Reflections on the General Election

Last night I spoke to the London Young Greens about my experience coming third in Lewisham West & Penge, and what I learned as joint co-ordinator of the London Green Party during our biggest ever campaign.

In London we hit an average vote of 5%, saving 22 deposits and getting 171,652 votes. That was a massive improvement on 2010, when we averaged 1.6%, and better than 2005 (shortly after the Iraq war) when we averaged 4%. So things are heading in the right direction.

More importantly, in the past five years we’ve gone from around 2,000 to 12,000 members. That surge came very late in the day, and over-worked volunteers struggled to convert new members into activists. But we were delivering about five times as many leaflets as before the 2010 elections, and have a social media presence that we can build on.

Our attention in the London Green Party has already turned to the Mayoral and London Assembly elections next year. Voters can express a first and second preference for the Mayor, and the Assembly is elected a proportional voting system, giving voters the chance to vote for the party and candidates they believe in, rather than holding their nose and trying to vote tactically.

So what did I learn, that we can take into that campaign? Here are three lessons I’ve taken away.

1 – Roots are more important than slogans

In facing their failure to predict the outcome, almost all the pundits admitted that the public clearly don’t think like a pundit. Yet, as the contest for the next Labour leader limps along, punditry has reverted to its Westminster bubble.

The debate revolves around vague concepts like “aspiration”, and abstract slogans like “anti-austerity”. The candidates and pundits cling to these empty gestures because they lack any roots in the issues they talk about. Their slogans don’t ring true because they are constructed out of theory and focus groups, not conviction and experience.

Much of Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to communicate must come from her years working as a housing lawyer in Glasgow, helping people facing eviction and struggling with inhumane bureaucracy. From this, I think she has gained both a genuine conviction about the need for better housing, and an understanding of how to communicate that in an ordinary way, rooted in real experience rather than theory about messaging.

I connected with people I spoke to most effectively when I talked about my work with tenants whose homes were at risk of demolition, my campaigning to stop a local park being sold off to a foreign developer to build a hotel on it, and my practical efforts to measure air pollution levels in the area to help convince TfL to give us less polluting buses.

This is a strength at the heart of the Green Party. Most of us see politics as being much broader than elections. Most of us can speak of our campaigns, our jobs, our efforts to put our politics into practice. Most of us can ground our convictions in personal experiences. This needs to ring out from our campaign for the London Assembly.

2 – Hope and plain speaking trumped the miserable wing of the left

One of the other candidates in Lewisham West & Penge was Martin Powell-Davies, a really likeable, articulate candidate, a teacher and fellow trade unionist.

He did everything the far left advocate, everything they suggest would win Labour more elections. He spoke passionately about the need for a socialist government, and impressed hustings with his clear call to prioritise the 99% over the 1%. He had been deeply involved in a campaign to save schools in Lewisham from a Labour council intent on forcing them to become academies. His party, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, attended demonstrations, leafleted train stations, ran street stalls, and even drove around the constituency on polling day with a loud hailer encouraging people to fight austerity and oppose the cuts.

For all that work, he racked up 391 votes, compared to my 4,077.

When Gogglebox viewers watched the TUSC election broadcast, they described it as miserable, and at the same time thought it sounded too good to be true – how could you oppose all of these cuts? Cheer up!

Mind you, when they watched the Green Party broadcast several asked “what’s austerity?”

We shouldn’t imagine that all voters identify strongly with labels like “left wing / right wing”, abstractions like “anti-cuts”, and theoretical concepts like “austerity”. Most people don’t read Krugman and Blanchflower’s analysis of the austerity con. For every new party member who joined because they want a “true left party”, for every voter I spoke to on the street who felt Labour had given up on “the left”, there are equal numbers who would subscribe to similar policies but frame their beliefs in a totally different way.

Any Green councillor in London could tell you stories of persuading floating Tory/Green voters to back them; some depended on those votes to win by the slimmest of majorities. Instead of always talking about a leftist, anti-cuts, anti-austerity party, successful Green Party candidates ask people to vote for a party that cares about people, that wants to get more low-rent homes built, and that would invest in local public services like libraries instead of closing them. Better yet, they also talk about a neighbourhood with safer, greener streets, and exam factory schools turned into creative and nurturing spaces, and more besides. Greens give hope of a better world.

If there’s one word I’d use to describe Caroline Lucas, it’s hope.

Hope is what people need, and it’s what we have to give people in our campaign for the London Assembly.

3 – Traditional tactics need to be blended with new ones, not be discarded

The core of my campaign was old fashioned. I effectively started last year with the local elections, in an area that had seen very little presence from the Green Party. So we set-up leaflet runs, got ‘Vote Green’ posters out to members and supporters, and talked to commuters at train stations. I also attended hustings and got coverage in the local and London media.

But Greens don’t focus too much on the numbers of one-way “conversations” we’ve had, and the numbers of leaflets put through doors. We link this to other kinds of political action, which enable us to connect with people.

Last summer I ran a project to measure air pollution on the main roads in the area. We took the results door-to-door on the affected roads, leafleted a wider area with the results, and spoke to dozens of local busineses. The results, and our petition, were widely shared on social media, and cropped up in the local media.

I’ve also worked with Darren Johnson, one of our London Assembly Members, on a campaign to save Crystal Palace Park from an attempt by Boris Johnson and a developer called the ZhongRong Group to buy up a third of the park and build on it. We worked closely with community groups to obtain and share information from the Mayor, speak out at hustings and in the local media, and educate more people about what was really proposed (because the developers pretended they were going to “rebuild the Crystal Palace”). This work was shared on social media, and got widespread attention.

I even got involved in helping the residents of the Central Hill estate, which was actually in a neighbouring constituency, but still part of the area people consider to be “Crystal Palace”. I did this because I wanted to help the residents understand the regeneration process Lambeth Council was imposing on them, and I avoided turning it into a cheap and cynical electoral ploy. That didn’t stop Lambeth’s housing cabinet member of accusing me of that – but local community “leaders” and activists sprang to my defence, because I am seen as someone genuinely working for the good of the community, as are Greens more generally. 

The result? As Shasha Khan, Candidate for Croydon North, says:

Tom’s campaign work in Crystal Palace overlaps the Croydon North constituency, a parliamentary seat I have stood as Green party candidate on four occasions. The area has a strong sense of community, where if you do good work – people know about it. When introducing myself, I have lost count the amount of times when canvassing, running a stall or just attending meetings when a Crystal Palace resident area mentions that Green guy, or Tom by name.

Of course we were able to include updates on these campaigns in our leaflets, and I could talk about them to voters. As I mentioned above, this grounded my politics. But it also meant we were seen as a party genuinely committed to the public good, not just turning up six weeks before polling day talking about it.

Nothing is ever that new

Of course these aren’t particularly new ideas. But they provide the key to the Green Party’s success – along with some really well organised activists, a lot of data processing and other mundane but essential ingredients.

One of the interesting challenges we will face in the Londonwide elections is: how do we convey this grounded politics, the claim that our candidates are genuinely committed to the common good, to 8 million people rather than a local community?

One Comment

  1. John Greatrex said:

    Tom you might like to know and let others know that THE GREEN HOUSE FOR THE GREEN AGE Project is being launched in a fortnight. I would be grateful for your take on the forthcoming scheme. John Greatrex

    25th May 2015

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