“Addressing people’s day to day concerns” – an interview with Rosemary Sexton
Incumbent leaders of political parties don’t lose their re-election. That’s the conventional wisdom. But Solihull councillor Rosemary Sexton wants to change that. She announced her bid for the leadership of the Green Party of England and Wales two and a half weeks ago. And she’s already begun to shake things up.
Her announcement was met with intrigue and excitement from the membership. By way of measure, the story Bright Green ran on her candidacy has attracted more readers than any other article we’ve published in the past three months. Since, she’s maintained momentum through an active and provocative social media presence which has sparked extensive debate among party members.
But she still has a mountain to climb. In the last leadership contest, Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley picked up a formidable 75% of first preference votes, seeing off two other contenders with ease.
Academic, cage fighter, osteopath
So Sexton undoubtedly enters the race as an underdog, although it’s apparent this doesn’t deter her ambition. When Bright Green spoke to her last week, she made clear that emerging from this race as the party’s next leader is “certainly” her ambition. And she explained that this drive to overcome odds comes in part from her undeniably unconventional background for a politician.
As Sexton puts it, she is not a “career politician”. Before being elected as a Green councillor in 2019, she had a varied career. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this is her stint as a mixed martial artist, during which she became the first British woman to fight in the UFC. This, she says, embedded traits within her that are an important part of her political impetus:
I think what that gave me is the courage to stand up for what I believe in, and […] being able to feel afraid and do it anyway.
And also, strategic thinking, being able to – say – look at a competition and break it down, and figure out what needs to happen in order to get the result you want.
It isn’t just lessons from cagefighting she draws upon though. She says her current work as an osteopath has taught her to “really listen to people”. Meanwhile, her background as an academic gifts her “rigour”, “critical thinking”, and proficiency when it comes to being able to “examine evidence”.
“Evidence” is something Sexton talks of a lot. When she speaks of the skills she thinks she can bring to the leadership, first on the list is “a real understanding of credibility, and science, and evidence.” When she sets out what she sees as the electoral ambitions of the party, she wants to see “a solid, evidence based ten-year plan” for electing more Green MPs. When talking about the strength in Green Party policy – she gives the example of the “very evidence based” drugs policy that is “supported by a lot of professionals”.
But these references to “evidence” extend beyond just the things Sexton wants to see happen in the party, but also in her critique of the things she thinks are flawed. She is derisive about what she describes as “wishful thinking” in both past Green Party election campaigns, and chunks of the party’s policy book.
On the latter, she speaks lucidly and at great length. At points, she speaks in protracted metaphors:
Our policy is like a big pile of clothes in the middle of the room, and we keep throwing things onto the pile, but we don’t really take anything out. And half the time we’re not really sure what’s in there.
You know, we’ve got 72 pairs of socks, but no trousers. And there are some things that we really need that I’m not sure are there
Several minutes later, she returns to this:
We don’t need a big pile of clothes on the floor. We don’t need to add more clothes to it.
What we need to do is to sort through it, to hang them up, to throw some of it out, to figure out what we need so we’ve got an outfit for each different situation, and to make sure that we have appropriate clothes for those situations that are in good repair, and that fit us.
In practice, she says this means:
having fewer policy positions that are better worked through, and that are more coherent.
For Sexton, elements of the Green Party’s current policy platform are creating a “credibility issue”, describing some of it as “bonkers”. And although she says it’s “not one specific problem” that’s at issue, but “the structure” of how policy is made and – crucially – held on to, she nevertheless singles out the Greens’ transport policy as an area she’d like to change:
We need a strategy for how we’re going to decarbonise travel, okay, at the moment we don’t have a strategy – we have a bunch of ideas that are held together by wishful thinking.
Election successes and failure
It’s on reflecting on past election campaigns that Sexton again speaks of this “wishful thinking”. While she’s initially euphemistic about her analysis of the Green Party’s 2019 general election, saying “I don’t think it went the way we would have liked it to”, after a pause she goes on to say “we’re gonna have to call it a failure”.
In particular, despite admitting she previously supported the ‘Unite to Remain’ alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, she now describes it as a “mistake”. According to Sexton, this cost the party the trust of voters:
the cost around electoral alliances is the trust of our voters, so you can’t swap votes between parties like trading cards. You can’t do that. People resent it when you try.
So, suggesting – okay – well, you know, we’ll stand over here, you stand over there and all our voters will play along with that – that’s unrealistic.
Nonetheless, she stops short of ruling out pursuing such a strategy in the future. Instead, she says it should only be considered in “very, very, very limited circumstances”.
