The last week has seen the authority of the three main political parties battered from all directions. An incompetently spun budget, aimed mainly at the rich, coupled with the Cash for Cameron, granny-tax and pasty-gate media frenzy has fatally damaged Cameron’s project to detoxify the Conservative brand. The right-wing press has started to join the dots in painting a narrative of an out of touch elite and the myth of the sure-footed Tories has been finally punctured.
Since the final days of Gordon Brown’s government, the Opposition has tried fruitlessly to make the rich versus poor argument stick. The barely disguised glee emanating from Labour’s high command at these own-goals was short lived however, when the safe byelection seat of Bradford West was transformed into a 10,000 majority for George Galloway and the Respect Party. Overnight, the constituency changed from a ready-made photo call into a stinging rebuke to Ed Miliband’s leadership. I have a lot of sympathy with the view that this is a very particular local context, with political pressures in the constituency that won’t be replicated nationally. All the same, expectations on Miliband at the local and London Mayoral elections have steepened again.
Yet in a week where the failures of these two parties have dominated, I wanted to talk about the Liberal Democrats and what their current predicament says to the Greens. Almost overlooked in this week’s media scrum has been the fact that the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit in Bradford West. This election has been touted as the ultimate protest vote against the establishment, which has traditionally favoured them. As a junior partner in the government and a growing perception that their left-wing credentials are in tatters, they have slunk away from this contest humiliated. If voters needed their political journey underlined, they could listen to Jo Swinson MP on the BBC Westminster Hour refusing to be drawn on the civil liberties implications of government plans to monitor emails and social media. It is of no surprise that their vote hovers at a low level and protest votes migrate to even smaller parties. On the face of it, this could work in the favour of the Green Party.
Being the recipient of protest votes in an election has a great deal of appeal to many within the Green Party’s membership and has suited the Liberal Democrats well in the last twenty-five years or so. It allows you to be nimble politically, as when not holding power it is harder for others to point to contradictions between rhetoric and reality. Opponents and the media tend to either ignore you or only superficially question your political platform. The problem for me is that this level of support can only get you so far. Protest vote parties always fail to get more than 15 per cent in an election, as they soon hit a wall of credibility. The Green Party has recently scented the difficulty with this strategy with the local media onslaught in Brighton and Hove around our difficult budget-setting process. Colleagues there are currently embarking on a tough learning curve in the realities of holding power.
I understand that as a small party with few elected representatives, it is tempting to cling to the comfortable certainties of opposition and protest, as these can reap us quick wins. In the longer term however, we need to feel and project a confidence that we are a party capable of taking the reigns of power, transforming and uniting the country. Until we do, the public will always sense that we are playing at the margins. A simple point perhaps, but one that I fear we forget too often. We won’t attract the quality of members capable of making our programme a reality and contesting roles within the party or on the ballot paper. One of my readers recently agreed with a blog post where I argued for a sharpening of the Greens economic policies, arguing that we should be fiercer. I completely agree. Taking yourself seriously doesn’t have to mean being any less radical or visionary, but it does mean having the courage to challenge the party to expect more of itself and to confront our deficiencies head on. With unemployment rising, living standards dropping and climate change ignored, I know that indulging in the politics of protest isn’t good enough.