With due apologies for the click bait style of this post, being awake for too much of the past 2 days makes coherent blogging difficult!
1. The results sure that it’s material concerns that influenced how people vote. Older and wealthier people voted no in the largest numbers. They suffer least from austerity and the rolling back of the state. Meanwhile 16 and 17 year olds and people in poorer areas voted overwhelmingly for independence.
2. Further powers is a difficult thing to deliver for the UK government. Already the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland are demanding a part of the changes. This makes it much more difficult to manage expectations that the powers Scotland might get will be a good thing.
Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones is especially keen to see Scotland’s funding decreased. It’s unclear how Westminster will manage this process, and it seems like the ‘timetable’ is slipping already. The complexity makes it very difficult to see a resolution any time soon, and given that it will take 9 years from inception to enactment to devolve power over stamp duty, landfill tax and air guns the chances of this process getting bogged down are very high.
3. I’m still unsure how the Westminster parties square the circle of more tax raising powers for Scotland with their claims that they won’t end the Barnett formula, which is based on spending in the rest of the UK. Either you have a block grant based on spending or you raise your own taxes. Unless substantial borrowing powers are also devolved (which no one has proposed and is very unlikely) this settlement will result in a great deal of instability in government income in Scotland. Which may be aim of the Westminster parties keen to make Holyrood make difficult decisions. But it may also blow a hole in any settlement at the next recession as tax incomes and private spending drop and borrowing is required to make up the shortfall through counter cyclical spending.
4. A price must be paid for Holyrood’s temerity in challenging Westminster. We shot at the King and we missed. It’s likely to be the poor and possibly the old that bear the brunt of this. There is no way that the Westminster parties will forgive the Scottish people for making them crawl with the offer of more powers. This price will come in the form of cuts to benefits for older people (currently untouched by austerity) and more cuts to social security for the working poor and those out of work. With huge tranches of austerity still to come there will have to be cuts in different areas of public expenditure. Sadly this could have been avoided with independence, but it wasn’t to be.
5. It’s almost certain that the ‘solidarity’ argument will be destroyed by Conservatives curtailing the right of Scottish MPs to vote on ‘English matters’. Many arguments against independence focused on keeping Westminster MPs to ‘save the north of England’. But the Conservatives have a very obvious way to circumvent this. By defining what is an ‘English issue’ very broadly, Scottish MPs will be reduced to voting on finance bills and little else. That really would build in a permanent Conservative majority at Westminster. Especially if the number of Scottish MPs is reduced in light of their reduced role.
This will be so popular with an English electorate that already feels disenfranchised and occasionally vengeful towards Scotland that Labour will find it very difficult to oppose.
6. It shows movement politics can work. In contrast with point 1, it seems that the opportunity to create a new politics motivated people like no other issue. The ability of the Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal, National Collective and Green Yes to create mass engagement was unprecedented. It shows that we need to work hard on our vision of a new politics to engage people.
And that engagement needs to start now.
Where some thought we were sovereign between 7am and 10pm on the 18th September, we’ve been sovereign for over 2 years. We need to keep that sovereignty alive though our mass movement. The struggle continues: our day will come.
6am. Rain and fog. Edinburgh Park and Ride. Defeat.
It’s a long way home from there.
We had just witnessed the count for the Scottish independence referendum and we lost. Unambiguously.
I had often felt it unfitting to end this two year carnival with a simple yes/no X on a slip of paper. The definition of an anti-climax. Such a process is utterly incapable of containing the hopes and dreams we have for our country.
And yet of course it did matter. A lot.
On the tram journey home we tried to talk ourselves out of despondency. Sometimes we slipped back. A tear was shed, or two. Yes posters we passed didn’t help. I had a feeling that after all the excitement someone had pressed a reset button. Back to square one. No more political imagination.
But as we chatted and pondered a clearer picture began to emerge. One of a Scottish electorate standing up to take part. One of millions of people making bold decisions. A story of people not doing what they were told, and believing in something different.
Despite folk being told that voting Yes would mean migrants being thrown out of the country, exclusion from the EU and the pound, indeed the very demise of the Scottish economy, despite all this an incredible 85% of our people voted and gave 45% their vote to starting a new state.
The many thousands of new people who took part in this election will shape our politics completely beyond recognition in the coming months and coming elections. It is vital we encourage and help them in doing so. This is a time for movement building. We need to be asking Yes voters to join a political party, join an activist group, join lot of groups. Time for holding a meeting or starting an email thread. Let’s conspire, plan, do things and with new people. The momentum can build from here. Get your favourite books and blogs back off the shelves. Find the politics we can build on with the opportunities we do have.
Constitutional reform, a renewables revolution, citizens income, land value tax, free child care, democratic local banking – all within our reach if we can stay organised and reaffirm our ties (and make new ones) with organisations across of the border.
