Seven lessons from seven years in City Hall

I’ve been a Green Party member, activist and officer at local, regional and national levels for ten years. But the honour and joy of working full-time for two Green politicians is a rare one in so small a party. So I thought I’d share some lessons from those seven years, things I would never have guessed before I stepped through the doors of City Hall to work in the London Assembly in September 2009.

I imagine that there is nothing very special about my experiences here; that similar things could be said of members and politicians in the Labour Party, or Green MEPs.

1. Greens show remarkably little interest in their politicians

Once a month members of the London Green Party can quiz their Assembly Members and MEP about their work. But when the opportunity arises, almost nobody asks them a question.

Before I worked with them I knew very little about what Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones actually did. Now I see it in other people who put their lives on hold for weeks and months to campaign in London elections, and who then pay at most a passing interest in the work of those they helped to elect.

Most members I meet are still unaware of many of their politicians’ amazing achievements. Despite endless leaflets and web pages and media appearances trumpeting them, few know that Jenny Jones set up the London Food organisation, helped establish London’s first Community Land Trust and secured planning policies to help small shops. Few know that Darren Johnson got Ken Livingstone to set up the first civil partnerships register in the country, Boris Johnson to launch a bus safety action plan, or Thames Water to start their mains leakage replacement programme.

Social media has undoubtedly changed this for some, making it easier to follow the twists and turns of their work on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

2. Members only decide a fraction of our policy

We rightly celebrate that all members have equal weight in the party conference policy process. Members matter, and are in control of the policy framework called Policies for a Sustainable Society.

But I’m afraid that in reality that document provides, at best, some general guidance for elected Greens. In my time at City Hall we barely ever referred to it, and almost all policy decisions were made by the Assembly Members and the staff team. Why?

    • The PfSS mostly focuses on national policy for a rather utopian Green government, so has little to say about regional and local government.
    • Manifestos give more concrete and timely expression to the PfSS, but while no policies should contradict the PfSS few London manifesto policies actually developed directly out of it. These manifestos have democratic checks and balances, and opportunity for member input, but they aren’t written through a conference or regional party voting process.
    • Conference is slow to change the PfSS, while politics moves fast. For example, we knew from the PfSS that the party was broadly in favour of social housing and wanted people’s rights to housing to be respected. But when it comes to the detail of welfare cuts, housing budget allocations and planning decisions we developed our own policy positions. Sometimes I managed to change the PfSS to reflect positions we were taking.
    • Most of the policies we are known for in London – Sian Berry’s renters’ union, Jenny Jones’ cycle hire scheme, Darren Johnson’s community-led estate regeneration, Caroline Russell’s healthy streets – were developed by them and their teams in City Hall and the election campaigns. They’re often inspired by, or are copied from, work by NGOs and campaign groups. We have a talent for spotting good ideas and getting Mayors to adopt them. They rarely come out of proposals from the PfSS.

I don’t regret any of these points, nor do I think it undermines the sense that members matter in the Green Party. But it’s a conceit to think that all policy is decided by members at conference.

3. The media aren’t that hostile to the Green Party

Greens, like Corbynistas, love outsider status. We are definitely sidelined by most of the media at a national level. But in London we actually punch above our weight and get a good amount of coverage from the mainstream media.

In both the 2012 and 2016 elections, the broadcasters and main papers treated us as one of the main parties, with equal status to the Lib Dems. On average in the past five years our City Hall office got 1.5 ‘hits’ in the national or big regional media every day, a better hit rate per member – we believed – than any other party group.

We did the research to ensure our message was credible, both in criticising the Mayor and proposing alternative policies. We developed systems to react extremely quickly to events with a punchy and lively contribution. We developed good relationships with journalists and some editors. We showed we could wield real influence over both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. We became players without being entirely subsumed by the mainstream agenda. A competent operation can overcome, to an extent, inherent biases.

4. You really need a Green in the room

It’s widely assumed that the Green Party isn’t needed now that other parties take ‘green’ issues seriously. It’s also often argued within the Green Party that we shouldn’t focus too much on ecological issues for fear of reinforcing the impression that we’re a single issue party.

But in my experience, it was all too often necessary to have a Green politician in the room to get ecological issues raised, and all too important for them to take those opportunities.

For example, in the 14 years before Jenny Jones chaired the Assembly’s Economy Committee it had never launched an investigation into any aspect of environmental economics. She dedicated a considerable slice of her time as Chair to a ground breaking investigation into the impacts of climate change on London’s economy. Even after that work Jenny and Darren needed to constantly remind other parties of its conclusions, for example when considering airport expansion – a proposal that would only hasten economic collapse.

