5 takeaways from the Green Party’s spring conference
On 11-12 March, members of the Green Party of England and Wales gathered in Birmingham for their spring conference. The event – a more stripped back affair than usual – saw the party discuss, debate and vote on key planks of its policy platform.
Prior to conference, I wrote about five of the big things to look out for. Now, with it having taken place, here are the big five takeaways.
1. Higher ups are increasingly confident about electoral success
May 2023 will see the Green Party face its biggest electoral challenge to date. In 2019, the Greens doubled their representation in local councils overnight. That unprecedented electoral success has been followed by more modest but nonetheless impressive successes in 2021 and 2022. However, this year, it means that the Greens are defending more Council seats than at any point in their history.
Still, the noise coming out of the party leadership and from other prominent Greens is that there is an expectation of significant gains in this May’s elections. In her speech to conference, co-leader Carla Denyer told attendees that they were on track to gain 100 more Councillors. An impressive feat in a normal year, if this comes off the Greens will demonstrate that they are not only capable of massive advances in local elections, but also of defending those gains too.
It’s not just local elections though. There is a growing sense of excitement about general election prospects too. I interviewed Denyer at conference for Left Foot Forward about the general election campaign in Bristol. Asked whether she would be the Green Party’s first ever MP in Bristol, she didn’t go in for expectation management, she simply answered “yes”.
Bristol isn’t the only place where prominent Greens are optimistic about their prospects. The Tory held seat of North Herefordshire is also high up on the list. The Greens’ candidate Ellie Chowns opened conference and talked up the party’s chances. She said there was a “fantastic opportunity” for the Greens to take the seat.
It remains unclear whether these claims about potential electoral success are well founded confidence or hubris. The first test of that will come in less than two months’ time when millions of people go to the polls in local elections. What happens then will give some indication as to the reliability of the party’s claims about parliamentary elections too.
2. Governance disputes have subsided
For almost a full decade, many Green Party conferences have been dominated by rows and wranglings about internal governance issues. We’ve had a governance review, a holistic review, a referendum, countless hours of conference time and much more besides. Still, the same core structure established thirty years ago when the party had around 5,000 members has remained intact. So protracted have attempts to fix the party’s antiquated structures been that in 2021, the party hosted a bespoke conference dedicated solely to rewriting its constitution. In a twist as thrilling as the issues set to be debated, that constitutional conference had to be called off as there were too few members present for it to be quorate.
At this year’s spring conference, these rows didn’t make it to the fore. Yes, the most painful and uninspiring moments of the debate came in the dreaded “D Motions” section – the part of the conference dedicated to organisational matters. But the conversations were largely civil, and the matters discussed were mostly small efforts to tidy up some of the party’s rules. Motions which sought to radically alter the party’s structures fell off the agenda because they weren’t prioritised by members. Clearly, there isn’t an appetite among the membership to spend more time bogged down with in-depth constitutional discussions.
While members no doubt relished the fact that conference wasn’t tied up with long debates on the constitution, this does pose something of a challenge. The party’s core governance structures are anachronistic and there is a consensus that they are no longer fit for purpose. With governance reform fatigue seemingly set in, how the party moves beyond these broken structures is an unanswered question.
3. Trans rights culture wars are no longer dominating
Why have one internal row when you can have two? Members of the Greens haven’t only been spending an inordinate amount of time discussing governance issues. They’ve also been at each others throats about trans rights.
For those unfamiliar with this particular conflict, it has now been rumbling on within the party for almost as long as the governance disputes. In 2019 I wrote about how continuing to retread so called ‘debates’ about trans rights was an impediment to the party’s cohesion and success. We were already well into the now familiar territory by then, and tensions became even more heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic, bubbling into crescendo during the 2020 and 2021 leadership elections, as well as last year’s deputy leadership contest.
It would also tend to feature in major policy debates at Green Party conference. At the 2021 spring conference – which was held online due to Covid restrictions – two separate motions were the flashpoints, and the votes on these were uncomfortably close.
Fast forward to spring conference 2023, and we find ourselves in a very different situation. Yes, there was a deeply unpleasant motion submitted which sought to get the party to cease its involvement with Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme – a scheme which supports best practice in the workplace for LGBTIQA+ staff. But that motion wasn’t debated, and even with new rules which give higher priority to motions which have been submitted to previous conferences, members still deprioritised it sufficiently that conference ran out of time long before it would have been discussed.