We must be prepared for a UK General Election where all the “main” parties are pledging further austerity. With new tax powers a Scottish Parliament could block this to a point, but we’ll need all our momentum from this campaign to win.
Of course the election mattered. It was huge. It was amazing. It scared the crap out of UK politics. But as Danny Chivers puts most wonderfully “every day is election day”. We are not done yet.
Need some inspiration on what to do next? Here is just a smattering:
- Scottish Green Party Conference, 11-12 October. Greens annual meeting in Edinburgh will be buzzing with new members. Come take part!
- Scotland’s vote, Britain’s crisis: politics after the referendum (with Radical Independence), Tue 23 September, SOAS University of London
- Global Justice / Open Space, Edinburgh (World Development Movement, NIDOS, Jubilee Scotland, People & Planet) Sun 5 October and many other amazing events at the Edinburgh World Justice Festival.
- Third Sector Summit, 20 November, Glasgow
- Take One Action Film Festival, Glasgow and Edinburgh, 19 September – 4 October
National Collective, Radical Independence and People & Planet are all hosting meetings in the next week to decide what to do from here on. Others will be too. Take the weekend off. Then get ready to get involved in something.
On a sunny day two years and four months ago in a multiplex in Fountainbridge (the sort of sunny day Spring day where you’d think “this is no day to be cooped up in a cinema”) Alex Salmond, Sean Connery and celebs and politicians launched the Yes Scotland campaign. It was slick, carefully scripted, comfortable, reassuringly respectable. It was everything the campaign turned out not to be. We were not inspired.
Enter the Radical Independence Campaign. A ball of young socialist energy, RIC got organised in 2012 holding two incredible conferences in Glasgow, building support around proper, radical political ideas, registering working class voters by the thousands and galvanising a support base of confident, internationalist fighters. RIC always said that independence could just be the start. Well it’s been an amazing infancy – taking part in its blossoming promises to be something incredible. We’re seeing the rise of an organised left in Scotland. It’s been a while.
So many wonderful ideas have come to print over this campaign. Blogs have positively buzzed with brilliant radical discussion from all political hues. Writers and journalists have given us much to cherish, mentioning Lesley Riddoch, Gerry Hassan, and Iain Macwhirter to name but a few.
The Jimmy Reid Foundation, now at the brink of a split (or more accurately, a productive explosion) over the referendum, has provided much needed clarity of purpose. Their Common Weal project is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for a better politics, and is an essential contribution to Scottish political discussion no matter what happens in the vote. We are now equipped to talk seriously about land value tax, breaking up the banks, nationalising transport, a renewal of Scottish industry, and many other crucial ideas.
And there’s the dreamers: the artists! Wow! Have you ever seen such a creative outpouring? The artists got organised in National Collective, and what a force it’s been. The Yestival tour solidified independence as a creative movement for change as well as a solidly political one. I have been amazed by the poetry, the music, the public art, the wonderful posters, badges, and murals. There has been brilliant comedy too. Art has an ability to get to the heart of an issue in a way cold text always falls short. That goes for comedy too, as the wonderful Jonny and the Baptists proved.
The Green Yes campaign has shown much needed alternative from within the elected parties. The Greens, who risked much taking on the fight despite their traditional light-green base, are now full of fresh momentum. Without the Scottish Greens there would be no voice espousing a wealthy, equitable, green powered Scotland as an alternative to the black black oil bonanza of the SNP (and most other UK parties). A party official told me yesterday they’d had 50 people join in one day. Brilliant.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speakers from Women for Independence, Farmers for Yes, Third Sector Yes, So Say Scotland, Christians for Yes, English Scots for Yes, and many, many other national groups and local branches of the same over the last two years. Even my devout anarchist friends joined the campaign – and voted.
This is a genuine mass movement, of the likes we’ve not seen for a long, long time. Walking by the National Gallery yesterday I was surrounded by strangers having deep conversations about political change. In the context of history, the significance this nation-wide discussion should be fully understood to be on a par with the Putney Debates.
Today in Scotland the left is better organised, more energetic and clearer minded than it ever has been. Why?
Someone recently asked me why the AV referendum didn’t spark such excitement. I have also heard folk say “why should we need a referendum to have all of this excitement about politics”. The reason is not opaque: we were being offered meaningful change. Being given the opportunity for something different, no matter how risky or challenging it might be to bring about, was was the starting gun for this spectacular constitutional carnival.
The clarity of purpose of friends joining the campaign from elsewhere has buoyed us no end. Joe Greenwood, who campaigned with us last weekend, told us why this could change England too. To put it simply: “we have a chance to quake the British state and establishment to its core – how could we pass it up?” Along with the contributions of other rUK groups such as Red Pepper and Open Democracy, momentum is building around the idea that this could be the starting gun of England’s own renewal movement. To answer Josie Long’s call for “England to have its own referendum”, Scottish independence could yet provide the space for political imagination, so sorely needed south of the border.
