Great effort, but no bounce: why Greens flunked the party conference test


Far from the maddening political crowd…

Whilst the politics junkie me reveled as ever in the level of coverage given to the party conference season, I must confess that this year I’ve found it strangely frustrating. Not the prospect of listening to the rapturous applause greeting the self-serving hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from the three major parties (this is a given), but disappointment at how the Greens have responded to this crucial element of the political calendar.

First things first.  The Greens had a comparatively strong conference this year.  The prospect of Caroline Lucas stepping down had the potential to draw away even the scant media coverage we receive, but the mature manner of her departure and a strong performance from Natalie Bennett in the national press during those important first few days of her leadership was encouraging. There is a unity amongst our activist base that other party leaders would kill for.

Yet politics is interactive.  As much as each party conference is an opportunity for opinion-formers in the media to comment and challenge the new policies and visions floated by politicians, this is also the ideal space for Greens to hold opposition parties to account and to try and hijack dominant narratives with a more progressive roadmap for England and Wales. This isn’t easily achieved, even more so for a party who is used to a cold shoulder from the media, but this is the only time in the year we come even close to being treated with parity. Unfortunately, my perception is that it feels like we packed up after Bristol and left the other parties to slug it out for the last three weeks.

Of course, political success is built all year round, house by house, voter by voter.  But we mustn’t underestimate that the headlines of party conference season do filter through to even the uninterested citizen.  Ed Miliband’s new-found credibility as a potential Prime Minister, the right to ‘batter burglars’ and Boris-mania will continue to pick up steam in the public consciousness as we roll into the new parliamentary term.

I’m not suggesting that our Leadership has been silent in the last few weeks, but concentrating on GM foods, land use, nuclear power and visiting local Green parties (important though they undoubtedly are) send the wrong sort of message to the electorate about our priorities.  Where is our plan to reduce the deficit? Where is our growth strategy, beyond investing in more green jobs? These issues are the only game in town right now and I had hoped we would be hammering our positions on these home at every opportunity, rather than spreading our energies thinly across familiar political comfort zones.

Our response to Chancellor George Osbourne’s speech on Monday on our national website reads more like a conversational blog Q&A rather than a costed, professional riposte to his economically-illiterate partisan rallying call to the Tory faithful.  I’d recommend taking a look.  It reasonably points out the flaws in a number of his announcements, but responds to them with a fantasy wish list of un-costed promises instead. I’m a fervent Green supporter who would cheer every idea, but after the fifth expensive pledge, I couldn’t take our ability to afford it seriously.  Consider this alongside the ways in which the Conservatives are making hay out of Labour’s perceived spendthrift record and how damaging that perception remains with the electorate.  Do we think as a smaller party, we aren’t having our financial probity queried by voters just as rigorously?

It feels like I’m being incredibly tough on the hard working colleagues who endeavoured to make our party conference and leadership launch a success. I’m not – I was impressed as ever with our event in Bristol and the media attention we gained, but I think that in future we need to put together a strategy for the whole party conference season, not just the four days we meet together.  This means a responsive political strategy towards each of our competitors, to ensure we have a well-thought out line to any of the positions they seek to take at conference season. Perhaps we need to programme in some policy announcements to wrestle headlines in our direction whilst other parties are meeting too.

Other political parties do not politely vacate the public stage whilst others take their turn. It isn’t just enough to turn up to the conference season, we need to be aggressively elbowing our way forward to make the news over this month, so by mid-October, our platform is the most relevant to voters.

Previous blog posts on Green leadership:


20 thoughts on “Great effort, but no bounce: why Greens flunked the party conference test

  1. I don’t disagree entirely and came mainly to comment on the title but it’s worth considering that, on the whole, its the press who let the parties slug it out in turn. Reports of Miliband’s major speech, or Cameron’s are basically reported without responses from the other parties – only analysis from the journalists. Miliband gets precious little coverage during Lib Dem or Tory conferences so it’s good to keep in mind that *no-one* is getting the space that you’re disappointed the Greens aren’t getting.

    Having said that I thought the response to Osborne’s speech was amateurish, as you imply.

    Anyway – the headline. The Green Party, in possibly the first time in its history, got a conference bounce to 8% and was actually mentioned by name in the poll reports for the first time in a long time. It wore off (as bounces do) but it was very impressive that a conference bounce actually did occur as this is unique. The headline implies there wasn’t one when there should have been when it fact it was the opposite – there was one when they normally do not occur.

  2. I think those are very fair points, Jim. As I said, I do think we had in many ways a good conference – helped not least by a fresh leadership voice and success by Natalie in getting significantly more national media attention than we are very used to. Following Caroline, I was very nervous that under any candidate we might lose that credibility.

