by Olivia Hanks
The Green Party has come a long way in the last few years. When Natalie Bennett took over from Caroline Lucas as leader in 2012, the party had 13,000 members and won just over a quarter of a million votes in the 2010 general election. In 2015, that rose to more than one million votes, while membership shot up to 60,000. The party is now embarking on its first leadership election under these drastically changed conditions. With Bennett announcing last month that she would not be re-standing for the leadership, the stage was set for an exciting contest for the votes of this vastly increased electorate, with many hoping for a debate on the direction of the party and anticipating the emergence of new voices.
And now the contest is over before it had begun. On Tuesday, the day before nominations opened, Lucas and Jonathan Bartley declared their joint candidacy. Many were delighted to see Lucas – a brilliant, energetic, principled politician and indisputably the face of the party – put herself forward for the role. However, it is precisely because of her unique status in the party that some now feel deflated, cheated of a real leadership contest.
Green activists are all too familiar with the question “Why isn’t Caroline Lucas still the leader?” It felt at times during last year’s General Election campaign as though the party was being punished for the fact that not all of its key figures could be Caroline. Reinstating her as leader, then, might seem an obvious step. Supporters of Labour and the Conservatives may well be bewildered by such ambivalence towards an obvious stand-out candidate with a track record of electoral success, wielding popularity most of their MPs can only dream of. But it’s different for the Greens, who do not have hundreds of MPs and thousands of councillors from whom to draw their leaders. It is vital for the party to develop new talent and help less well known figures to build a media presence.
Supporters of Labour and the Conservatives may well be bewildered by such ambivalence towards an obvious stand-out candidate with a track record of electoral success, wielding popularity most of their MPs can only dream of.
Of course, the party leadership is not the place for an inexperienced politician to develop their skills. However, the elections for deputy leader should be an opportunity for newer voices to be heard. With current deputy leader Amelia Womack having said she would not stand against Lucas, and others likely to be similarly deterred, not only will the leadership contest be weakened but there will be a knock-on effect on the deputy elections if experienced figures stand for that position instead.
Further, the party’s elections rules dictate that if two co-leaders are elected, there will be only one deputy leader rather than two. If a Lucas-Bartley victory is essentially a done deal the number of roles truly up for grabs is reduced to one. While some commentators have applauded the ‘radical’ idea of having two co-leaders, this idea is nothing new in the Green Party: it had two ‘principal speakers’ rather than a leader until 2007, and the Scottish Greens still have two co-convenors. The party in England and Wales switched to having a leader in part because the media’s inability to grasp the concept of principal speakers was making it hard to gain publicity. I see no evidence that this has changed – Patrick Harvie is frequently referred to as the leader of the Scottish Green Party, while the other co-convenor, Maggie Chapman, is forgotten.
A Lucas victory would be one thing. It’s hard to argue with her credentials, and it would be silly to suggest that she had no right to stand. But by standing on a joint ticket with Bartley – who has strong media experience in his favour, but who has never been elected to public office and is relatively little known in the party outside London – she has effectively selected as the party’s new leader a candidate who would not have won on his own. It is unlikely many people will stand against them, and it is almost unthinkable that anybody else might win. A simple decision to delay declaring their candidacy until nearer the close of nominations would have allowed more time for a debate to take shape, and potentially maintained media interest for longer.
Signalling a move towards Labour just a month after Greens lost seats to them in three of their strongest cities is certainly controversial
Lucas and Bartley are running under the slogan “The Power of Working Together” – for which read electoral pacts. As the cornerstone of their campaign, it’s hardly stirring, visionary stuff. Talk of working with the Labour Party is meaningless unless 1) Labour want it and 2) Labour want proportional representation; and there is very little evidence of either. Many newer party members may be attracted by the idea of working together, but those who have long experience of local Labour parties tend to be more sceptical. Signalling a move towards Labour just a month after Greens lost seats to them in three of their strongest cities is certainly controversial, and the platform merits massive discussion – which now looks unlikely to happen.
And it’s that, not the policy platform itself, which is the problem. Lucas and Bartley’s ideas for the party will probably not now be subject to the kind of rigorous debate and scrutiny that a leadership contest should involve. Whereas a contest featuring, say, Womack (a young campaigner who has been most vocal on social justice issues) and Andrew Cooper (a Kirklees councillor who has years of local government experience and is generally seen as more focused on ‘core’ environmental issues) would have facilitated a real, difficult and stimulating debate on the direction of the party, this question now feels as though it has already been decided – a deeply uncomfortable situation for a party that places such emphasis on member participation and open debate. I hope the contest proves me wrong.
Featured image © Sarah Lee for theguardian.com