So as Ken Ferguson points out in the excellent Red Pepper magazine, either way we have won. The referendum has unleashed colourful and powerful political forces which will not be contained.
We are better organised and ready to make a difference. Today turnout will be the highest in Scottish history. These new voters will not be voting for business as usual when we are next asked to elect a parliament.
We have built a movement for change that will no longer be satisfied with slick, carefully scripted, comfortable, and reassuringly respectable politics of two years ago. We are anarchic, creative, radical, powerful and utterly earth shattering and, no matter what happens tonight, we are now ready to change these islands for better.
Last night, referendum eve, I was at a local Greenpeace talk with Benny Wenda, exiled West Papuan leader, speaking to our little crowd of 15 or so about how he escaped his Indonesian Jail, ran for two weeks to the border, and escaped using a fake passport to Britain. Benny has been fighting for his people’s freedom from the oppression of the Indonesian government and European mining companies, watching from a distance while activist after activist has been murdered. They have given up their lives for one cause: for West Papua to have a referendum on independence.
It certainly put things in context.
After the meeting I left out onto the Grassmarket. This part of the Old Town looks its most mediaeval in the mist, and there was thick fog last night. I was reminded of the violent mob of Edinburghers who roamed the streets some 308 years ago, seeking the meeting of MPs where the Treaty of Union was being ratified. At the end of the way, on the spot where prisoners at the time were executed by hanging, a group of folk in matching red t-shirts were chanting at passers by, something like “please vote no”, in an aggressive tone. Perhaps tonight had echoes of history? As I got closer I realised the mixture of fog and political fever had played a trick on me: this was not a NO THANKS mob: Napier University freshers students were chanting “drink the shoe, drink the shoe”.
Whilst utterly historic, this is an independence referendum apart. No blood-loss, no struggle. And a lot less nationalism than outsiders might expect. This has not been a battle of Britain vs. Scotland, Union Flag vs. Saltire, and anyone who sees this is viewing conveniences and missing joyful subtleties. The Police even intervened this week to tell us all just how civil this debate has been.
As I climbed the cobbles along mostly quiet streets, all passers by were discussing politics in bright terms, despite the dark and the weather. Phrases like “written constitution” and “tax reform”. Not an ordinary night.
I passed Parliament Square and Moray House, rumoured site of the secret signing of the aforementioned Treaty. I thought of all the people who devoted their lives to give the people their due rights. 18Th century reformers like the Edinburgh Society of the Friends of the People exiled to Australia, and the chartists, the suffragettes, and those who campaigned for Scotland’s parliament.
As Justin Kenrick points out no matter how we vote today we continue this historic tradition. We will be the first people to have the chance to vote on what was signed 308 years ago. And in doing so we will create a new Scotland: a country which, joined to the UK or not, has the approval of its people.
What a privilege we inherit, that after all this struggle we may put a cross in a box.
Tomorrow we must honour this inheritance. In West Papua, in Scotland, and across the world, the fight continues.
Back in May, there were city council elections in Oxford. In the Carfax ward, the former Labour council leader, Alex Hollingsworth stood. He lost narrowly to the Green candidate, Ruthi Brandt. A couple of months later, something else happened. Each Oxford ward has two councillors, and there are elections for one of them every two years. The other councillor in the ward, Ann-Marie Canning, announced she was standing down. Ann Marie had moved to London for a job soon after she’d been elected in 2012 (beating me into second place), and was finding it hard to do both jobs.
Usually, it’s pretty frowned upon to trigger a by-election immediately after there’s been a city-wide election, as it costs extra resources and it’s easier for everyone just to elect both seats for the ward on the same day. But Oxford Labour have done it three times this summer. They know it’s easier to hold by-elections than to hold seats during the city-wide vote because they can pour resources in from across the county and beat the various smaller parties they have to contend with in each area. Since Greens won the Carfax seat up in May, it seems likely we’d have got two, had both been contested then. Up against the whole Labour machine, it’s harder.
This case is more shocking though. Carfax is a funny kind of a ward. 60% of the people who live there are students living in college. In a move clearly planned for many months by Labour, Ann-Marie announced her resignation at exactly the right moment to ensure that the by-election would be held at a time when students weren’t there. She and the Oxford Labour Party connived to ensure that the majority of voters in the ward would be disenfranchised.
Oxford students tend to vote Green. The non-students in the ward lean more to Labour. Not surprisingly, therefore, among the 40% of the voters who remained, Labour won. Or rather, among the 8.6% of the electorate who voted.
