Typical. I sign off for a couple of weeks to sort out a move to a new home and two blog-worthy Green news items crop up. I’m going to tackle them in reverse order, because the latter informs what I planned to say about the former.
Caroline Lucas has announced her intention not to stand again
in this year’s elections for Party Leader of the Greens. Her reasons are sound: making space for another heavyweight voice to emerge from within the party and to take her responsibilities as MP seriously. Like most other party members, my first reaction when I heard the news late on Sunday night was a sharp intake of breath, but I’d agree with the sentiment of Jim Jepps’ piece for Liberal Conspiracy, that this is good news for the Green Party’s future prospects if we take the challenge it sets us seriously enough.
It won’t be easy to replace Caroline Lucas. Identifying someone amongst our membership with sufficient political nous, ability to connect with the electorate and an almost ruthless charm will be tough. For prospective candidates, the post-Lucas leadership has been something viewed very much in the abstract, potentially five years off and as a result, not something a lot of people will have given serious thought to. Yet one of the enduring (and exciting) elements of political life is change and evolution and one we need as members to grab by the hands and make the most of in the coming months.
Caroline Lucas has achieved extraordinary things during her four years as leader. We now have Parliamentary representation, more regular media exposure, control of a local council and in the last fortnight, have become the third party in London. Alongside the day-to-day efforts of local activists, she can take a share of responsibility for bridging that credibility threshold amongst the electorate and will remain a crucial part of our political offer to voters.
However, there are elements to the Leader and Deputy Leader roles that have not been tackled quite so successfully in the last four years. It will be essential for the Party to make progress upon these:
- Building up the next generation of political leadership. Paradoxically, Caroline’s decision to step aside achieved exactly this aim, but we need an institutional commitment of time and resources to invest in people within the Greens. Small steps, such as the exciting mentorship programme that Young Greens have launched this year, are a step in the right direction, but we need our Leader to identify, inspire and invest in aspiring politicians to be snapping at her/his heels, from across the whole of England and Wales.
- Transforming the equalities and diversity agenda within the party. Whilst having female leadership at the highest level of the party has been an inspiring counterpoint to all other political parties, it will be crucial going forward to reflect and appeal to the realities of British communities in 2012. This means talking the language of aspirational, poorer struggling people, talking directly to the particular priorities of minority groups and broadening coalition-building with community groups outside the green bubble. This means using different and accessible language, as well as fresh modes of communication with the electorate.
- Strengthening our organisation and boosting fund-raising. One of the successes of the Lucas era has been our ability to achieve amazing results on a shoestring. The low level of income the Greens enjoy has resulted in innovative and fleet-footed campaigning, but local parties need much more central support than we are currently able to muster. The new Leader should use their position to think strategically about the resources needed to make concrete gains outside the south-east and London regions and undertake their fair share of the heavy lifting to secure resources to achieve this.
- Tackling the shallowness of our electoral support. Where we have had successes across the country, it has been primarily in those spaces where proportional representation allows us opportunities to progress, such as the London Assembly and European Parliament. Whilst we may be critical of the current electoral system, we should be looking at hard at why we can’t muster the concentrated support to deliver more Council seats and Members of Parliament.
- Renewing the Greens commitment to democracy. Caroline has had an enormous amount of success in putting across a fresh way of doing politics to the outside world and we need someone capable of inspiring voters to expect more from their politicians. But behind our laudable aspirations, internal democracy and accountability within the Green Party is creaking, and debates are needed urgently around issues such Party Spokespeople and local party autonomy
As you might suspect, I’m hoping that the election for both of these roles is fought quite fiercely upon the strategies each candidate will put into action should they be elected. Sometimes within the Green Party, it does feel that the successful candidate is the one who puts their name forward and is elected unopposed, rather than someone who has been tested in the harsh public area to explain why they are uniquely qualified to hold the position. This should not be about promoting the individual who appears next in line.
I want a leadership team who can live up to the inspiring example of Caroline Lucas, but who can see where her laudable record is a foundational building block to expand upon rather than the end of the story. Who see this as an opportunity to have their political perspective sharpened and deepened by the process, rather than viewing this election as a painful hurdle to overcome. Who are willing to step forward and make themselves available to members in the coming months so their views are exposed to the cold light of serious scrutiny.
The coming months also hold a generational opportunity for the Greens as a party to decide what our guiding political principals are to be for the next few years – should we concentrate even more fully upon social justice and fighting inequality, or should our environmental credentials remain as prominent as they always have? How do we challenge ourselves to dig deeper into bread and butter policy issues, so that we build credibility? How are we to become more imbedded in the communities we seek to serve? In the last few years, the political differences amongst Green members have become more visible. I want to hear how our new Leadership team will knit these (sometimes opposing) philosophies together coherently, whilst broadening our appeal to those voters warm to our ideas, but put off by our rhetoric.
An enormous amount to ask? Perhaps, but if we get the right people, I’m certain my love affair with the Green Party will click up an inspiring notch.