Similarly, a motion on removing barriers to fertility treatment would once have been vociferously attacked and campaigned against by the party’s small contingent of anti-trans members. At this conference, it passed overwhelmingly, with half-hearted arguments made against it.
This is indicative of progress. It’s indicative of movement in the right direction. While most of the media and the right’s continued attempts to whip up a moral panic about trans people and to use them as ammunition in a culture war intensify, the Green Party is now beginning to emerge on the other side of that war. Transphobia hasn’t been eradicated from the party yet – far from it. There is much work still to be done. But it is nonetheless clear that its pernicious influence on the Green Party is beginning to recede. A stronger, more inclusive party will emerge on the other side.
4. How the party rewrites entire policy chapters needs looking at
The biggest shift in policy at this year’s spring conference came on defence. An extensive rewrite of the Green Party’s policies on peace, security and defence saw substantial changes in a number of areas. The one which has triggered the most significant controversy has been the change to the party’s position on NATO.
Much of this controversy has happened after the policy was already voted on. Some party members have argued that this has been triggered by the framing of my coverage of the policy on Bright Green and Left Foot Forward. Often, these people have claimed that suggesting the party no longer opposes NATO is a misinterpretation of the policy itself.
As an aside, this partially appears to be down to the new position seeming to act as ‘Schrödinger’s policy’. Some who are opposed to NATO argue that the policy sets impossible demands on the military alliance that would inevitably lead to a theoretical Green government leaving it. Meanwhile, those who support Britain’s continued membership of NATO believe the new policy is clear in that the Greens no longer support withdrawal. These varied interpretations are a symptom of the compromise or fudge that lies behind the policy.
But that’s only part of the problem. The bigger problem seems to be that huge numbers of members – including those who are reasonably well engaged with the party’s national decision making processes – were unaware that this issue was being debated at all. One take on that is that the Greens have long suffered limited engagement with policy development in the party, or indeed wider democratic processes. That is undoubtedly true – turnout in leadership elections is astonishingly low. The proportion of the membership attending party conferences is similarly low, with even fewer being involved in the nitty gritty of policy writing.
Nevertheless, I think there’s something specific about the way the NATO policy changed. Coming in as part of a much bigger rewrite of the entire peace, security and defence policy chapter, this shift happened somewhat under the radar. Members wanting to get a grip on the changes within this chapter would have to read the thousands of words in the new policy and compare this to the thousands of words in the old policy. After comparing the chapters line by line, you then need to go through the amendments process in order to remove anything from the new proposals that you disagree with.
We’ve had this problem before. After a major rewrite of the party’s tax and fiscal policies, significant concerns were raised by members about the removal of some taxes on wealth and financial transactions from the policy platform. There followed a messy scramble two years after the initial rewrite happened, in order to put these back into the policy book.
Clearly there’s a problem with this mechanism for changing policy. There aren’t easy answers. The sheer volume of policy the Greens have means that amending it piecemeal through individual motions isn’t sufficient. Doing it that way would mean that vast swathes would be perpetually out of date.
But to avoid this kind of situation happening again and again in the future, something needs to change. That could be work from motion proposers, Policy Development Committee or Standing Orders Committee to more clearly lay out the key difference between old policy chapters and the proposed rewrites. It could be that votes on policy chapters are broken down into smaller sections, so people can choose to more easily accept or reject smaller chunks of policy without having to go through the amendments process. And it could be people like me doing more to cover the details of these big policy chapters. Maybe it’s all of these, maybe it’s none. Either way, there’s a kink in this process that needs ironing out.
5. We need more time at conference, not less
At the start of this piece, I noted that this year’s spring conference was a stripped back affair. Taking place over just two days, set piece speeches from leadership figures were largely absent, as were the fringes where often the most interesting conversations happen. While this was anomalous, it is nonetheless part of a longer term trend of slimming down the party’s key decision making event.
A decade ago, conferences took place across four days. At times that would feel a little unwieldy, and now that a chunk of conference business has moved online (the workshops on motions that occur before debate at plenary), there is an argument that a longer event would be unnecessary.
But still, this year’s spring conference only got through a third of the motions submitted. That’s even as the conference was substantially more efficient at getting through business than other recent events. Yes, the party has a mechanism where members can prioritise the motions which they most want to see debated. But even with this, there are still huge portions of policy that never get debated and ineffective processes that never get reformed.
Without more time at conferences in the future, this problem will continue, leaving the party stuck with outdated policies and structures that aren’t fit for purpose. It’s more time that’s needed at conference, not less.
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