8.6% is apparently the lowest turnout in British electoral history. It provides no mandate at all. Hollingsworth should refuse to take up his seat, and the by-election should be held again. If it was, Hollingsworth may well win again. But he won’t stand down. He’ll instead claim to represent an electorate his party actively chose to disenfranchise, and vote in their name on issues which effect them.
Ten years ago today I climbed to the top of Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. I’d walked 2174 miles up the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain, Georgia to get there. It was, in retrospect, probably a stupid thing to do – at the age of 18, I’d ruined my knees for life. But I learnt a few important things.
One of them was this. Only 10% of people who start the Appalachian Trial finish it. But you can usually tell right from the start who will succeed. It’s not necessarily the people who have forked out a fortune for the best gear. It’s not always the most experienced hikers or those who are most physically fit. It’s not even necessarily the one with a determined look in their eye.
It’s the people with a spring in their step and a smile on their face. It’s the those who are having fun. I don’t mean the people who carried booze in their packs and were up all night getting drunk. They flaked out within the first 50 miles. I mean the people who loved the hiking itself, who were thrilled to be walking through the woods day after day in the first place.
When I finished, I went to university, and did something even more foolish. I got involved in student politics. I soon learnt that the same lesson applies to student elections. The winner is, almost always, the person, and the team who are having fun. Again, I don’t mean the group who cop off early and go to the pub – they invariably trundle in in last place. I mean the people who enjoy the campaigning itself.
I think this isn’t just because elections are more fun when you’re winning – though they are. I think it’s a positive feedback loop – just as a spring in the step makes a hiker walk faster, a smile on the face makes a campaigner more compelling. We all want to agree with the cheerful looking woman who just knocked on the door, looking all happy and confident. We don’t want to side with the grumpy bloke who came round and asked how we were voting.
I say all this because, in the last few days, it’s felt like we, those of us campaigning for independence, are enjoying ourselves again. A couple of weeks ago, it all seemed a little low, and the whispered conversations seemed to ask only what the scale of defeat was going to be. Now, whether it’s the chat on twitter or the skip of canvassers footsteps on pavements, something has changed.
Of course, we all know the cause of the change. Eck slam-dunked the debate. Better Together decided to follow up by patronising the hell out of half the electorate. All of a sudden, it felt possible again. The sun’s been out and it’s no surprise that yes campaigners are a little cheery this week. But what we don’t talk about is the effect of all this.
Smiley campaigners are a hundred times more convincing than grumpy ones just like happy hikers get hundreds of miles further than sad ones. We all know from any good party or gig that enthusiasm is infectious. That applies to politics too. We’re still behind in the polls, and we have a hell of a lot of people to persuade. But if we keep on having fun and being fun, if we refuse to argue amongst ourselves, and if we get on with the job at hand then maybe, just maybe, we can do it.
And that’s something to be happy about.
At the time I write this, 90 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, to no Israelis killed by Gazan rockets. There is plenty of moral indignation about this unpleasant fact. As Chomsky put it:
Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder.
The narrative of defenceless Palestinians being massacred by the vastly richer, vastly more powerful Israelis is a compelling one for all those who care about human life. And yet even this narrative, used in a certain way, can be read as a subtle example of the subtle pro-Israeli bias that predominates in much of the Western media. Why?
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ tendencies that characterise much of political discourse not only in his own country, the United States, but increasingly the rest of the developed world, are understandable in terms of the way that they seek to activate different fundamental ‘bases’ of human morality. Liberals, Haidt believes, are concerned primarily with care, fairness and liberation. Conservatives want these things too – but usually only for a particular in-group, which they define in terms of a different moral vocabulary, rooted in culturally constructed, but ultimately primal notions of purity, authority and loyalty.
When ‘liberals’ read about one side killing 90 people with advanced weaponry, and the other side killing no people with primitive weaponry, they naturally root for the underdog. In doing so, however, they play right into the hands of those with ‘conservative’ political sensibilities. After all, ‘all’s fair in love and war’. And, if leftists (it’s a bit daft to call a radical anarchist like Chomsky a ‘liberal’ but he is for the purposes of the argument here) say it isn’t war, then hard line conservatives beg to differ. Read the words of ultra-hardline Knesset member Ayelet Shaked.
The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started.
The logic here is grotesque, but there is a logic, somewhere. If you have two groups, each one perceiving itself to be in an existential struggle with the other, then the idea that you would voluntarily restrain yourself can be argued to make not that much sense. Why should Israel restrain its firepower just because Hamas doesn’t have access to the same firepower? War isn’t pistols at dawn. It isn’t cricket.
Of course, this is an example of foaming at the mouth fundamentalism that few will sympathise with. But a more insidious version of basically the same logic comes up in the ‘security dilemma’ claims that deeply permeate the way that our media presents Palestine and Israel. According to this narrative, Israel is stuck in an unfortunate catch-22 situation. It knows that its occupation is breeding misery and extremism. It wants to withdraw. But it can’t, because the very extremism which occupation produces means that if it loosens its grip, it will expose itself to devastating attacks by an unrelenting opponent.
