Why the ‘posh’ label sticks just as dangerously to Greens

Nadine Dorries got the soundbite of the week on the Daily Politics

Class is back in politics. Or at least that is what the media has been telling us, after an attack on the out-of-touch ‘posh boys’ David Cameron and George Osborne from backbench Tory MP Nadine Dorries this week.

Whilst Dorries remains a divisive and marginal figure, her attack has crystallised a view of the party leadership that has begun to resonate both within the Westminster village and in the broader public.  After several years of taking class out of contention as an issue in politics, the fiercely partisan recent budget and the reveal of improperly close relationships between business and the Tories has taken a toll. The public is increasingly less trusting of Cameron’s ability to appreciate and champion their problems.

Yet the pattern here isn’t anything new.  When times are prosperous, the background of those in charge has always remained broadly irrelevant to voters.  As the standard of living tightens and people either lose or become very focused upon job security, expectations always rise steeply that politicians feel and communicate that anxiety.

As an issue, it is something that threatens Greens too. In spite of the rapid transformation of the Greens into a force for social justice in the last few years, this change has not translated itself obviously amongst the outwardly facing frontbench of the party or the appearance of our priorities.

In part this is a result of our inability to invest time into creating a democratically-elected cadre of front-line politicians operating as a shadow cabinet. In our knee-jerk refusal to ape the existing parties, we have missed a trick in not having a representative face to the public. (It also goes without saying that we remain a muddy prospect for those approaching us with media enquiries)

Our existing elected leadership, whilst not anywhere in the same league as the millionaires littering the Cabinet, I’m afraid still does portray a very middle-class worldview, both in the manner and subject matter they choose to talk about. Much as Greens don’t like to admit it, the issues that exercise our members are still seen largely as to the side of the public’s political centre of gravity.

Here I will be blunt.  The Green Party has spent the last twenty plus years talking about environmentalism and sustainability, yet when we receive our pitifully small amount of media air time, never fail to run back to the safe embrace of these topics. Not only does it betray a lack of confidence in our platform outside familiar comfort zones, but it screams to the majority of voters that our priorities are miles away from those struggling in society.  Even when we try to link things like the Green New Deal and employment, it feels like we’re only tackling one small part of the employment issue.

At this stage, I think it’s safe to say we have cornered the electoral market on environmental issues. However, by not having them as an integral part of a broader political vision, this achievement is undone by the sense that these policies are a fantasy wish-list.  We need to shake off the view that Greens are the ultimate political dilettantes, because it is this that will ultimately alienate more completely than whether someone is too posh.

What should we be doing?

  • Putting pressure on the Green Party Executive to reform the Party Spokespeople selection process as a matter of urgency so that we start building a more diverse and rounded frontbench.
  • Engaging in the upcoming Leader and Deputy Leader elections in September to both apply pressure to existing post-holders and other candidates to respond to the needs of the struggling majority of voters and put their needs at the heart of the party.
  • Local parties and activists should be immersing themselves in campaign coalitions with community organisations that work upon bread and butter issues around job creation, standard of living and housing issues.
  • Challenge our elected politicians in the Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament and the Greater London Authority to make inequality their number one priority in campaign working for the foreseeable future

22 thoughts on “Why the ‘posh’ label sticks just as dangerously to Greens

  1. I agree, Ste! The single biggest problem about Greens is that the vast majority of people consider us to be an environmentalist pressure-group. Most people are only interested enough in politics to hold a few key notions in mind about each party — without a strong, very simple message that we are a left-of-centre alternative to Austerity Labour. Unfortunately, I fear that many *within* the Green party don’t get any of this…

  2. It’s a tough one. The truth is that people that enter politics do so because one issue or another gets them up in the morning and ignites their passions. For the Greens, a predominant one is the pressing climate crisis that no other party takes seriously. Unfortunately, we need to see which way the public’s mood is blowing and get on the same page before we can get into a position to do anything about either set of concerns!

  3. Totally agree Stephen. Many Greens are far too neglecting of big issues to everyday people. Lots of Greens do come across middle class, which when trying to sell our policies as socialist, makes life harder! Need to get a decent GPEx elected, get a decent, radical front bench of spokespeople, and shake this party up!

    • I do think the way forward is for us to become much more imbedded within community activism in our local areas, listening and reflecting the concerns of ordinary voters and putting our green spin on how to tackle their issues at the heart of our campaigns.

  4. By frontbench of spokespeople, I obviously mean get rid of these “spokespeople” and have a proper “shadow cabinet” type set up – how else will people learn the proper roles and respond to media more effectively?

  5. Dear Stephen. Thanks for your post. Bit generalised, no? Ck out my interview on http://www.barnetgreenparty.co.uk – where I big up equality, and don’t retreat comfortably to any cosy nostrums. I would counsel against rushing into big new raft of elected positions… Consider how hard it is to get all our current elected positions filled. Is there another solution to the problem? Lets talk about this, with pleasure. Happy to be lobbied. Yours, Poppy, co-chair of GPRC and candidate in the GLA elections

    • Poppy, many thanks for taking the time to comment, especially as I suspect you’re having a busy time of it right now! Generalisation? To a degree, yes – to make what I think is a valid point about how our sense of priorities get presented in the sliver of air time we currently receive. I looked at your interview and press pieces and I’m really heartened to see your focus on inequality and the danger of deep cuts. It will take time for these messages to break through into public consciousness, which is why I do feel those of our politicians who have a significant platform need to try their best to undercut the simplistic reportage of many in the media.

