must put movement-building at the heart of the party’s planning for the future. This means being prepared to look at what the party has achieved with Target to Win and increasing professionalism about elections, and look carefully at what we haven’t.

Many local parties have successfully built strong complements of councillors, covering a wide area. The growth in capacity has been impressive, and speaks volumes about how successful elections training has been. We should be rightly proud of this.

Looking forward, the party should not only set itself targets for vastly increased membership and supporter numbers. To make ‘movement-building’ more than just another NGO-ism or buzz-phrase, we must be specific about what this means in our context. This includes, for a start, identifying what a mass-membership party looks like on the ground: in terms of membership, engagement levels, regular campaigning activity, and political priorities on a local and regional level. It means establishing which unions, collectives, community activists, and social movement organisations we need to build strong relationships with in order to win. It means identifying what it would take to turn passive support into active support on a much larger scale, until we are able to make credible bids for Westminster constituencies.

This kind of thinking is growing in prominence, and it’s pleasing to see some candidates speaking this kind of language with confidence. It is also important to highlight that this work will fall not only to the leader and deputy leader, but to the whole executive and all party governance structures.

Nevertheless, the position of leader will offer one or two people an unrivalled pulpit from which to preach their vision. We need the next leader to be able to give a thorough and detailed account of this vision for the future.

This article is the ninth 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.

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