Growing pains: why one city holds the Green Party’s future in the balance

Brighton-Pavilion-007Sustaining success as a national political party has always depended upon building a credible political narrative, one that resonates amongst voters across wide stretches of the country.  Yet at a time when the impact and reach of the Green Party has risen substantially through the election of our first MP and Council, we find our reputation as a political party standing and falling on our record in one city.  Despite the strenuous efforts of activists around the country to make headway in their communities, there is rising concern that faith in the Green project is being measured by how one group of individuals handle political authority when it is thrust in their hands.

Returning from a year away in London, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by my reintroduction to the Brighton and Hove Green Party.  Opinion is polarised on a number of issues, friendships strained and strident new voices have emerged within the party. There is a real sense that members and elected representatives are grappling with the insoluble political realities of the city, with Green Councillors facing an extraordinary learning curve during one of the toughest political climates in recent history. The crushing weight of expectations upon these 22 individuals troubles me, as their individual welfare seems to matter less to some of their colleagues than what they achieve in office.

I’ve held back from writing about it until now so I could talk to fellow members and get a sense from them on how we might begin to resolve our differences. There has also been a distinct sense when I’ve spoken to Green activists around the country that they are confused by contradictory messages coming from opposing camps within the Green Group, yet are desperate to engage in a debate that may shape the party’s credibility in the coming years.

To that end, I’m planning to write a series of posts in the coming weeks from the constituency, which I hope will go some way to giving a more rounded picture of the challenges facing Brighton and Hove Greens, as well as making space for some of the successes that are being forgotten.  Pertinently, I do believe the political differences within the local party are less stark than are sometimes presented, but are communicated in unhelpful ways that posit individuals as either politically principled or technocratic and ideology-free. This is compounded by a profound loss of trust between some of the more established politicians within the party (borne of many years of working together that have taken their toll on personal relationships), a lack of clarity and confidence around collective decision-making and external communications that lack political nuance. I’ll try and look at some of these issues in a little more depth and highlight some of the positive solutions that might be brokered.

Unsurprisingly too, for a party that has traditionally held very principled (but often untested) policy stances compared to the real-politik of our opponents, a strain of self-righteous superiority remains unchallenged amongst some Green members. Left to fester, this arrogance can lead to a culture where other views are silenced, structural gender inequalities are tolerated  and unrealistic expectations are placed upon those who put themselves forward for roles within the local party. For these reasons, the contributions of party activists towards resolving or widening conflict within the local party cannot be underestimated either, not least because the lack of a party whip and lax discipline lends itself to very public displays of disagreement and intemperate behaviour.

Examining the political situation in Brighton and Hove without an eye on how the other political parties interact with the Green administration will be difficult.  Despite commonalities in our political aspirations, relations with the local Labour Party remain contentious, as there is still a strong sense amongst many of their activist base that Greens stole political power belonging to them by right. Regardless of the outcome of any future elections, it can only be good for the body politic in this city that such tribalism is challenged and political parties work to earn each vote they receive.  I’ll be looking at cross-party relations and the recent selection of opponents for Caroline Lucas MP in a future article, as the choices of candidate could hold some encouraging potential for a shift in their thinking.

At the time, the warm public reaction to the electoral success of the Greens in Brighton and Hove sharply illustrated to me we need insurgents to shake up the status quo. The crucial test is whether these ruptures in the political weather can be translated into a lasting trust between political outsiders and electorate that endures. This remains THE question facing Brighton and Hove Greens – have we proved our professional competence without losing our anti-establishment edge and intellectual coherence? Looking outside the Brighton and Hove bubble, if we sense our credibility is resting more and more precariously on the shoulders of one local party, our national leadership need to be asking questions about how we can mitigate this risk.

Moving into the second half of these Council and Parliamentary cycles, we have to come to a conscious decision as to how we respond to the cold hard experience of office. Too often in life we are told dramatically that we stand on a crossroads, where the choices we make at a particular point will impact fundamentally upon our future existence. This time it feels painfully true.

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6 thoughts on “Growing pains: why one city holds the Green Party’s future in the balance

  1. Some cogent points made here but I suspect the B & H Greens were voted in because of the respect voters have for Caroline Lucas rather than being fully informed about policy and political action.

  2. I won’t deny that Caroline’s popularity contributed greatly to our success here, but many of the Council seats we got elected at the last election were from parts of the city away from her Westminster constituency and were as a result of a gradual vote-share increase from two terms prior to her standing in the city. That said, my concern is that we will retain much of her vote at a General Election, but lose the individual council seats unless we get a handle on our current issues.

  3. Pingback: Does the Green Party need whipping? | Green Politics: Sustainable Futures

  4. Pingback: GreenShoots: Fracking, European election strategy and rail re-nationalisation | Green Politics: Sustainable Futures

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