We need a grounded Green strategy

In politics, as in sport and Eurovision, we all like to fit the facts to our pre-conceived ideas. Tribes and factions interpret results as a vindication of their point of view.

In London, we, the data geeks, are poring over the ward-level results from the GLA elections, and are leaping to conclusions that often amount to just so stories – unverifiable and unfalsifiable explanations. We say: our leaflets / canvassing / local campaigning / messaging / candidate choice worked! But do we actually have the evidence to reach that conclusion?

As the party turns to the forthcoming leadership contest, there will be even more just so stories about the political direction of the Green Party.

Rupert Read and Benali Hamdache have penned a pair of interesting articles in recent weeks in that vein. Should we present ourselves as a party of ecology or socialism?

Benali‘s article runs through familiar just so stories about a socialist Green politics. For example, he says that we should be tackling environmental issues by “showing how the answers to the ecological disaster we have long campaigned on unlock the solutions to the social justice issues voters have at the core of their concerns”. But this wasn’t really reflected in the campaigns he praises in the West Midlands and London.

Benali helpfully brings out three different levels of the debate:

  1. The party’s political philosophy.
  2. Our messaging during election campaigns.
  3. The nuts and bolts of running good campaigns.

While the title of his article says the Green Party “can still embrace socialism”, he doesn’t really explain at any point what that would mean on either of those three levels.

He uses the word ‘radical’ four times, but what does he mean by the word? It has become so familiar to Greens and lefties that it has lost all meaning, except to mean ‘good’. The definition of ‘radical’ is ‘to address the root causes of a problem with a fundamental and far-reaching change’.

But the big ideas in Sian Berry’s campaign were as pragmatic as they were radical – being equally based on realistic and practical considerations as on theory. We were bold, imaginative, different. In some instances radical, but not in the sense that I think Benali means.

For example, the root cause of much of our pollution – harming the climate and human health – is the dependence on cars, especially in outer London. So we proposed to introduce Londonwide road pricing to reduce traffic, incentivise cleaner vehicles, flatten outer London fares and invest in walking and cycling. It’s certainly a radical policy, but it couldn’t be pigeon-holed as ‘left-wing’ or ‘socialist’. Nor should it be pigeon-holed as ‘ecocentric’, because our messaging focused on fairness, health and affordability.

Readers may think it is an example of ‘unlocking’ social justice through tackling ecological problems. But it was never presented in that way. We didn’t say to voters: we have always cared about this environmental problem, and now we’ve found a way of tackling it that also helps people on low incomes afford to commute by train. That’s an abstract convolution. Our message was far more simple, more direct.

Voters liked the policy, not the clever eco-socialist framing, and many want to know that we still value our natural environment for its own sake and not simply as a means to address social (and economic) issues.

I think he is right that a politics solely focused on abstract debates about limits to growth and population is doomed to fail (except in extraordinary circumstances such as those following the Chernobyl disaster). But the same can be said about an abstract eco-socialist politics.

Rupert Read has, for many years, usefully put the all-too-often-unheard voice of the rural and small town Green. Most senior figures in the Green Party – myself included – live in cities and have a metropolitan outlook, and almost all our voter research has been undertaken in those left-leaning urban areas.

While I agree with much of what he wrote about the flaws in Corbyn’s project and the limited political space to Corbyn’s left, Rupert quickly slipped from a discussion about practical messaging into political philosophy. He sets out the following dichotomies as replacements for ‘left vs right’:

  • One planet living sanity vs. growthist fantasy.
  • ‘Small is beautiful’ vs gigantism, whether corporate or state based.
  • Localisation and resilience vs ‘free trade’ globalisation.
  • Quality vs. quantity.
  • Green vs. ‘grey’.

These are all compelling frames for a Green political philosophy. But how would they translate into a salient election campaign message? Do they have any relevance for the nuts and bolts of that campaign?