Of course, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is simply illegal. Technically, refusing to withdraw on these grounds is a bit like saying that you won’t give back the plasma tv you stole because you’ve tried watching cheaper models, but it hasn’t really worked out for you. But, being realistic, the security dilemma argument looks compelling. It looks compelling because security dilemmas are good stories. They are plausible – we’ve all experienced something similar in microcosm. They offer a realistic a priori account of human motivation. They explain why good people might have to do bad things. They don’t force us to demonise one side or the other.
So, to resume, the security dilemma argument, placed side by side with the asymmetric killing argument sets up the Palestine-Israel issue in terms of the consumer market in political opinions that we are all familiar with. If your politics are shaped by the ‘care’ instinct, then you will probably empathise (all things being equal) with dead Palestinian children. You don’t need, then, to worry too much with the wrongs and rights that got things to that point. If you think of yourself as still compassionate, but a bit tougher minded, then you will go with the ‘tragedy’ narrative, and perhaps lament the lack of ‘leadership’ on ‘both sides’. If, finally, you are a hard core political partisan on one side or the other, then you will simply pick your team and stick to it through thick and thin. Either way, each market sector can be comfortable with its choice, knowing the dispositions that have accounted for its own choice, and the contrasting dispositions that have accounted for others’ choices. And there is, of course, another winner from all this: the incumbent power, (Israel of course, in this instance) which gets to keep the status quo.
What gets obscured in all this, of course, is that the central issue is not really a security dilemma at all. We do not have a conflict, but rather a colonisation. Israel is not occupying the West Bank to protect Israel (were that so, Israelis would have given up tolerating the expense of that long ago). It is occupying the West Bank to protect the infrastructure of Israeli settlements that crisscross and cut up the West Bank. It is laying siege to Gaza, choking it just short of death, not to prevent Hamas from getting the wherewithal to build rockets, but to collectively punish its citizens for refusing to recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’ or, nowadays its ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’. (There is also the small matter of the gas fields in Gaza’s territorial waters which Israel is presently selling off permits to develop). It is bombing Gaza not because of rockets, but as part of a broader campaign to undo the remarkable achievement of the Palestinian authority in reconciling Hamas to a project of moderation and Palestinian national unity. And when I say ‘Israel’, that conceals the fact that this is really being done by a narrow elite made up of politicians, the military, and the hi-tech arms industry who grow ever richer in a country which is one of the most unequal in the developed world. If you care about human life you should be appalled by what is happening in Gaza right now. But you should also be appalled if you are a hard headed political realist. Or even if you simply love Israel.
Environmental scientist Amelia Womack is set to become one of two deputy leaders of the Green Party of England and Wales.
A recent change to the party’s constitution means that GPEW will now have two deputies, of different genders. Amelia is the only woman nominated, leaving foreign affairs spokesman Shahrar Ali, Bristol Councillor Rob Telford and Suffolk Councillor Mark Ereira-Guyer to challenge incumbent Will Duckworth for the other post.
Party leader Natalie Bennett is running uncontested for re-election.
Amelia is a member of the Young Greens’ 30 Under 30 programme to develop young activists and candidates. The 29-year-old is originally from Newport in Wales and now lives in Lambeth in South London, where she was a European Parliament and Borough Council candidate earlier this year.
She has said that her priority will be “to boost membership and activism by engaging with those most affected by policies of austerity and inequality, particularly young people.”
There will be a four-way race to see who shares the title of Deputy Leader with Amelia.
Will Duckworth’s easygoing, working-class style has been a hit with party conference-goers since his election as deputy two years ago, but all three challengers represent a credible threat to the genial Solihull councillor.
Fundraising consultant Mark Ereira-Guyer is highly experienced in local government, having served over 10 years as a Labour borough councillor and parliamentary candidate before joining the Greens in 2008 and becoming a Suffolk County councillor a year later. His is a traditionally ecologist pitch, urging that “we must all move from being a reckless ego-centric society to an eco-centric one”.
Rob Telford enjoys a high profile despite having been a Bristol councillor for only a year. He is the party’s spokesperson on democratic reform, and has made this the central theme of his campaign for Deputy, arguing that the Green agenda should be “enacted in our communities through new models of collaborative democracy,” and asking members to discuss the party’s future on social media.
Though he is the only challenger for the post not to hold elected office, philosophy lecturer Shahrar Ali might be the leading challenger if early endorsements are any indication – he boasts the support of former Mayoral candidate Sian Berry, London Assembly Member Baroness Jenny Jones and civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
Green Party members will receive ballot papers at the end of July and will have one month to vote.
