Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley announced at the start of June 1016 that they will be standing for the next Green Party leaders in a co-leadership capacity:
It might be imagined that it will be more a coronation than an election. That is a pity since there are several problems here. I do not know anything about Jonathan Bartlett but that is more a reflection on my shortcomings than his. I am sure he is an able and committed activist. I cannot but be biased towards someone who plays in a blues band!
Problem number one is whether such a joint candidature reinforces the London-centric nature of much of what happens within leading circles of the Green Party. To be sure there is a need for a Westminster operation and for media work in London [I am distinguishing ‘Planet London’, so separate from the rest of the country, from the mass of communities within the geographical area under the umbrella of ‘London’]. Yet things are changing and should change a lot more. Already, the BBC has relocated to Manchester and the days of many London-based print newspapers seem to be numbered. On-line editions can, of course, be targeted from anywhere in the country.
Amongst the general public, there is understandable resentment about the number of decisions made at national level that seem only to serve London’s interests. The Green Party should be doing what it can to break from such distortions in the country’s life and be pointing, both in its propaganda and its own structures, to a society based on on much more balanced regions.
Presumably a dual candidature is designed to enable Caroline Lucas to continue her excellent work in parliament without too much distraction. Yet she might have picked a fellow candidate from the regions. There is also a need in the media glare for individuals who can demonstrate a real grasp of practicalities and how to effect positive change in localities.
Caroline is of course a great speaker. I guess her performances on programmes such as ‘Question Time’ have won many new members and generally enhanced the party’s standing. But such proselytising needs to be buttressed by evidence that we can effectively use the levers of power at all levels of society. Hopefully there may be new deputy leaders who will embody such experience and knowledge.
Problem two is the lack of discussion likely as a result of a possible ‘shoo-in’. For a start, there are many difficult issues to face in terms of policy. In the last General Election, for example, the party put forward a Manifesto that talked of the unsustainability of 3-planet economy. Yet the costing of its programme assumed continued economic growth ie a ‘3+ planet’ economy. More generally, there is clearly a lot to be done to clarify and project the distinctive and pertinent nature of Green values and policies.
Similarly difficult problems applies to party structure. There is, for example, the threat from the ‘intersectionality’ tribes, who seek to turn the party into a series of silos into which everyone will be separated on the basis of ‘identity’. There are also serious challenges concerning party membership, not least the the danger of the ‘green surge’ becoming a ‘green drain’ due to the scale of non-renewals.
More generally, there is the very low level of engagement amongst those who stay members [I guess that in many local parties seldom more than 5% are engaged in any reliable and on-going manner]. For a party that talks a great deal about ’empowerment’, there is a great deal of disengagement and thus disempowerment. Of course, many organisations across society now suffer from such problems but they still deserve a serious airing, something that a real leadership election debate might have furnished.
But there are deeper questions about this candidature. A strategy of ‘progressive alliances’, it would appear, may be foisted on the party without full discussion. [I am referring to broad alliances, not short-term joint work for very specific goals eg electoral reform, with clear ‘red lines’ set beforehand for negotiating positions] The ‘progressive alliance’ strategy is also being pushed by others such as Rupert Read yet it is shot through with problems of both principle and practicality. The behaviour of the Labour and Scottish National parties in the last elections showed some of them, not least in their efforts to push out the Green Party. It is clear that all the other parties simply do not get how global overwarming, to use Naomi Klein’s words, “changes everything”. One of the first things that the new Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan did was to back Heathrow airport expansion. The SNP is desperate to boost fossil fuel production. Such problems are repeated across the policy spectrum.
There are grounds for some circumspection about the directions Lucas (and Bartley?) will want to take the party in terms of political positioning, strategy and campaigning priorities. In recent years, the party’s focus has very much been on the so-called ‘anti-austerity’ movement’. Caroline Lucas enthusiastically endorsed the ‘2012 People’s Assembly Against Austerity alongside various left-wing luminaries (http://www.compassonline.org.uk/.
Difficult questions about how an end to government-imposed austerity could be reconciled with the deep cuts necessary to avoid disastrous climate change and more generally live well within the planet’s ‘means’ were just dumped on one side, apart from rhetorical flourishes about ‘environmental limits’ in the manner of now ex-leader Natalie Bennett. [Compare material on the Green Party’s national website with studies such as http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/counting_consumption.pdf ] It might be noted that the only country to date to come close the (modest) IPCC targets for carbon emission reductions was Russia during the period of austerity after the collapse of Communism. [See also on the scale of the challenge and the impossibility of maintaining anything like the dominant lifestyle in countries such as the UK: http://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/IPCCRE.html]
There is indeed an extremely strong case against the sheer unfairness of government policies and the way the economic situation is being used to drive forward a programme of privatisation and enriching the already super-rich. But the fact that the UK needs the equivalent of 3 planets to support it must be addressed squarely (http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=1222 ) Glib slogans about no cutbacks scarcely help.
One cost of such one-sided focus is that the party has had little to say and, generally, done little in practice about the tide of destructive development sweeping across the country under the auspices of the National Planning Policy Framework. At a national level many of its statements on matters such as climate change have been lacklustre. It failed to take advantage of the flooding crisis (compare to the excellent campaign waged by George Monbiot and others for an ecological rehabilitation of the uplands, ‘rewilding’, to reduce such risks whilst enhancing biodiversity).
Caroline Lucas has also been very forthright in positioning the Green Party on the left-wing end of the old spectrum (as opposed to the original slogan “neither left nor right but ahead”). Thus on the BBC’s Question Time programme (13/0310), she said, ‘Well, we have socialist principles’.
But the nature of that ‘socialism’ is seldom given any concrete meaning by her. She does not address the real history of ‘actually existed’ socialism nor what many of its theorists have argued. A very large number of regimes and political leaders who have called themselves ‘socialist ‘ have trashed environmental systems and human communities with neither restraint nor remorse. Socialism as a theory has been overwhelmingly cornucopian, centralist, and enthusiastic for the “white heat of technology”. Only in one or two corners of this whole tradition has there been recognition of the intrinsic value of non-human nature and of the need for a human scale in social affairs.
But, instead of serious debate about such matters and their meaning for future direction of the Green Party, there is just loose talk about ‘progressive politics’. Caroline Lucas is a quite remarkable person. She possesses real charisma and overall has served the Green Party well. Yet it may pay to be not to starry-eyed about her future impact as co-leader on the party. Indeed many of its most serious problems are ticking away in other parts of its structures.