Wednesday, 18 September 2013
Some thoughts on the Green Party conference
You probably read the Guardian’s coverage of the Green Party conference this weekend. Some good, though with one misleading headline; Natalie Bennett’s leader’s speech to the Green Party’s conference in Brighton this weekend was actually very little about the surveillance state and firmly foregrounded the social justice agenda; see http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/13/green-leader-parties-spying-scandal and http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/13/greens-food-poverty-inequality-leader. Some critical; Neal Lawson ( http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/15/greens-favourite-party-winning-seats?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 ) and Rowena Mason (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/13/green-leader-natalie-bennett-party-pleasant-green-field ) should have stayed longer to learn what was really going on.
Those of us who were there on Friday and Saturday heard a soul-searching debate which echoed the question raised by Neal Lawson and also in the latest Red Pepper (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/taking-on-the-fruitcakes-how-can-we-stop-ukip/); why is UKIP doing so well and the Greens/the far left parties not ? The debate brought out precisely one of the conclusions of one of Neal’s favourite web sites, Common Cause, the need to put over a party’s values at least as much as its policies. Green core values highlighted in this discussion included caring, sharing, peace, and fairness – from which it should have been clearer to some participants that we are not hoping to compete for the same voters as Farage, presented as the strong man with the winning xenophobic smile behind his beer glass. To reflect our values, it was said, we need to build a movement, to engage in action – in other words, it’s not just about elections. Caroline and the other anti-fracking demonstrators recently set a good example here. Neal Lawson is right that we should not be a “me too" political party – winning elections may be a target for pride, but the most attainable goal may be to shift the left to be lefter and greener, just as UKIP has shifted the Tories to the right. For us this means getting stuck into single issue campaigns and a bit of NVDA sometimes.
We also heard an fairly positive account by Jason Kitcat, Green leader of Brighton Council, of their first two years in office. (Read a lot more on http://www.brightonhovegreens.org/assets/BHGP_PDFs/publications/Mid%20Term%20Report%20September%202013.pdf) . Despite the June row about the bin men’s allowances, over which a hasty decision outraged both the unions and the local Green MP, Brighton Greens can celebrate many achievements. There’s a commitment to evict nobody on account of bedroom tax arrears, a living wage across the Council and its contractors, a reduction of salary spread amongst Council employees, a prize-winning new park, a major increase in use of buses and bikes, better school results and some economic improvement. Plus ring-fencing of youth services and children’s centres, engagement of the population with anti-cuts campaigning, and 500 empty homes brought back into use. Plus free insulation for all over 60s (regardless of income), disabled and low income households, and lots of energy efficiency measures and new heating systems in council housing. All this was paid for by economising on the council’s use of buildings and on energy use within them, by ending council tax discount on empty homes and second homes, and by astute use of competitively won external grants. [There are some lessons for London here – including a suggestion from an Islington member that encouraging cycling and walking could become part of local authorities’ new expanded mandate for public health. By comparison, Haringey can also claim to have the living wage in all but a handful of sub-contractor jobs. But the bedroom tax remains a sore issue, and the 40-20 carbon reduction programme has been very slow to take off. ]
Some on the left of the Green Party remain critical of Brighton Greens’ decision to cling to their minority administration after their ‘no cuts, but raise council tax’ budget was defeated eighteen months ago, leaving Greens with a hard choice about whether to resign or implement £4 million of cuts for lack of more council tax money. But a conference motion respected the Brighton councillors’ decision and reminded Greens of the dangers of allowing the party’s rivals to make capital out of criticism in the public arena. The far left press had a field day a few months ago when Brighton Council was threatened with strikes in the row over employees’ allowances. Jason Kitcat, speaking to conference, claimed that this had now been resolved with a re-jigging of allowances which was fair and had achieved its aim of greater equality for women.
Other highlights of the conference included Caroline Lucas’ private members bill to re-nationalise the railways. Based on the mechanism of taking franchises back into state or community ownership whenever they expire (or the operator goes bankrupt, withdraws or is sacked), this could be a useful model for undoing some NHS privatisations as well. Further details can be found on http://www.carolinelucas.com/media.html/2013/06/26/bring-railways-back-into-public-hands-to-save-a-billion-a-year,-urges-green-mp/ or http://www.bringbackbritishrail.org/.
And lastly, an interesting session covered the threat posed by academy schools, now around half of all English schools. Private companies – by far the majority of school providers - and some religious organisations alike were exposed for cherry-picking pupils, increasing the number of exclusion orders, and employing unqualified teachers. As a local party, in Haringey we perhaps haven’t paid enough attention to the academy issue.