Concluding the first in this series of blog posts on the political crisis facing the Brighton and Hove Green Party last week, I argued that we need to make a conscious decision to respond pragmatically to the hard lessons of our time in office. I’m going to continue trying to look at what some of these different elements might be in coming posts.
I’ll be looking at the policy divisions we are experiencing soon, but I wanted to start by laying an internal challenge. One of the more contentious realisations I’ve come to was the damage we have brought upon ourselves through rejecting any sort of whipping system in the local party. As our term in office continues, evidence of disunity, contradictory public statements and in-fighting is stacking up and will be deployed by our opponents most effectively as we draw closer to elections. Regardless of where we individually stand on the fault line of the Cityclean dispute, we need fresh mechanisms to find consensus as a party and then stick rigorously to it. We have limped through the worst of this crisis, but nobody can be under any illusions that party unity continues to unravel on a daily basis.
From within the Green Group, we have witnessed an inability to challenge a Councillor who actively opposed same-sex marriage and who (it is alleged) harassed women attending abortion clinics. She is no longer a part of the Green Group, but remains an independent member of the Council and still a card-carrying member of the local party with a voice and vote in key decision-making. Within the local party activist base, we have witnessed quite aggressive public attacks both at our own Cabinet members and at our political opponents that have left many in the party disillusioned with the gap between our principles and the reality of sometimes ugly behaviour. In opposition, Greens promised a new way of doing politics.
Even as I write this article, I am under no illusions that I am likely to be attacked for advocating an imposition of discipline from those members who appreciate their right to speak their minds, even when it contradicts national policy or could cause offence. Whipping is a dirty word amongst those Greens suspicious of where the failure to protect democratic traditions has taken other political parties. I have some sympathy for this concern, but not when it results in individual ideological purity at the expense of functioning in the real world. Collective responsibility for democratic decisions, which one would imagine to be a foundation of Green values, has seemingly been jettisoned by some in Brighton and Hove for Thatcherite individualism.
I take a more pragmatic approach to politics. I am keen to implement our policy programme and impact upon the lives of the poorest and marginalised in society. We should be capable of accepting a small number of compromises on policies when we have faith in the overall thrust of a party platform – a platform that has been decided on democratically by the membership. Most importantly, voters won’t be convinced by us unless they sense a unity of purpose behind our policies, or feel the collective strength of numbers behind our beliefs. With public disagreements aired on every issue, the ability to string together an appealing narrative to the electorate becomes more and more difficult.
Yet for those who publicly oppose party colleagues and whose actions have a real potential to derail all the good work we have made, there are no concrete consequences. All of us involved in politics are aware that this world sometimes attracts the occasional odd or difficult individual into local party politics who can make life very unpleasant for others and cause real damage to our credibility. From personal experience of Brighton and Hove, I have been forced to sit opposite more than one of these individuals in the last four years and sense the air being sucked from the room whenever they speak. Whilst these people are an unfortunate reality of political activism, when they cross over from annoyance to political liability, we need the ability to insist formally upon conduct from them that doesn’t damage the party as a whole.
It is little wonder then, that we have reached a situation where it seems that leadership decisions are taken by smaller groups of trusted colleagues and the process of ratifying decisions become opaque, with democratic forums such as the monthly General Meeting sidestepped. This fear of open debate may be attempted by those frustrated at their otherwise inability to achieve anything without being confronted by partisan opposition, but it is self-defeating and produces decisions that haven’t been bought into with common consent, exacerbating tensions further.
As I have written this piece, I was struck by the latest blog post from Neil Schofield, in which he talked about his reasons from resigning from the Brighton and Hove Green Party. It is a sad development that he his insights will be lost to the local party and his reasons for resigning chimed quite potently with the points I have been trying to make:
“Ultimately, it’s an indulgent form of politics (and in Brighton we’ve seen some astonishingly self-indulgent politics from Green councillors) at a time when something much harder, much more rigorous is called for. The Green project will never succeed until it is prepared to sully its hands with the realities of power in the age of late capitalism; and if that means more collective thinking and more discipline, so be it. The people who are suffering under austerity deserve nothing less.”
What does this mean practically? A tighter and more contested manifesto system, a signing up by candidates to core national policies, a discipline system that is fair but ensures respect for the spirit of our policies (even if not to the letter) and an local platform agreed by the membership that Green Councillors are whipped into supporting. At the time of the Christina Summers disciplinary, I wrote further on how this might work in a way consistent with our values, which I’d encourage you to also read.
And another challenge: in the last few months a small group of party members have been patiently trying to reframe and simplify our constitution to make it more relevant to the successful running of the local party. Perhaps the time has come for a campaign to propose amendments to introduce some modest whipping, if not in our September AGM, then rapidly afterward?
Previous blog posts on the Brighton and Hove Green Party:
- Growing pains: why one city holds the Green Party’s future in the balance
- Greens, homophobia and holding elected representatives accountable
- Brighton and Hove Greens: Their dilemma is OUR dilemma