There is no indication in Rupert’s article of any evidence of how those messages will resonate with voters. He simply asserts their efficacy. In doing so, he tells another just so story as a cover for his desire to promote his own political philosophy. He might have shown how those elements of his political philosophy could be translated into salient political messages for an election campaign.

I can detect traces of these in our London election campaign, but they would only be noticeable to the political philosopher. We never produced a leaflet, tweet or speaking note with “one planet living” or “localisation” in the headline.

Our approach to estate regeneration emphasised localisation and small-is-beautiful quality over the corporatist approach of so many Labour and Conservative councils.But our language was more simple, more direct. It also strongly emphasised the appalling loss of council homes that are never replaced, and our commitment to social housing more generally.

Our approach to building new homes and supporting private renters were also a distinctive blend of localism, social justice and ecology. But we had translated those principles into bold, imaginative and realistic politics that matched up to voters’ concerns – a renters union, a unit to help communities build their own homes, a student living rent.

With Natalie stepping down as leader, it’s worth returning to her central project. She never ran on an ideological ticket, though her political philosophy was clearly instrumental in defining us as a radical left wing political party.

Her principal concern in 2012 was organisational, set out in her plan for the first 100 days. Whatever her detractors say, her track record in this respect is quite impressive: the Green surge, the growing competence in the hundreds of local parties she has repeatedly visited, and the dozens of leading figures being nurtured in the party.

Returning to the three levels evoked by Benali, I’d like us to talk far more about the third – the nuts and bolts – as Natalie did four years ago.

Neither Benali nor Rupert paid it much attention in their articles, except in very general terms. But our organisational strength in London was the key to our success. For this we are indebted the the legacy passed on by Darren Johnson, to the hard work and talents of our staff (Adam, Simon, Cami, Tilda, Henna and Ian), and to the officers and organisers in the London party and the local parties.

We started organising our 2016 election campaign in the summer of 2014. Caroline Allen and I worked to build an officer team that could improve our internal communications and campaigning strength, with endless hard work from the likes of Clare Phipps, Matt Hawkins, Laura Davenport, RoseMary Warrington and – more than anyone else – Caroline herself.

Our strategy for the 2015 General Election was focused on helping re-elect Caroline Lucas and build the foundations for our 2016 election campaign. Before polling day in 2015 we had already started to talk to Gpex and national staff members about how they could best support us in England’s highest profile election in 2016.

Caroline Allen, Laura Davenport, John Street, RoseMary Warrington and others planned and organised a candidate selection process that resulted in an unprecedented level of media and member interest. It helped us to debate, test and refine our political and messaging strategy, and to launch our winning candidate on a well developed issue – at a tenants and residents hall on an estate under threat of demolition.

Caroline and I put a huge amount of time and effort in 2015 into securing a budget, key staff members and various agreements with the national party that would make our campaign fly.

Of most relevance to the debate between Benali and Rupert is that our messaging was so strong because it was developed out of an effective organisation and process, rather than imposed as the result of an internal ideological struggle. We brought in the right agency, officers and methodologies to develop and test a really compelling messaging strategy that was based on some evidence rather than our own personal agendas.

This hard work all provided the framework within which we were able to develop and promote our big ideas (thanks, in particular, to the renaissance woman Sian Berry, who is as effective with a spreadsheet as with a microphone).

My impression is that the decisive factor in London’s, Scotland’s and the West Midland’s success, and the frustrations elsewhere in England and Wales, was organisational. We made gains where we started very early, put a plan in place and built our capacity to deliver it.

Whoever runs for our leadership and Gpex positions this autumn, I hope they bear this in mind.

They should do all they can to support our brilliant new chief executive, Nick Martin, and the network of regional and local party officers. As the debate about our political direction heats up, I hope they will also remember that good political strategy, grounded in our philosophical basis, will develop from an effective organisation.


  1. Colin Boyle said:

    Agreed! Proud to have been part of a professional, effective campaign that translated our principles into achievable, popular policies that set much of the agenda in London.

