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.
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:
- The party’s political philosophy.
- Our messaging during election campaigns.
- 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.