Caroline Lucas is stepping down as Green Party leader. The news is awash with it, and the skeptics are out: Can anyone replace such a prominent and popular leader? Who will take the party forward? Is Caroline acting in haste?
A good leader in British politics, in my experience, is not a nice leader. They have to have experience in governance, be ruthless in achieving their agenda, and stay the hell away from internal party politics. But more important that any of that, they need to be charismatic.
The next leader will to need to analyse the previous couple of elections. They will need to stitch together a party that is beginning to fall apart at its seams. Their focus will have to be on internal reform, to develop of a co-ordinated media campaign, and to create a clear political strategy on where the party is heading.
A bit of background: the recent local elections
The switch between Labour/Tory isn’t just a swing of discontent. Most people remember Labour failing them under Blair and Brown, and they’re not blind to Miliband’s incompetencies. So Labour gains of 30% are not reactionary – they’re procedural. Labour gains send a huge message to the Coalition; they state very clearly that if circumstances don’t change, the next general election will bring back the opposition – Labour. And with the Liberal Democrats nosediving towards a rather sticky end, we (the Greens) should have been able to have stolen some old Yellow ground.
This is construct the Greens need to break if they want to gain local strengths. Beyond just being a good local councillor, people need to believe that they can represent a real threat to the other three major parties. There is a way to do this, but it will take the Green Party a lot of challenges and shake-ups if they want to achieve it.
These are the 3 simple ways I think the leader will need to take if they want the Green Party to grow.
1. Sell the Green Soul
What does being Green stand for? What is it in opposition to?
These are the questions we need to ask ourselves if we want to win elections. It’s very clear to us that we’re no longer a party of (only) hugging trees and tie-dye shirts. But it’s not clear to the public. Why? Simply because we’re not sure what we stand for either.
All successful parties are entrenched in a political vision – a myth of what/who they represent. For Labour, it is a workers utopia – the party of unions and the downtrodden of society – and despite their shift to liberalism, are still seen as the only party for the lower middle and working classes. For the Conservatives, that was wealth owners and those in their service – keeping “Englishness” and the ‘civilised’ class-based society that Britain long sought to sell to the world. For the Liberal Democrats, it is small businesses, students and humanism – the modern party fighting for modern issues.
This is where the Greens have failed to connect the public. We need to dispel the myth that the Greens are a niche party for hippies, environmentalists and peaceniks alike, and show that our environmental goals are deeply entrenched in economic and social reform. Instead of bobbling bar graphs and discussions about wind-farms, our marketing has to show our true policy colours – through stopping cuts, standing up for refugee and immigrants’ rights, improving well-being for everyone, challenging inequality, etc.
These policies are the soul of the Greens. We need to show that we care about everyone, and we’re not just a single issue party.
Take this video from an Australian TV program during the 2010 elections. Although not commissioned by the Greens themselves, it was possibly one of the best campaign videos I have seen. Why? Because it brings the viewer to emotionally connect with the Green Party. It visually expresses the true Green Party vision – a better world for everyone.
2. Actions speak louder than words
People don’t just vote for a party based on who they think will most likely be most sensible in government. The recent results of the Mayoral Elections is a clear indication of that. Boris Johnson has won his election through being a figure of hilarity – a stumbling confused buffoon. Whether he actually fits that character is, of course, open to debate – but the use of the British love of black humour was an excellent campaign tactic.
It would lie within the ethics of the Green Party to use such manipulative tactics to win an election, thankfully. But that doesn’t mean that there are not other legitimate ways of becoming a crowd-pleasing party.
Firstly, the Greens need a real political strategy. When Mélenchon formed the Parti de Gauche his main tactic was to gain the support of the people that the Socialistes had left behind. Observing the lack of proper union negotiations and the interest in revolutionary activism by the French people, his party’s policies have already reflected those he claims to represent. It was the working classes, the youth and people of colour that Mélenchon has holding his banner. And he has done so through public discussion, activism and outreach – all of which the Greens have continually failed on.
To champion the left, we need to recognise that the Greens are not an off the spectrum party. We are not the Liberal Democrats, where the swing from left to right is so simple. We are a left-wing party and we do represent the people politics has forgotten.
Instead of focussing all our efforts on the middle classes, we need to start getting into negotiations with small unions, with university students, with people of colour, with the long-term unemployed, with the poorest in society. We need to shout out our claims for more equal pay and a higher minimum wage – organise demonstrations, speak in public forums, and, most importantly, take action.
Everyone believes that all politicians lie, so they need to know that the Greens will not let them down. And the only way we can show them that is by taking action. We need to campaign on increasing the minimum wage, on tenants’ rights over landlords, and on the right to a fair trial – through legal aid and financial support, especially for refugees.
3. Be Oppositional!
I submit, therefore, that you do not have full political democracy, let alone the economic as well as political democracy for which my party stands, unless you include along with the ingredients that are taken for granted, such as universal suffrage, the secret ballot and majority rule, a full and unquestioned recognition of the rights and functions of the opposition to the government of the day. Only in this way can you protect the rights of minorities; only in this way can you make sure that the force of public opinion will be brought to bear on the legislative process, and we are indeed fortunate in Canada to have inherited from the United Kingdom a parliamentary system of government, the genius of which is the responsibility of the government to a parliament in which the rights of those who support the government and likewise the rights of those who oppose it are clearly recognized.
– Stanley Knowles, “The Role of the Opposition in Parliament,” Address to the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, 21 March 1957.
The fact is, currently, there is no way that the Green Party is going to get magically voted into power. Our strategy has to be to increase votes & memberships, not (entirely) win elections. The guide to gaining power is a path, not a leap of faith. And to do so, we need a new set of tactics.
As a minority party in a two-party system, we’re bound to remain in Opposition. So, why not use that to our advantage? We know that the two major parties are gutless, due to their connections with corporate power and other media and interest groups. So, let the two* major parties to argue out their childish battle:
“Well it’s Labour’s fault that the treasury is empty…”
“But it’s the Tories fault that Murdoch has so much power!”
And in the meanwhile, we make a fuss about the real issues: jobs, investments, fair pay, open spaces, lower rents, tenants rights, etc. All the stuff the community actually cares about. And we don’t need the mainstream media to make it happen, we need to become organised and shout out about it! Social media, blogging, comments for newspapers – everyone wants someone to write for them – so we sell it to them by offering our views for free.
Ultimately: more noise = more members = more funding = more organisation and tactics = more noise = … all the way to = wins elections.
Our current system is not representational, but it does have an oppositional role. So why aren’t we exploiting it?
*[Note: the Lib Dems are now equivalent to the Tories, thanks to a certain Mr Clegg]