    16th May 2016
  2. Clive Lord said:

    The droves (twice as many as 2015) who voted for us in the 1989 Euros in the leafy shires didn’t realize we were socialist. they just knew we wanted to save the planet. Banging on about socialism ensures that they won’t vote for us, Benali Hamdache. Rupert Read is an academic.. He is on the right lines, but he does get a bit academic.
    Now if you want somebody with a track record of local achievement, think Andrew Cooper, who has the added advantage of not having been born into the socialist tribe.

    16th May 2016
    • Robert Price said:

      The planet wont end with global warming; it will become uninhabitable for human beings. We are not fighting to save the planet, we are fighting to save the human race. If we are fighting for humanity, and show no humanity ourselves, then we are fighting for what precisely?

      Are we saying that the current situation where people are starving and killing themselves is fine? If we are fighting for a future for humanity, but in doing so we would like to, for instance, cull the disabled (as is happening in this country) then what type of humanity are we seeking? Are we going to be left wing, as in undertaking the redistribution of wealth which evidence tells us is necessary, but lie when asked if we are? The basic income is undoubtedly egalitarian, and that is undoubtedly left wing; unless the Green Party is going to perhaps accommodate for it by adding other policies which will mean introducing the basic income doesn’t enable an empowered workforce, and the increased likelihood of self employment and co-operative companies (both of which having the means of production and distribution in the hands of the workers are in fact socialist).

      Are some people in this party from such comfortable backgrounds that they don’t see the suffering that is happening every day, and don’t care about things they don’t see? Is this the group of people who’s votes the Green Party wants to court, and how much suffering and death will be acceptable to gain those votes? Are we maybe going to try and appeal to people who don;t know what words like Socialism mean, which seems to include many bloggers I’ve read recently? Do we want to appeal to people’s ignorance and spread ignorance throughout the land?

      17th May 2016
      • tomchance said:


        You’re making all kinds of bizarre assumptions here, most of which obviously violate the party’s philosophical basis. The question is not whether our policies are egalitarian, compassionate and humane (and at the same time, by the way, recognising the inherent value of other species and not only caring about people). The question is how to present our political philosophy and policies to the public. Whatever you and I might interpret the word ‘socialism’ to mean (and nobody can claim to have the one true definition) the fact is that it is a big turn-off for a large part of the public, and a large part of our current vote.


        18th May 2016
        • Robert Price said:

          Dear Tom,

          Caring about the poor and starving doesn’t mean wanting to torture puppies. The same actual empathy and sensitivity should apply to both sets of suffering.

          If people wish to discuss the political economic position of the party, or how it is to be portrayed to the general public, they should know the definition of the term they are debating. Socialism does very much have a definition, as do most political economic models, and that many people are mistaken about what the word means doesn’t mean we should share that error in understanding. I continue to contend that we are Egalitarian, but I see nothing wrong with socialism.

          If we are to take the ignorant interpretation of the word socialism. This varies between people stupid enough to believe Hitler when he named his Party socialist, to those who think the word simply means a fairer, nicer, society. I would suggest that there are more in the latter group than the former, especially within the Green Party.

          Socialism as a word has of course been demonised to the willfully ignorant; as the word communism was. Even in the USA where this demonisation was most strongly pushed the word no longer has poor connotations. Bernie Sanders has gone from Independent non-Democrat Party Senator, to vying with the person originally thought unchallenged as candidate for that party’s nomination. Jereny Corbyn’s meteoric success being elected as Labour leader would be recognised by all but the most Conservative of BBC commentators as being due to his being seen in the broader definition of a fairer, nicer, Socialist politician.

          What appears to be happening in the Green Party, who have had left wing Egalitarian policies, sometimes wrongly framed as Socialist, for forty years, is that as the Green Party becomes more popular because that left wing position is more widely known, some people who have little to no contact with the true hardships of life in Britain for the poor of this nation are being ‘turned off’ by the idea of helping such poor people.