This evaluation of past election campaigning bleeds into her evaluation of the party more generally, which she certainly doesn’t shy away from stepping into. She says the party has the potential to “be so much more than it is at the moment”. And although it’s “no small feat” to have built the party to where it is currently, she thinks it’s time for the party to “go mainstream”:
But to take that next step, and to go mainstream, to compete with the big two, as it were, we’re going to need to do something differently. More of the same isn’t going to get us there
Later, she argues that “one thing that the Green Party has not been very good at in general is in prioritising electoral success”. To this end, she wants to see the party adapt its ‘Target to Win’ strategy for local election campaigning to deliver success in parliamentary elections too:
I think if we apply that same process […] not that exact strategy, but the ideas behind it and develop a national strategy, then I think that we have the potential to start looking at taking more seats in parliament.
Inclusion as a priority
Sexton’s critique of the 2019 general election campaign doesn’t stop at strategy. She is also heavily critical of comments made by current party co-leader Jonathan Bartley during the campaign.
Speaking on when she first heard Bartley stating that he wanted to ban halal meat, she says she was “absolutely livid” and that she “hit the roof”. She goes on to say that racism must be called out “wherever it exists”:
we should be calling out racism wherever it exists, and when people say something that’s racist – whether or not it’s intended to be racist or not – we need to speak out about that.
Bartley issued a swift apology for his comments, which Sexton describes as “definitely appropriate”. She also makes clear she’s sympathetic to Bartley’s position, given that politicians often say “daft things under pressure”:
And to be clear, I don’t think Jonathan Bartley is islamophobic, I think it […] was the wrong thing to say – it was the wrong thing to say on a few different levels.
But at the same time, I’m quite sympathetic to politicians saying daft things under pressure because I’m sure I’m going to do that at some [point].
Throughout our interview, Sexton is consistent on having a firm stance on equality and discrimination. This is the case regarding her attitude towards the small number of members seeking to overturn the Green Party’s inclusive policies on trans rights.
Early in the leadership campaign, she tweeted her support for existing party policy that “trans women are women, trans men are men and non binary identities are valid.” She is equally clear when we speak:
It’s something that I feel very strongly about. I want to see a Green Party where everyone who shares our values can find a home, and feels comfortable, and feels that they’re in their full selves.
And at the moment, I’m really sad to hear – actually – that that’s not the case for some people
She continues by saying that to identify the steps needed to tackle transphobia, “really we need to hear that from trans people themselves”, and explaining her view that championing rights is about championing rights for all:
What I won’t accept is that we have to trade off rights of one group against another. That’s not how it works. More rights for one group doesn’t mean fewer rights for someone else. It’s not pie!
With “inclusion” being one of the three issues Sexton has foregrounded in her campaign, this is perhaps unsurprising. What’s more surprising is her willingness to criticise where her fellow candidates stand on equalities issues. She describes having “misgivings” about how Bartley and Berry have handled equalities in the past. She also argues that some things fellow candidate Shahrar Ali has said during the campaign have been “indefensible”, claiming his campaign video contains “clear dogwhistles” and as a result he’s willing to “throw some groups under the bus to curry favour with others”.
The party can’t be a “lifestyle movement for white middle class hippies”
Ultimately though, Sexton’s focus on equalities goes well beyond internal disputes. For her, it’s central to shifting the perception of the party as being a “lifestyle movement for white middle class hippies”.
To achieve that, she wants to end the reputation the party has for being a “single issue party” and “being predominately concerned about the environment”. As she puts it:
the question is how does that come across to communities who are dealing with issues of poverty and inequality and discrimination on a daily basis?
And I think what you tend to find is that people who are in those situations who have immense challenges day to day are maybe less able to think about longer term problems like climate change.
And I know that climate change is something that’s urgent, that needs to be addressed right now. But for somebody who’s wondering how they’re going to put food on the table this week, thinking about what’s going to happen in twenty years because of climate change can seem like an awful long way off. So the way I see that is that we’ve got to get better at addressing people’s day to day concerns.
For Sexton this isn’t abstract. She is able to give concrete examples of how in Solihull Green councillors have been able to raise issues regarding the racialised impact of COVID-19, discrimination in housing and police racism. Doing so, she asks “I wonder whether those questions would have been raised had we not been in the room?”, and argues that the party must “reflect the needs and concerns” of people in marginalised and deprived communities.
Six weeks to win over the party
Finding ways to message Green policies and values that speak to people’s “day to day concerns” might be a key question for the Green Party’s future electoral success. But the key question for Sexton’s internal election success is whether she can effectively speak to what members are concerned about with regards to the future of the party.
And while there’s stacks of momentum in her corner, her real challenge will be not only to tell members what needs to be done, but to show them how she’ll do it. With just over six weeks to go in the leadership contest, it will be an uphill struggle. But whatever happens at the end of August, it’s clear that Sexton has already made quite an impact on the party. And its clear that as a result of this she will remain a powerful voice long into the future.
This is the first in a series of interviews with the candidates for the leadership of the Green Party. In addition to these interviews, we are hosting a hustings for candidates on July 27 at 6.30pm. You can register for the event here.
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