Last week, more than at any time I can remember, politically active friends from across the left – from the feminist, student, anti-austerity, environmental and democracy movements, seem to have turned out in droves to vote for The Green Party. This is an appeal to them – you – to join the party, and to get involved.
Perhaps it seems obvious to you why you might. Maybe you’ve long been looking for a party which wants a democratic transformation of the economy; which supports free education and will defend the NHS; wants to cap rents and bring back council housing; fight to keep oil in the ground and stand up to austerity, the banks, corporate power and the frightening growth in inequality; a party which won’t pander to the scapegoating of migrants or people on benefits, and will point the finger of blame firmly where it belongs: at the powerful; a party which brings together ideas from the feminist, anti-racist, environmental, disabled people’s and working class movements, radical democratic movements, the peace movement, the LGBTIQ movement, and so on.
Maybe you can already see why you’d want to be a member of a party which allows its membership to set its policies democratically; around the core principles of radical democracy, equality, social justice, peace and the environment?
That party exists. It came 4th in the European elections. You can read its most recent manifesto here. If it’s obvious to you why you’d want to join, stop reading and go and do it (or, if you’re in Scotland, here or in Northern Ireland, here).
Parties are about more than elections, but engaging in electoral politics is one key thing they do, and I think more of us need to start doing just that. It’s one tactic among many. It should never come at the exclusion of other political tools, but to avoid using elections is, I think, a big mistake – for a few reasons.
Firstly, elections drive much of the political agenda. Even most modern civil disobedience – think UK Uncut or much of climate camp – aims primarily to shift debate rather than actually disrupt permanently. If this is what you want to do, then why would you ignore such a huge inroad into the national conversation as elections? If you’re a genuine anarchist, I can understand. Otherwise, I don’t.
Secondly, getting prominent spokespeople into council chambers and parliaments is vital. Was it Lenin who said something like “even a pile of horse shit can make a good stage to stand on”? This isn’t just about getting MPs onto Question Time. The main role of a local councillor is being a (minimally) paid organiser. If you want to engage in political action in your community, being given a small salary and a minor platform is hugely helpful. Without infrastructure, movements dwindle rapidly. Councillors are a good way to get it.
Thirdly, elections force you to talk to people. You don’t win (if you’re on the left) unless you knock on doors and chat. It is, of course, entirely possible to do this without elections. But the people I know who actually get round to it frequently out-with the electoral process are few and far between.
Ultimately, by standing in elections, you take votes away from the powerful, which forces them to win those votes back off you, driving politics in a progressive direction – and, ultimately, you might gain some power – which, ideally, you’ll then work to hand to the community you represent as fast as possible.
You can stand in elections without joining a political party, but if you are interested in a broad political project, in grouping together with people with similar ideology to you and getting them elected too, and in developing a programme for how you might change things, then that’s what a political party is and does.
And parties are about more than elections. Politics requires infrastructure. It needs people who will organise rotas for who is going to go and reach out to whom, places that as yet uninvolved people can come to meet and organise with those of similar ideology, spaces for people to get a political education, think about what they believe and together work out what they want to do in the world. It needs us to come together across generations and beyond our groups of friends – with those whose routes were different from ours, and so are coming from slightly different places. Parties do all of these things.
In short, our social movements need an electoral expression. If you wish to change the world (and surely we must), I think you should probably join a party – not as the exclusive output for your politics, but as one of them.
Why the Green Party? I’m not going to rehearse the arguments against Labour here. Suffice to say that even in those areas in which they ought to be strongest, they are pathetic: Greens have supported more strikes in the last fortnight than Labour has in its whole history. I hope the next government is Labour rather than Tory, and I think we should all seek to encourage it to do better, but I think more influence is placed on them from outside than inside – if they can get your support without changing their position, that’s what they’ll do. Perhaps most importantly, as anger with the establishment soars, I don’t understand why radicals would side with the establishment.
The case against Lib Dems is obvious. Respect have vanished, and No2EU’s performance showed little hope of the march of a new socialist party of that ilk. In the elections last week, the Green Party showed it was more able to unite the left than Left Unity ever has and National Health Action is a genuine single issue party with no ideological platform, much as it’s a vital issue, much as I hope they do well where they stand.
More importantly, Greens reflect better than any other party what I would see as the shared values of much of what you might call the activist left of my generation. The party is radical in its economics – aiming to socialise financial institutions, nationalise public services and monopolies and defend trade union and workers’ rights – but has learnt the lessons the left needs to learn. It is founded on the principle of decentralist democracy and power to the people, rather than believing that the alienation of markets can be defeated only with the bureaucracy of the state. It supports a citizens’ income, a workers’ right to turn their company into a co-op. It is feminist, anti-racist, and has always stood for LGBTIQ rights.