    I’d disagree on the point you raised about only commentators reflecting on other parties. Those who succeeded in being later in the conference had plenty of opportunity to reflect upon the others (Cameron and co dismissing the One Nation land grab, for example), but also on numerous TV and radio outlets I heard politicians slugging it out. We definitely need to get our big hitters appearing on these if we can.

    And you are right in arguing that I wasn’t giving enough credit for the poll bounce (short lived, as you say) – and in some ways I was trying to be provocative, so that we contemplate a strategy over the full conference season in future!

  3. “I couldn’t take our ability to afford it seriously” – Surly this is because you have swallowed the Labservative line (lie?) that there is no money left? Talk about dominant narratives.

    I thought the response to Gideon was poorly thought out, too long winded and lacked focus – and included those who like to cut with Osbourne, not oppose him. This is however, a very green way to do things.

    • I appreciate you responding, Doug. No, I’m not liable to falling foul of dominant narratives (much) and am a bit of a Keynsian at heart, but I do question responding to a book-balancing and growth speech with a variety of uncosted, expensive policies. If it was tempered with a clear sense of how this new expenditure could be funded through savings elsewhere, I’d be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt!

      • The speech wasn’t about balancing the books or growth though – it was about attacking the poor, those in work, those out of work, setting the working poor against the out of work poor and generally dividing the country as much as possible.
        He repeated the lies that he and his friends have been called out on before, like that public sector pensions were/are unaffordable – which was a lie when Maude was mauled by Marek on the matter and it’s a lie now.
        His speech was a fantasy story about a Britain in which their destructive policies are working, not about balancing any books or looking to growth (he mentions growth a total of zero times).
        I think the demand of presenting a “full and correct programme” is a ridiculous one at this stage, and our focus should be on building our movement, not faffing with the parties deck chairs.

      • I hear what you are saying, and find Osbourne just as mendacious as you in how he presents himself. We know that behind his claims to represent working people, share wealth and balance the books, beats a heart obsessed with dismantling the state and the protections we have from business and the rich.

        However, as much as I think his speech was disgraceful, balancing the books and growth were ostensibly what he was responding to. The public demands attention to these issues right now – we are genuinely frightened at where our financial situation will lead next.

        And sorry you disagree with my analysis, that we need to be able to respond to their dishonest policies with some robust ones of our own. The electorate need a sense of values and direction yes, but they are now becoming more strident about wanting solutions that will actually work. We dismiss concerns about public debt at our peril.

  4. It was my first Green Party Conference and my overall impression was that we received a fair amount of coverage from those papers that cover this aspect of politics. Our coverage in magazines was more patchy.
    I agree with Jim that each party conference is treated as a ‘stand alone’ event and the media see it as their job to analysis speeches and back in the day policy decisions. Of course we went first and therefore we’ve had the last month to plan campaigns for the months ahead.
    As a party member I’m surprised I’ve had no internal communication regarding the TUC March on 20th October, as the party that sees itself as “the real opposition to austerity” this seems at best a serious oversight.
    The railway franchising fiasco and the soon to be implemented rail fare hike, are perfect opportunities for us but we need to be seen and heard. I sense there is a high level of support for bringing rail back into public ownership, and we are the only party promoting that policy. In January I’d hope that we’d be at as many stations as possible campaigning for public transport at affordable prices, with some well produced materials so the public know who we are and what we stand for.

  5. Stephen,

    Like Jim I think you’re missing that we did have a remarkable bounce in the polls. Natalie was a big story, the BBC take us more seriously every year. You’re also unfairly expecting us to gain reactive comment on a par with Miliband vs Cameron. The Lib Dems, who can take their gloves off a bit, had lots of solid (well worked out) policy at their conference and got good coverage on them during their conference, but then nada during the Labour and Conservative conferences.

    But I do completely agree that, from a policy perspective, the conference was a completely wasted opportunity. I’ve been talking to Caroline Allen and others about this. We need, as a party, to take the policy process much more seriously and encourage people to bring forward really well developed papers on topical issues, and to leave the half-baked populism in the pub. We – and include myself in this – need to put aside the time to work up these papers, and at a national level – GPEX, Political Committee, Policy Committee and the media team – we need to plan out some big hitting issues with policy motions in advance. It all depends on a big shift in mindset and a big effort on the part of volunteers.

    Part of the problem, by the way, is that we simply don’t have a convincing economic programme (see this blog Nor do Labour, which is part of their problem as well! Only the Conservatives really have a clear, simple story about taking tough decisions to compete with China and stay a great trading nation.

    • Sitting down and developing a “full and correct” programme for power is a genuine diversion for the job at hand and a complete waste of time – the party is disorganized, uneven and largely un-engaged with actual people where they actually are.

      The idea that a cleverly thought out policy on anything is going to get millions more people to vote for the party is farcical – we actually need to think about organisation, education, recruitment, development and organising some more if we are to have anby impact what so ever.

