It is often said by party members that a particular strategy, tactic or policy should be debated at one of the bi-annual conferences. The most obvious recent example is the issue of progressive alliances.
Like most members I believe that the actions and statements of our leadership and senior politicians must be rooted in decisions taken democratically by party structures including conference, the Executive and Regional Council.
But we have to realise that politics isn’t a calm and linear business. You don’t spend two years moving from conference motion A to national strategy B and politician action C and then achieve desired result D.
Politics isn’t – to oversimplify and probably misrepresent these martial arts – like tai chi, a slow and focused series of forms and movements done by oneself. It’s much more like jujutsu, an unpredictable contest in which you and the opponent react to one another, and try to manipulate the other’s strength and force to your advantage.
If we demand that every action and tactical decision is debated and signed off we will tie their hands and lose every contest.
I’ve written before about the reality of Green Party policy-making – how, in practice, most policy that finds its way into the papers and onto the radio waves is made by politicians and their staff, rather than Conference. Their ideas are, where possible, in the framework agreed by conference, but they aren’t required to sit out topical debates for months on end until they can get the approval of conference for a novel position.
Consider this. The deadline for submitting motions to the last conference was at the end of May. Since then we have had the EU referendum result and the rapidly unfolding fallout, the party leadership contests (including our own) and the ongoing turbulence in the Labour Party, and major international events including Trump’s victory. The discussions about electoral pacts and alliances have evolved rapidly, across party lines and with other actors like Compass. What motion at that conference could have provided a useful steer to our leading figures on how to make the Green Party cut through on all of these issues? How could it foresee or frame all the possibilities that have unfolded or that have been closed down? I’m not dismissing the idea that any motion could be of use, but it’s worth reflecting on what sort of framework it might provide.
Anything agreed by Conference or the Executive needs to be fluid, allowing the leadership and senior politicians to react to unfolding events, to position themselves to cut through and remain relevant, and to spot weaknesses and opportunities for gains. We need to place a degree of trust in the leadership, executive and regional council that we have democratically elected.
Our current governance structure tries to reflect this in the hierarchy of conference, regional council, executive and political committee. There is clearly a degree of dissatisfaction, and the governance review process is starting to identify the right questions to address that.
But it is not just a matter of structures. Too often we seek to address a problem like political strategy or the lack of diversity with structures, when the problem largely lies elsewhere.
In the case of political strategy I think we need political education as much as new structures – education about the cut and thrust of high-level politics, drawing on those with experience of strategies and tactics that cut through in terms of electoral success, national profile and actual policy gains. As a party we’re good at valuing each member’s equal voice, but we’re not always good at valuing experience and knowledge.
It’s not that we should abandon internal democracy, and let small groups of people make decisions in closed meetings. Rather, we need to come up with more intelligent and dynamic ways of involving members and balancing grassroots control with effective frontline politics.
If we’re going to win more of these jujutsu contests, we all need to move from the linear A-then-B-then-C thinking that seeks to tie our hands to a more fluid and effective form of politics.