Monday, 17 December 2007

Blairite realos whack anarcho bhuddists

In the 1980's Green politics arrived on the British electoral scene with the emergence of the Green Party of England and Wales [GPEW]. Since then there has been an increasing recognition of 'green' issues, and, an acknowledgement that there is an urgent need to deal with climate change by almost all UK political parties. However GPEW itself has not advanced with the causes that it advocates. The Green Party of England and Wales is still a small political party, it has no Westminster MP’s, 2 MEP’s, 2 Greater London Assembly members and 92 local councillors.

Many in GPEW feel that it is in a political rut, where everyone seems interested in 'its' issues, but no one votes for it. Some attribute this to the GPEW's organisation; unlike most other parties, it has no leaders, but 'Principal Speakers' instead. Due to dissatisfaction with this arrangement a referendum of GPEW members has been held and in a landslide result, announced on 30/12/2007, 73% voted for leadership and 23% against on a 48.5% turnout.. This event and the campaign preceding it has attracted little attention in the UK media, perhaps because the referendum motion put before GPEW members had the central proposition of a mere change in the title from ‘Principal Speaker’ to ‘Leader.

Green Party activists have given this more attention, indeed some seem to have been totally occupied with it, and this may not entirely be political navel-gazing because the leadership issue is identified as being crucial to its future in British politics.

The victorious reformers argued that the introduction of the title leader will enable the Party to get its ideas across. “…without an effective leadership team we’re just not communicating our message as urgently and effectively as we should.” states Darren Johnson. Leadership is seen as enabling GPEW to enter a political ‘mainstream’; this means winning more votes, which pro-leaderists believe the party has been impeded from doing by the ‘media unfriendliness’ of its organisation. A point of view endorsed by John Vidal, Environment Editor of the Guardian. “Not having a leader has stopped mainstream political reporting of the Green Party for years. Having a leader would make for a better platform.”

However it is not only the media who are identified as making leadership necessary, many, like Cllr Maria Iacovou, argue that majority public opinion relates to and needs a leader; “Our current leaderless state does not attract and inspire people – (…)They just think it's weird.”

In the run up to the referendum it seems that the No-leaderists had been communicating with a different public, since they posit that increasing political apathy, as evidenced by decreasing electoral turnouts is related to exactly the conventional political structures they have been arguing unsuccessfully for GPEW members to reject. As Green Party Principal Speaker Derek Wall says: "We need a Green Party which is effective and empowering, doing things differently from the top down traditional politics that turns voters off.” Such ideas are coupled with notions that the form of political organisation practised by GPEW could represent some form of prototype or “a new approach to decision-making - one that diffuses power rather than concentrates it." (Nick Hildyard, former Co-editor of The Ecologist). The No campaign website ( contains several warnings of the potential perils of leadership and appeals to an activism which perhaps goes beyond the ballot box.

In the arguments of the no campaign that it seems that this difference has been about more than political form and nomenclature, Aled Fisher is unequivocal that “Green politics is about radical social change” whilst Derek Wall fears that "Conventional leadership with a single leader almost always comes with commitments to water down the message, to remove real debate and participation...".

However the leadership debate cannot simply be characterised as a left/right issue. Some advocates of both camps identify themselves the Party as ‘leftwing’ or ‘socialist’, for instance Cllr Rupert Read states a pro-leadership argument thus: “…we eco-socialists need to be quite clear that it is a merely individualistic fantasy to think that everyone is equally suited to leading.”

Splits in some European Green parties, are often characterised as being between the ‘realos’ [realists] and ‘funds’ (fundamentalists). In terms of the GPEW referendum, the result looks like an overwhelming 'realo' victory, however a split is probably not likely. At an inebriated wake for their lost cause in a north London pub, many leading no-leaderists, expressed a resolve to stay in the Party and w fight on. "Now, they've won it, we have to give the five years to see what they can do with it." One activist opined. This paraphrases Derek Wall's soberer reaction to the result: ""The result of this referendum challenges the Party to create a leadership structure that is true to green ideals. It has put our future leaders on notice that the membership expects a more focused, more effective party, with a leadership team that is truly accountable to the membership in a real and effective manner."

In the pub and elsewhere, many attribute the 'yes' victory to the tactic of appealing by postal ballot to the 'armchair' membership, those who pay their subs and seldom attend party meetings. Probably the defeated side are right judging that most of their support came from the minority of activists within GPEW and this could mean if a yes vote does indeed deliver a high media profile it may be at the cost of losing grassroots party activists.

In any event, the fortunes of Green politics may be determined by more alarming events than a 'landslide in a teacup'. Some may recall that the first British Green electoral successes followed soon after the Chernobyl disaster and a hurricane in south-east England. But until the Kraken wakes to devour the Thames barrier, it seems safe to state that both sides in the GPEW leadership debates will say that the Party has now taken a step down the right path, however they could both mean different things by this.