          I often try to understand the mindset of people who are from privilege and totally unaware that they have such privilege. I suppose David Cameron might genuinely believe himself to be middle class and that may shape his attitude. Hopefully the Green Party has people who are more able to see that inequality and suffering pervade this nation; from the statistical data if not from having to live among it.

          I suppose it still returns to the original idea. The Green Party will hopefully not change it’s policies to ones which favour the rich whilst the poor starve. It will therefore have the eminently sensible and correct left wing policies. If asked about them will the people canvassing for the Party lie? Are we to avoid the topic to suit people who wish to retain the inequality and suffering in this country?

          I’m hoping the next leader will see the sense of continuing Natalie’s sterling work and fighting for a better world for everyone.


          20th May 2016
  3. Tom, I think this is an excellent article that draws on your wealth of experience and undisputed professionalism. May I just add a couple of things to think about.

    All political parties have various philosophical and theoretical wings and informed, reasonable debate between them is healthy. These debates help clarify what the party’s overall vision actually is, as it changes over time. I would be suspicious of any party that put organisational prowess in the service of winning elections ahead of a clear sense of what it is that the party stands for. In fact, I think that’s almost exactly what Tony Blair and his followers did to the Labour Party in the 1990s (I hope mentioning Blair in an internet comments section isn’t becoming a new version of Godwin’s law).

    On the doorstep in the recent elections in London, although there was a lot of positivity, the two criticisms that I came across most often were that the Green Party has become too identified with old-fashioned statist socialism and, conversely, some people didn’t see the point of voting for us now that Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour Party. To me this does suggest that Rupert Read is on to something when he describes the distinctiveness of an ecological political philosophy as being an electoral asset. There is no future in trying to be ‘better Labour’.

    So, while I agree with what you say about voters not responding well to arcane debates in academic language I do think it is worthwhile to do a little bit of navel-gazing and have a think about how we underpin the excellent organisational and procedural practices that you and other comrades have been and are putting in place with an excitingly distinct political and economic philosophy that can energise voters and attract them to our cause.

    17th May 2016
    • tomchance said:

      Thanks Corin, you’ve made the point well.

      I think the challenge for leadership candidates is different than for Rupert, Benali and others knocking around ideas on our political philosophy (unless they run for leader!) The challenge is to translate their philosophy into distinctive ideas that will resonate with voters, and before then to have the right process and team to arrive at them, because no leader is so clever as to able to dream them up on their own.

      17th May 2016
  4. Thank you for this. I’m going to be re-reading ‘Target to Win’ with a view to whether it’s potentially more appropriate for, as you say, left-leaning urban areas, than rural and small town populations. I live in a large village, mainly reasonably-well-off, and overwhelmingly Conservative. Even so, many of the good souls among my neighbours who are insulated from austerity by their media and their constrained acquaintance are shocked by threats of cuts to libraries, for instance. Many of them are gardeners and volunteers and contributors to the village’s life and groups and clubs; they are good people who have in many cases, simply always voted Tory.

    I won’t win their votes by talking about socialism, but there are arguments to be made about the concept of sharing, and increasingly they are finding that their children and grandchildren are falling foul of the cuts we all know have happened, so sharing and looking after each other is the language I find useful there. They are also, often, way ahead of me in support for renewable energy, in a desire to cycle safely, ride affordable and appropriate public transport, and recycle everything possible. Those are the conversations which I find easiest to start, and with no leaflet, no canvassing and no visible campaign except being me and doing what I do in my village, I came second on 5th May – to everyone’s surprise. Being local, being connected, being credible, and well-mannered, count for much here. If I’m ever to take that seat at Swindon Borough, I will have to persuade previously Conservative voters to vote for me instead, and that means finding where their concerns and my green ethics intersect, and building on that.

    19th May 2016
  5. […] A couple of weeks ago I wrote that “socialism or ecology” was the wrong question to be asking about the Green Party’s political direction. That applied to the leadership debate as much as the party’s strategy. […]

    31st May 2016

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