Does the Green Party need whipping?

WhippedYou’ll have to excuse the slightly playful title. I couldn’t resist it. 😉

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:

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12 thoughts on “Does the Green Party need whipping?

  1. Commenting from the outside, with very little knowledge of the local situation, I would think a weak whipping system would be a very good thing, so long as cabinet members did a lot of work to keep the local party in the loop and discuss difficult decisions ahead of time. I don’t recall seeing anything about the equal staff allowances issue in your manifesto, so there will be a lot of times when difficult decisions need to be made without an obvious steer from a previously agreed platform.

    In London we have a liaison committee, which comprises a few people elected from the Federation of local parties including the regional policy officer, our MEP and our two AMs. The committee meets regularly to provide a check and balance on their work, on behalf of party members. The MEP and AMs also submit monthly reports on their work to the monthly Federation meetings, as does the committee. Could Brighton & Hove adopt something similar?

  2. Thanks Tom, I’d agree. For those issues where we haven’t foreseen them in a manifesto, we should have a general set of principles and aspirations to try and guide us, but it means honest and regular consultation with the party membership. This has been difficult at times in Brighton & Hove, with the legal / employment ramifications meaning a certain amount cannot be discussed publicly. Some of this feels a little as if Cabinet members have been “captured” by Council Officers, which is something we should also be cautious about.

    The Liasion Committee in London does seem to work well – and we do have similar mechanisms between the MP’s Office, Green Group, Party Executive and a Liaison from the membership to this body. Likewise, we have a monthly newsletter with strong reports from our MP, MEP and a good number of Councillors. Unfortunately, with such a large number of individuals (22 Councillors alone), it is a struggle to balance work / home commitments and get everyone communicating consistently and regularly together.

  3. Thanks for opening this debate and your thoughtful piece.

    However, I really think this is too much and delegitimises your argument:

    “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.”

    Why Thatcherite? Could be anarchist individualism, or many other strains of individualism:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individualist_anarchism

    No need to tie it to the Tories.

    Rather than introducing whipping, I’d prefer it if the Councillors met together more regularly to discuss the issues/manifesto, and decide on a collective decision and then stick to it (and agree not to attack each other in public). They could also call emergency meetings if need be as big issues came up.

    These councillor meetings could be seperate to public meetings. It’s difficult enough to get unity with 22 people, let alone more. Of course, the rest of the party needs to hold the councillors to account and a strong emphasis needs to remain on councillors reporting back to the Party on decisions made, as well as open consultations on issues which are appropriate.

    Rather than whipping, I would prefer if there was an emphasis on making decisions together – and sticking to them – in meetings.

    But I haven’t been to recent meetings, so don’t know how bad it has been or what has been tried so far.

  4. In the main Green folks are good folks, but hopeless politicians.

    The mess the local Green Party is leaving B&H will have a massive effect on the Green Party nationally.

  5. Whipping? What next? Delegate conferences? A reformed centralist structure followed by a ‘strong leader’ – and we’ll end up just the same as as the other parties that most of us are trying to escape from.

    This is the first Green council and there have obviously been mistakes made leading to what appears to be a split. Why did this happen? I’d suggest partly inexperience from people on a steep learning curve, but there’s no doubt things could have been handled better.

    I don’t have first hand knowledge but it strikes me that communications between members of the Green Group (internally) and B&H GP haven’t always been good. Does the council listen to the local party? Do they follow the Philosophical Basis? Has the council adopted a new structure involving all councillors in open democratic decision making or are the key decisions made by a small group? Are we really doing things differently or just doing what other councils do?

    The bottom line is – has a Green council in Brighton shown itself to be different from say a Labour council in Brighton? I’m not sure because I don’t live there and don’t see what is going on or how the council is perceived on the street.

    Some things are good – living wage, bringing services back in house, house building, and all in difficult circumstances – but is that enough? Where are the green energy projects which are happening elsewhere in places like Cornwall and Wrexham?

    The fact is that the circle of council cuts can’t be squared. Will the people of Brighton understand or just blame us for ever deeper cuts? That is what Labour are hoping for – do we stay on and cut deeper risking losing half our councillors and possibly Caroline in 2015 or are there other alternatives which few people in the party appear to be willing to consider?

  6. I agree with the thrust of this article, but the only solution is not democratic centralism and whipping. The Greens should be establishing proper mechanisms and structures of participatory democracy, which are more in line with our philosophy.

  7. Is there a distinction worth making between anarchic and thatcherite individualism, Ed? The entrepreneurs she loved and subsidised so much were the 80s’ greatest anarchists, and proved once more how state regulation is neccessary for capitalism to survive. I am a Labour party member and a candidatre hoping to take a Green seat in Norwich next May, so please feel free to respond accordingly

    • Hi Eamoon,

      “Is there a distinction worth making between anarchic and thatcherite individualism, Ed?”

      Yes, absolutely. They come from different ideological and contextual backgrounds and advocate different things. Have a read about the anarchist individualist tradition and you would find that out.

      You state:

      “The entrepreneurs she loved and subsidised so much were the 80s’ greatest anarchists, and proved once more how state regulation is neccessary for capitalism to survive.”

      This, in my mind, is a misuse of the word anarchism. As far as I can see, you actually mean “anarcho-capitalists,” very much in the tradition of American Libertarians:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho-capitalism

      Many in the anarchist movement don’t even consider anarcho-capitalism to be a part of the anarchist movement due to the fact that anarchism has historically been an anti-capitalist movement. The following quote is one of many examples of this being expressed:

      “The philosophy of “anarcho-capitalism” dreamed up by the “libertarian” New Right, has nothing to do with Anarchism as known by the Anarchsit movement proper. It is a lie that covers and unpleasant reality – such as National Socialism does in another. Patently unbridled capitalism, not even hampered by a reformist State, which has to put some limits on exploitation to prevent violent clashes in society, needs some force at its disposal to maintain class priveleges, either from the State itself or from private armies. What they believe in is in fact a limited State – that is, on in which the State has one function, to protect the ruling class, does not interfere with exploitation, and comes as cheap as possible for the ruling class. The idea also serves another purpose beyond its fulfilment – a moral justification for bourgeois consciences in avoiding taxes without feeling guilty about it…” (p.50, Anarchism: Arguments For and Against, Albert Meltzer: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CJhCvx_Z0CAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Anarchism:+Arguments+For+and+Against&ei=GHi-StvuEo6MNfKjyZMD&hl=es&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=anarcho-capitalism&f=false )

      There are many schools of thought within anarchism, and to label them all as being anarcho-capitalists, or to say that anarcho-capitalists “were the 80s’ greatest anarchists” is wrong and misleading.

      Some of the different schools of thought within anarchism are outlined here:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism

      I could go on, but I think you have the idea.

      Good luck in your election campaign, although I do hope the Greens manage to retain the seat you are contesting.

      Best,

      Ed

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  10. “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.” Sounds like you will feel at home in the Labour Party! Reading your postings, I;m unclear if you have jumped ship from Green to Labour or about to do so or are wavering in-between.

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