It does have problems. One is that it is seen solely as being ‘about the environment’. But it is beginning to challenge that perception, and the more people who join it from across radical politics, the more it will articulate a broad vision for society. Of course we must save the planet, but we’ll only do that by changing the system. Another is that it needs better to involve and be led by people of colour. With this, in particular, we need help from new members.
But as I have argued, the election results last week showed something remarkable. Greens came (admittedly distant) second across Manchester and are now the opposition in Liverpool, Solihul, Lewisham, Islington and Norwich. We came first across not just Brighton Pavilion constituency, but also Bristol West and Norwich South and very nearly Glasgow Kelvin. We won a seat in a Belfast City council ward so big that on its own it gives us a good chance of winning a second seat in the Northern Irish Assembly, and one of Northern Ireland’s leading feminists very narrowly missed out on picking up another seat, apparently in the face of opponents (from the Labour affiliated SDLP) telling voters that she wanted to kill babies because of her prominent and vocal campaigning for the right to an abortion in one of the few parts of the EU in which it is still denied.
The party had a vast number of candidates standing in the local elections – we ran in all but one seat in the Wirral, in most seats in Carlisle, St Helens, Southampton, almost every ward I could find results for in London in hours of googling. In fact, though I’m sure they exist, I am yet to find a town or city in England which had local council elections last week and in which Greens didn’t stand in most or many wards. Apart from the more left wing trades unions (you should certainly join one of them too) how many genuinely radical, member-run organisations have anything like that reach on the ground?
Finally, it’s important to understand how much difference you can make by joining and becoming active in the party. Greens got an MEP in the South West of England this week. A significant part of that success comes down to the rise of the Bristol Greens. Whilst they have mobilised significant support, I could list a handful of people who, together, have made that happen. Across the country, other Greens missed out by a few votes. A group of four or five people in a couple more towns, cities or areas of those regions could have persuaded enough people to make the difference. Last week, five friends and I got two city councillors elected in Oxford – two people who will now be political organisers for four years, bringing infrastructure and activity to the communities they represent. As British politics contorts itself in the wake of the UKIP Euro-victory, we’re going to need to organise ourselves into a large, national, sustained and vocal response. There is no need to start from scratch in building this.
If you do join the Green Party, I guarantee you that you will find people you disagree with. I assure you that you that you will find yourself frustrated at times. Because politics is a collective endeavour, and people can be bloody annoying. But ultimately, if we’re going to change the world, then we’re going to have to do it together, including with some people who have slightly different priorities from us.
Likewise, I am sure every member disagrees with some of the party’s positions. But there’s a democratic process for debating and changing policies, and the activities are driven by voluntary members. It’s not because the party is perfect that you should get involved, but to help build it up, to improve it. There has to be a compromise between on the one hand the vast and centralised tent that is the Labour party and splintering like Trotskyites each time we disagree.
Over the last five years, the membership of the Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled. Largely, that new intake is young, radical, and impressively good at organising. It’s people from the anti-austerity movement, the student movement, the feminist movement. I’ve been a paid up Green half my life. I’ve never known such a thrilling time to be in the party. Conversely, with UKIP on the march, I’ve never known a scarier time in politics. It’s time to join us.
When looking at the Green Party result today, there are two important things to understand. The first is that the 2009 European election took place in the month after the expenses scandal. The second is that the UK lost many of its MEP seats in 2009, meaning it was harder to get each one.
Because of this reduction in seats, in the months before the 2009 Euro-poll, it looked inevitable that we would lose both our MEPs – not because we would get fewer votes than in the 2004 election, but because the same number of votes would not equate to a seat. Ironically, it was the Daily Telegraph who saved us from this fate. As they published, day after day, revelations of how MPs had abused the expenses system, the country worked itself into a frenzy. All across Britain, people of almost any political persuasion sought ways to punish the Westminster establishment.
It’s worth remembering too that this is the genesis of the current UKIP rise. Before the expenses scandal, they looked like they were going to be wiped out – two of their MEPs had been jailed for fraud, and they were generally seen as a joke – or, more importantly, they were generally ignored. They did much better out of that particular crisis than we did. But it saved our two MEPs.
There are other reasons to believe that 2009 was particularly good for Greens. It was the year of the Copenhagen climate conference and The Wave: the climate movement was at its peak. That Euro election was one of the worst votes for Labour in its history, after the press had turned against Brown, but without the risk that not voting Labour would allow a Tory government in. The election took place right after Fred Goodwin’s car had been set on fire, when people were viscerally angry about the banking collapse, but not yet debating long term solutions. This climate of rage at the establishment helped us hugely.
From then on, there were many who expected the Greens to do badly. As the long recession eclipsed concern for the environment and, more importantly, as the desire to get the Tories out replaced anger with Labour on the left, many a pundit proclaimed that the party was about to enter the doldrums.