Cycling was first raised by Greens in 2000, as it was dismissed as “not transport” by other parties. Now it is mainstream, but there is still a pressing need for Greens to work with cycling campaigners to avoid backtracking. The same has happened with health issues like air pollution, which – sixteen years after we first raised it – is now near the top of London’s political agenda.

Yes, there are other social and economic issues raised only by the Greens, such as the Spirit Level arguments on inequality, or the arguments against workfare. But more than anything, Greens are needed to raise ecological issues and have a responsibility to do so.

5. Cross-party co-operation is possible with PR

I’ve heard too many stories from Green councillors about the adolescent culture of town hall chambers. One of the real pleasures working in the London Assembly was the friendly cross-party culture.

One strong reason is the proportional electoral system. PR creates a diverse chamber that dilutes the power of the two big parties. Working for two Greens in a chamber of twenty five, you have to work with other parties to get anything done. But most of the time Labour and the Conservatives also need at least one other vote to get a working majority. Not only do you avoid the tedious game-playing of council chambers, you also get the benefit of many minds from different political traditions seeking common ground.

This was also supposed to happen in the Scottish Parliament, an assumption that the SNP have upended with their incredible dominance north of the border.

The unusual culture probably also results from having a small chamber. Only having 25 members means that most get to know each other well. Friendly working relationships and even friendships develop across party lines. Focusing on scrutinising the Mayor – pursued even by the Mayor’s own party – helps to bind them in a shared project. The relatively low stakes must also help – it’s rare that the Assembly, with its weak power, truly threatens the Mayor’s power.

While we most often sought common cause with Labour and the Lib Dems, I also enjoyed that we could do so with the Conservatives on many occasions. Only the BNP and UKIP were seen as beyond the pale. In my later years this frayed as Labour took a less collegial approach, which was a great pity.

6. The search for influence can be oppressive

Borrowing from Stephen Lukes, if you’re not in charge, you have two kinds of power left: influencing the Mayor to adopt your proposals, and influencing the political landscape and dominant ideology. The latter is a project for individual political parties, and was always one half of our strategy in the Green Party Group.

A lot of work is done through cross-party committees, which want to influence the Mayor.

How do you influence the Mayor, and the officials that will evaluate, advise and implement? You have to pitch your proposals within the dominant ideology. You have to show they are supported by people with political weight – business and local government leaders and officials, mainstream academics, and so on. You hope to achieve cross-party consensus to show that the Mayor’s party supports the idea and that it is politically uncontroversial.

Committee scrutiny usually follows this path. What it means, though, is that non-mainstream ideas and groups are repeatedly shut out or marginalised.

It’s not that council tenants or environmental activists or outspoken police critics are looked down upon (they will be by a few Members but not most). It’s that the very aims of the committees, the parameters by which they formulate the scope of investigations and the evidence they are seeking, leaves too many on the margins from the outset.

Greens can resist this. For example, pushed on by the Just Space Network and London Tenants Federation and working closely with them, we gave tenants a clear voice in an investigation into housing estate regeneration. In place of the token tenant on a panel of professionals, the committee heard 90 minutes of choreographed testimony about their many concerns and experiences.

7. Campaigners aren’t all the same

Talking of tenants, I’ve come to appreciate the broad landscape of housing campaigners in London. While we always sought to work with campaigners, it’s important to learn about the understand the differences of opinion, and to develop a tactical Green approach rather than be led by the first group you come across.

For example, on one council estate under threat of demolition you have the radical housing campaigners occupying flats and dropping ‘class war’ banners; the local social housing campaigners dissecting and exposing broken promises; the tenants’ association trying to secure what it thinks is the best deal for residents; and the tenants who are just fed up of the damp. There are also city-wide and national campaign groups that can mix in and take an interest. They don’t all get on.

Some housing groups have deep-set antipathy toward each other. That may arise from policy differences. Some want to take control of their estate, transferring their homes to a co-operative to retain social housing and lead their own regeneration process. Others see this as a betrayal.

Working with campaigners was central to our group strategy. But you have to be careful not to tie yourself too closely to any one group’s agenda, no matter how appealing it may seem, especially if you don’t yet understand the wider landscape.

If I could summarise the Green Party Group’s approach, it was to embrace all of this complexity while maintaining a clear simplicity, guided all the time by a good strategy.

You delve down into the complex mess, trying to better understand the issues, the stakeholders, the media angles, the positions of other groups, the tactical opportunities. And when you gain some understanding – which might take weeks or years – you emerge with one or two simple ideas that you can then relentlessly plug away at.

It was a tiring but incredibly enjoyable and rewarding seven years.

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