At recent party conferences and meetings of the London Federation of Green Parties, it has struck me that many members lack any experience or understanding of how our elected politicians work with party policy. I was in the same boat until I started to work closely with our London Assembly members, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, so I thought I’d share my experiences from the other side of the valley.
The main misconception I want to address is that all policy advocated by elected politicians can, or should, be found in our written party policy. Another way of stating this myth is to say that the policies we debate and pass at conference provide the bulk of the detailed policy used by elected politicians.
Some examples in housing policy
Here are some questions that our London Assembly members have tried to answer in the past year:
- How much of the affordable housing grant should we spend on social housing and how much on low-cost home ownership products? Would we prefer to see a greater priority for social homes, even if it meant that we built fewer affordable homes overall, given that social homes require a greater subsidy?
- Should we press for co-operative home ownership to replace the main “shared ownership” offer?
- Would we rather see all social homes brought up to a minimal Decent Homes standard, or a smaller number brought up to a standard that also addressed energy and water efficiency?
Now, let us look for guidance in Green Party policy. In the section on housing we find:
HO103 The Green Party seeks a balanced mix of housing tenures, to meet the diverse needs of the community. These include individual and shared home ownership, leasehold, and others. […] The Green Party seeks to increase the amount of social housing and commonly owned housing as representing the best way of ensuring an availability of affordable housing.
In answering the first question we face a quandary. Party policy supports both social housing and low-cost home ownership (of which “shared ownership” and “leasehold” are two forms). How do we prioritise between the two?
Reading through the rest of the policy, it is clear that there is a much greater concern with social housing than other models, and with addressing housing need than demand. So it isn’t a great leap to suggest that our Assembly Members should be more supportive of social housing.
But advocate a drop in the number of affordable homes built if it means more social homes?
How about support for co-operative housing models such as Community Land Trusts? Party policy has a number of supportive statements, so we can assume that promoting them is probably OK. What about practical measures? Until the autumn 2010 conference, we only had this idea:
HO415 A new Co-operative Housing Agency would be set up to promote, support and fund housing co-operatives. It will be run according to co-operative principles with membership drawn from existing co-operatives.
So the Mayor could establish some sort of support service or agency for housing co-operatives in London. But actually when we did some detailed research into the barriers facing housing co-operatives we developed four other solid policy recommendations (along with a slew of more technical points that were pursued through committee work, formal questions to the Mayor and meetings with his housing officers).
Finally, let us turn to Decent Homes. This programme was designed by the Labour government to bring all social housing up to a basic standard – kitchens, bathrooms, windows and the like. There are also calls to include decent energy and water efficiency standards, but that would drive up the cost and so reduce the number of homes you could improve with the available grant. You might expect that Party policy has a lot to say in this area, but this is what we have for guidance:
HO417 Priority will be given to the maintenance and improvement of existing properties before new house building is considered.
HO502 All new housing will be designed for low energy use, and the same standards applied retrospectively to existing houses where practicable.
EN505 Building Regulations for energy standards to be applied to existing as well as new buildings, except where this would compromise listed buildings; Landlords will have a responsibility to ensure that their dwellings be brought into line with prevailing energy standards at their own expense.
We gather that the Party is concerned with improving existing housing, and giving a certain priority to energy performance. But on the question of how best to allocate the inadequate money provided by central Government, Assembly Members are left to come up with their own answers.
Housing is thankfully an area where our policy is relatively helpful, at least in steering our politicians in the most general sense. In most policy areas, the detail of how you insulate every home or improve cycle safety will never be the same across every local area of England and Wales. In areas such as policing, where issues burst into the political space and dissipate within a matter of weeks, politicians have to think on their feet.
The policy process
To develop new party policy takes at least one conference, and for significant changes two or three. This makes our core policy document – Policies for a Sustainable Society – too slow to keep up with the rapid developments in policy that occur in local and regional government up and down the country.
What we in effect work with is a hierarchy.
At the top, the Policies for a Sustainable Society provide a sacrosanct policy framework agreed by members at conferences. No Green politician should be advocating policies that contradict it.
Beneath that, we produce manifestos for national, regional, and sometimes local elections. These elucidate a selection of policies that are most relevant to the politics of the time; they conform with the Policies for a Sustainable Society, though at times it is necessary for the member of the national executive (GPEX) responsible for policy to develop new ideas that significantly extend our policy statements with the involvement of the Policy Committee, the Regional Council, relevant experts and our key elected politicians. For example, in the May 2010 General Election manifesto we proposed to cancel all local housing revenue account debts, freeing councils up to build and maintain council housing. This was debated and agreed by policy wonks and politicians; they couldn’t wait until the autumn conference to put the motion to the Party conference.
At the bottom of the heap you will find politicians and the public servants that support them – usually employees of their local authority rather than the party. In the cut and thrust of politics, we public servants look to our politicians for policy direction and trust that they avoid erring from the Policies for a Sustainable Society and recent manifestos. On occasion we will search party policy for more detailed guidance, but we rarely find satisfaction.
So politicians and their support staff develop policies that represent a significant chunk of their work, detailed policies that you will not find in any conference motion or party manifesto.
Sometimes they find their way back, as happened with a motion on co-operative housing models that I brought to the autumn 2010 conference in my capacity as a party member. Mostly, they briefly reach for effect and then wither amongst the ephemera of daily politics.
There are checks on this. The London Federation scrutinises our Assembly Members’ monthly reports, and an Elected Members Liaison Committee provides an opportunity for further detailed discussion about any points of contention.
This process of policy elucidation and innovation enables our politicians to be relevant, to press for and at times achieve real change in the spirit of Green Party policy, as defined by its members.