The Lib Dems going into coalition helped a bit. But it’s worth remembering that around a third of Lib Dems prefer them to work with Tories than Labour. It’s worth remembering that much of the Labour strategy at the moment – from electing a wonkish middle class leader on – seems to be aimed at hoovering up the rest of those Lib Dem votes. It’s worth remembering that anger at Labour brings access to a much bigger pool of voters than does anger at the Lib Dems.
It is in this context that we should judge the state of the party in last night’s European and last week’s local election results. To keep our MEPs, we had to attract voters to us rather than have them fall into our lap because of anger at the political establishment. We had to get people to vote for us rather than just against everyone else. This required an ideological appeal rather than just being ‘someone else’; and it required such an appeal in the context of an Ofcom ruling which declared there to be four big parties, of which we were not one.
Faced with this challenge, the party took a gamble. It took the kind of risk that you need to take in order to grow out of a comfortable position. In 2009, we had focussed our campaigning in the South East and London, where we already had two MEPs. We had played a defensive game, and won both seats with comfortable margins, whilst missing out narrowly across much of the rest of the country. Greens never needed a national swing to get more seats, just a more even distribution of votes.
This time, despite struggling against a headwind, the party chose the tougher path. It put its resources not into just defending its two seats, but into attempting to win six (the Scottish party also worked hard for a seventh, but is an independent organisation with its own strategic decisions).
The fact that the national total for Greens is down, but that the number of seats is up is in part a product of this gamble paying off. It’s easier to get lots of votes in the same place, but that doesn’t add extra seats. It’s worth noting that, whilst the national vote share was down, the biggest falls were in London and the South East (where we already had MEPs with comfortable margins), as campaign resources were pulled out of these regions and poured into the next targets – South West, North West and Eastern in particular – where the vote respectively increased, and held steady. The payoff for this strategy – and for holding our nerve as it looked like we might lose both of our MEPs – is a third seat.
But it’s a product of something else too, something more important, long term. Since 2009, the party’s membership has doubled. It was, arguably, Bristol which granted Britain its newest Green MEP. The Bristol Greens have grown drastically in recent years, winning council seats where they had none, and becoming serious players in the city where they weren’t before. Bristol is relatively typical. Greens are now the opposition on Liverpool city council. We came second across Manchester, and picked up good votes in numerous cities across the country.
The point is this. In 2009, Greens were lucky to keep our two MEPs. They were in part delivered to us through astonishingly friendly last minute circumstance. This time, the MEPs were retained – and a new one elected, despite circumstances being much less friendly – through genuine growth in the party, through the development of roots in communities, and through a strategic decision which risked everything in order to break out of the South East bubble.
This tells us something else too. The people who voted Green in 2009 gave us little base to build on. They came from across the ideological spectrum (apart from the far right), and all that they had in common was that they were angry with the establishment parties and they didn’t want to support UKIP. This time, the votes were fought for and won one at a time. They were progressives voting for a clear ideological programme. Opinion polls before the election showed that they are overwhelmingly young, usually from social class C1 (lower middle class), and largely live in Housing Association or privately rented housing. In other words, they are the precariat. Anecdotally, the activist left and those involved in the student movement of 2010 turned out for us like they never have before.
Five years ago, we had the wind on our back. This time, it was blowing against us. Gaining ground in that context is hugely encouraging for the party. This gain is reflected in the local election results. Whilst the increase in council seats were not huge, the increase in vote in seats the party did not target and did little work in was remarkable – scoring 15% across all of Ealing, 10% across Hillingdon, 7% across Carlisle, 8% across Portsmouth, 13% across Manchester, 14% across Barnet, 13% across Reading. These, remember, are in first past the post council elections, mostly in seats Greens will have done no work in, often in the middle of two other parties squeezing. We also picked up our first seat in Belfast across a vast ward, giving us a good crack at a second Assembly seat in Northern Ireland next time. This is not to mention 20% across normal strongholds of Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Oxford, and coming first, according to ballot box samples, across Brighton Pavillion.
In the past, we depended on pockets of support in the midst of vast deserts of nothing. Today, where we stand a candidate, we consistently get 5-10% of the vote rather than 1-3%, and often pick up 15%. Most remarkably of all, when I scoured local council websites late into the night to work out the above results, I found a Green candidate in the vast majority of wards I looked at, all the way from the far North West to the deep South East. Five years ago, undertaking the same exercise, it was a challenge to find any candidates in many of these places.
There are many great people who narrowly missed out in this election, and for them we should shed a tear. But let us too understand that, in this election, to get where we have, we needed to build a house out of rock. The winds of national politics huff and puff, and who knows what will happen next year, but the long term growth of the Green roots is remarkable. We are becoming the go-to party for people to the left of Labour. That brings with it not just an occasional vote, but a big activist base if it can be mobilised. And that is very encouraging indeed.