As the debate about the next leader of the Green Party shapes up, I’ve been thinking about what I’m looking for in leadership candidates.
In part, this article is prompted by comments like this:
I want a left-wing, radical and intersectional Green Party Leader next please #GreenLeadership
— Clifford Fleming (@cliffordfleming) May 20, 2016
— Rachel Collinson (@Rachel_shares) May 24, 2016
I can understand the appeal of signals we might send by electing a leader. I could come up with my own 144 character description of the politics and identity of my dream candidate in that vein. But should these considerations be at the top of our list?
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.
In this case, I don’t think the politics or identify of the leadership candidates are the wrong qualities to examine. But after years spent heading up the office for our London Assembly Members, helping to run and then chairing Londonwide election campaigns, and briefing most of the top party figures, I think there are other, more important questions that should come first.
Here are five general qualities I will be looking for. One of the interesting problems with this list is that they aren’t always immediately obvious if you have no personal experience of the person.
1. Understanding of Green philosophy and policies
They don’t need to be a policy wonk. But they do need a solid understanding of our philosophical basis and our key policies. A leader that doesn’t really understand what makes us fundamentally different to the Labour Party, the Socialist Party or Friends of the Earth won’t cut it.
2. Experience of high profile media interviews
By this I don’t mean that they have often been on an obscure channel like RT, or that they have done the occasional interview for national or regional TV.
Most interviews are pretty soft. I’ve done my share for national and regional radio and TV. The interviewer isn’t looking to catch you out. They might ask a few awkward questions, but a little media training will get most people through these without gaffes. I have, mind you, heard some truly awful interviews by prominent Greens who refuse media training and ignore briefings, including at least one person who will probably stand for leader.
No, I want to know that they can take the kind of heat Natalie felt during the General Election last year.
Can they shine when thrust into a BBC studio to be grilled live on national TV/radio by experienced journalists backed up by research departments that dwarf the party’s resources? Or do they have a tendency to make things up on the spot, fumble the issue, and drift into wild and unusual statements, all things I’ve seen other Greens (and other parties’ politicians) do in the past.
3. Good tactical nous
The next five years will see many unpredictable twists and turns in the national political landscape. Big questions will be asked about political alliances and about our positioning vis-a-vis Labour and the Liberal Democrats (and Plaid Cymru).
Assuming we remain in the EU, we will need the best possible political and organisational strategy to have any hope of gaining a fourth or fifth seat in the European Parliament in 2019. Gaining a seat in the UK Parliament in 2020 will be a huge challenge. Positioning ourself nationally to gain more local council seats is another consideration.
I want a leader with significant experience of mainstream politics, ideally gained through experience of elected office. They need to have developed good political instincts, and be able to negotiate with and command the respect of other politicians.
They should also have been involved with election campaigns, and have identified the elements of a successful campaign. Just having been part of a campaign doesn’t tell you very much. The extent to which candidates, staff and volunteers I’ve worked with brought good ideas and instincts to the table varied widely. Some simply ride on the coattails of others, and notch up pretty poor results in their own wards and constituencies when unaided.
They obviously won’t be knees-deep in the detail of local target constituency planning, but if they lack a good understanding of what’s needed the national political strategy will be all wrong.
4. A collegiate style of leadership
It’s obvious, but it’s amazing how many people I’ve come across that just aren’t team players. We can all be pig-headed and high-handed at times, but some people seem to exude those qualities when people actually have to work with them. Some people only bring demands and personal agendas to the table, and aren’t willing to get behind a team.
Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. To be effective, the leader will need an effective executive (Gpex) on good terms with the regional council (Gprc) and an effective staff in the national office. A good political and media strategy will emerge from a good organisation. If they can’t work well with Gpex, Gprc, the staff and our top-flight politicians, they simply won’t work.
That said, I also want somebody who understands when leadership is required and how to provide it. When there appears to be a consensus emerging, we often need the leader to drive us all forward.
5. Loyal to the party
Loyalty isn’t a quality the public seem to think any politician possesses. Loyalty to the party seems positively frowned upon.
But having worked with politicians and candidates, I’ve come to realise that it is absolutely necessary. It is all too easy to put your own advancement ahead of the party, and down that road lies ruin. I want somebody absolutely committed to the party and our politics, not to themselves.
After these general tests of competence, I of course have other things I’d like to see. I’d like to see a leader whose politics is close to mine. Somebody who focuses on the things I care about. But I won’t pretend for a minute that my particular interests are a necessarily good basis for the national party’s political strategy.
This contest is a good time for a debate about our political direction, but I don’t think it’s the right time for this to be a deciding factor. If we felt the party was veering away from its core values, as Labour members felt last year, then we might want to opt for a candidate who will bring a certain kind of politics back to the fore, regardless of whether they have leadership skills (as with Corbyn). But I don’t think the Green Party membership feels that way. Too often we disguise our subjective preferences as evidence-based arguments. Our political direction, anchored in our philosophical basis, should come out of a thorough review led by a competent organisation, not the personal views of our leader. So this consideration will be some way down my list.
I’ve been proud to have had female leaders since we adopted the leadership model. It would be wonderful to have the country’s first BME or trans leader, or somebody from the north of England with a local working class accent.
But it would do the party and the candidate no favours to prematurely catapult somebody into the role of Leader on the basis of their politics or home town if they don’t also have the skills and experience required. The worst way to get diversity is to pick somebody under-qualified on the basis of their identity. I hope we do get a diverse field of well qualified candidates, and will be encouraging promising people I know to stand for the various Gpex and leadership positions. I hope that will all the talent coming through the party, the leadership team will remain diverse, and perhaps less London-centric.
We should continue to use the many other opportunities within the party to further develop talented individuals. We have fantastically talented women able to take roles like Leader, MP, Peer and Mayoral candidate and shine in them. They got there through learning the ropes in other positions in the party, supported with training and mentoring by groups like Green Party Women. We can redouble our efforts to do the same for others.
Picking the wrong person for the extremely tough job of leader because we like their politics or identity won’t help them or the party. As Benali Hamdache wisely wrote in this excellent article, “we shouldn’t be afraid to ask whether [candidates] are battle-hardened enough”.
As Natalie found, the leader will most likely be subjected to as many hostile interviews as friendly ones. They will have the opportunity to open negotiations with senior politicians (and will likely be ignored if they have no reputation or status to trade on besides being our party leader).
Once the glow of election wears off, how will they feel as they come up short? When their attempts at negotiation founder as other politicians ignore them? When the media tear them to shreds?
How will members and supporters feel?
I’ll be looking for candidates that are up to the job of leader, and I hope to have a few to decide between. I’ll also be hoping we have some energetic deputies to share the load and a good slate of competent people going for Gpex to back them up.