      The blind alley of abstract policy formulation is pretty meaningless to actual people who need help now, and can’t wait until 3012 when there is a green government. Actual action in a real communities with real people – embodying our politics – is what will win voters, then activists, then more voters…

      • Doug, that’s not quite what I’m advocating. For one thing, a programme for a four year council term is very different to a programme for a green government in 3012, a point I made quite clearly in my blog.

        Take the recent policy motion on economic democracy, for example. I’m a big fan of economic democracy, but this motion was both poorly drafted and a wasted opportunity.

        If we had brought a really well considered motion, developed after talking with experts in the party like Molly Scott Cato and having built useful relationships with people in Co-operatives UK, Radical Roots, etc. then we could have brought a punchy message to conference that the media would have been interested in, and that we could have used all the way to the doorstep.

        There’s no reason why this needs to replace, or displace, essential work on grassroots organisation. After all, what use would a political party be that was just an organising force with no message, no programme?

  6. (unable to respond to the comment directly, so here I am again.)

    “We dismiss concerns about public debt at our peril.”

    The fact is, we should be challenging anyone who says we are experiencing a crisis of public debt. This is not a crisis of public debt, – I’d be inclined to say it’s a crisis of capitalism, but then I would, none the less, even from a neo-classical perspective the public debt crisis is a fabrication. The reality is that it’s a crisis of the banking system, which has been re-presented as a public debt crisis – for the benefit of those who politicians represent, in the finance sector and at the top of big business.

    I agree, we should be looking at the financial situation, but there is no way one can argue the government, or the Labour party are doing that – their policies are specifically increasing public debt – which is a good indication that this situation has nothing to do with public debt, and is more about the re-alignment of the power relationships in our society, further skewing them to the richest in society.

    I don’t think it helps anyone who (supposedly) opposes austerity to be arguing that the (fantasy) narrative which drives it is correct.

  7. Quite agree with Doug – this isn’t a public debt problem at all; such public debt problem as there is are the costs of recession (welfare payments up, tax down) combined with the cost of the bailouts. So our economic policies will be be seen as unaffordable by the mainstream parties? Good. The public is increasing fecked off with those parties, who account for a declining share. You can’t appease them; when you join their inane neo-liberal party, they’ll say you’re being reasonable, robust, responsible.

    And whilst the MSM doesn’t cover the Greens as much as we’d like, we can take heart that the Co-op Party (27 MPs, likely to rise to 28 or 29 after by-elections) was pissed off we got more than them. Seriously though, the MSM is only interested in party conferences is so far as they have a narrative which will be decided there and then. It’s inane stuff which we’ll never able to offer enough red meat, and more to the point, nor should we.

    Party Conferences used to be internal events necessary for the proper functioning of a party, in which leaders were held to account and policy decided. At some point in the 1960s onwards, they became more, media focussed, and over time that media focus led to them becoming conventions, staged for a media gaze. That day is dying, as people have realised there’s little point to them, media coverage is shunted off to the niche channels and eventually, they’ll come back to being what they’re needed for.

    • I’m not for a second denying why we are in the situation we are in, around the banking crisis and the bailout, or that the solution needs to be a radically new way of perceiving of our financial system and a tighter regulation on those industries. I don’t think investment in schools or the NHS got us into this situation. But regardless of how we got here, the fact remains that we need to balance our books every year and not promise that which we cannot afford – this means laying out our sense of priorities and saying which things we want to provide and those we want to cut. Politics, at it’s essence, is about choices, and all I’m calling for is for the Greens to be clearer with the public about ours in a way that seems realistic.

      • Our policies would need to be based on a degree of fiscal realism, but given the biggest issue to address is to close the tax gap, how much we’d have to spend is something of an unknown quantity, since estimates vary as to the true size of money lost to public exchequers by the various avoidance mechanisms.

  8. Stephen, I think there’s a misconception here, the mid-range tabloids love talking about “balancing the books”. Tory politicians sell the idea that the economy of a country is similar to household budgetting; in fact they are very different. When Cameron talks about it being ” sink or swim” time,I doubt the budgetry situation is half as grim for instance as that faced by Atlee’s government in 1945.

    The notion that the UK is broke is of course undermined by the fact that the Coalition can find cash for projects they like, pursuing the war in Afghanistan, last year’s military intervention in Libya, Trident replacement, NHS reform, probably HS2 and yesterday £50m to commemorate the centeniary of 1st World War. Actually I’m not criticising the last item as such, but if we had really maxed out the credit card would a government be spending like that.

    I have no problem with the Green Party identifying areas where we would reallocate resources, but I think our first task is to expose the fact that most cuts have been made through ideology rather than economic necessity.

  9. This is an interesting and provocative post. I also disagree with Tom Chance that more policy wonkishness is *not* what we need. We need more outstanding keynote speakers, who can convey a narrative and who will be reported on (in parallel with policy debate/development). People like Peter Tatchell who have a good media profile should give a public talk at conference.

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

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