      On the issue of party spokespeople, for me it is a question of a democratic deficit. At the moment, we are unable even to find out from our website even who these people are, let alone how they were selected (and by whom) to take these roles for the party. As a result, we can’t make the best and build momentum around these policy areas, which is essential in building up profile for individuals to take electoral office and take pressure off those currently doing the heavy lifting, such as Caroline Lucas or Jean Lambert. Whilst there is an element of risk in opening these positions up to internal elections, I’d rather that than continue with appointed individuals speaking on behalf of the party without any member accountability. Plus, it could force us to sharpen up our policy lines across the board as we start shadowing politicians from other parties, holding them to account more for their actions.

      Likewise though, happy to talk more to find a common way of approaching this issue!

  6. Great piece, it’s something I’ve been thinking about as a Green Party member for a long time, and I think it comes down to our name. People only know us as an environmentalist party because that is only what our name suggests (as well as the issue you raised of our language in press coverage). Something like ‘Social Greens’ or ‘Green Democrats’ would be a step forward.

    Also I think working-class representation has to be brought into the diversity (Shan Oakes’) portfolio – i.e. encouraging working-class people to stand, to feature in broadcasts and for working-class issues to be prominent in leaflets and membership materials. I’d say I come from a working-class background but it takes a lot trying to persuade people on my parent’s council estate to vote Green because environmentalism is not high on ordinary people’s agenda. Social issues, first and foremost, should be our main concern. We have excellent policies on jobs, taxation and inequality but we need to get them across at every opportunity.

    • Appreciate your supportive words, Josiah. It is true, our name itself highlights and underscores our environmental credentials, which is another reason why I feel we can risk not putting it front and centre in how we communicate more.

      On the working class issue, I have mixed feelings about being so explicit about ‘working class representation’. I am from a very working class background, but it is something anyone in my family or social circle back home ever labelled ourselves as. We are British citizens, no different from anyone else. I think Greens have broadly the right policies on social justice, reducing inequality, sustainable jobs and taxation – but it is how we communicate these that is problematic. Our language can be technical, Guardian-reader friendly and therefore elitist. It’s a simple lesson, but we need our politicians and spokespeople to talk more as if they are having an ordinary conversation with people. For all his faults (believe me), Tony Blair had an ability to cut through and speak easily with people from all backgrounds and political persuasions.

      • Green Local Democrats. Sums up everything, and doesn’t include the word “social” (which means nothing) or “socialist” (which switches some people off if they’re more centre-left than left).

        Of course the words “local” and “democrat” are used by the Coalition partners, so this might not work…and arguably wouldn’t change our standing at all.

        Maybe just “New Democrats” – it worked for this bunch: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Democratic_Party – pretty see-through attempt to get Lib Dem voters to relocate, though…

  7. Pingback: Why the ‘posh’ label sticks just as dangerously to Greens | Bright Green

  8. Just read the Bright Green post and then this one, then posted this on facebook. Take it or leave it:
    ‘It’s also about Green Party activists acknowledging their white and class privilege and countering that. None of the solutions offered here https://stephenwooduk.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/why-the-posh-label-sticks-just-as-dangerously-to-greens/ consist of 1) actively recruiting & retaining members that would not be white middle class 2) training for green activists on how to engage those of not posh background 3) having an audit within the Green party on how it engages those who are not of posh white male background into its internal committees and to stand to be cllrs in target wards, etc… and maybe set up as special panel within the Green Party to monitor and assess how the party is doing on all of the above. THEN the party will be taking the issues and dealing with them seriously’

    • To be fair Manishta, I was highlighting the issue in a short pithy blog, to kick off the discussion, rather than finish it completely. 😉 I’ve really excited at the level of response it has received, which I hope indicates to you that there are enough of us in the party keen to change this state of affairs.

      I do agree, however, that we need to structurally make a step change within the party to recognise the problems of inclusion and bring fresh, diverse voices into the debate. It’s a catch 22 situation – the way we currently talk and communicate (see my response above to Josiah) means that we are a less attractive proposition to working people or ethnic minority voters, because we don’t resonate. As a result, they aren’t coming to the party in sufficient numbers to start that evolution. That’s why my biggest two hopes would be for us to change our outwardly-facing communication to show the wider public that we consist more of the usual faces – and that we invest our energies not just in cultivating local communities, but becoming part of their struggles because we believe in them and what they are trying to achieve away from party political campaigning.

      • Prioritising on communication from my perspective is too much a marketing tool. Other political parties do that but they don’t change internally – It’s still the privilege white male leading politics forward. Not to say of a certain age – over 30/35 year olds. Also another point is – strategy-wise, taking class issue seriously is good but it’s should not be exclusive of taking equality issues seriously too. For example, the Greens are not brilliant on the recruitment of those from black & ethnic minority groups and having those members to engage with it.

  9. Take a look at the approach Steven Agnew MLA takes in Northern Ireland. In the smaller party televised debate and elsewhere he makes clear how the Green Party is not a one-issue party (and much less so than the DUP or Sinn Fein). The NI Green New Deal started from unemployment and the economy, got the backing of the CBI and the trade unions, and is not seen as a purely environmental issue – partly because the Green Party in the Republic of Ireland had implemented legislation along those lines before that coalition collapsed.

  10. Pingback: What we need from the post-Lucas Green political leadership | Stephen Wood

  11. Like the blog, think the Greens need to be a radical left alternative to labour, can we stop talking about recycling and 20 mph speed limits?

    • Appreciate the kind words, Joe. And whilst I’m still firmly behind recycling and 20mph speed limits, you’ve probably guessed from reading my blog that I favour us focussing upon a green-tinged analysis of core voter issues such as jobs, housing and transport.

  12. Pingback: A question of credibility: building the Green economic case | Stephen Wood

  13. Pingback: The emergence of New Wave Greens from the wreckage of ‘Pleb-gate’ class politics | Stephen Wood

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