Negative campaigning has a long and inglorious history. Early American electioneers took advantage of the lack of rolling news channels by riding from town to town, scattering scurrilous leaflets to spread the rumour that their opponent had died on the campaign trail.
Not quite so dramatically, perhaps, some members of the Green Party have been riding from twitter feed to email list in the last few days, intimating that, since it cannot be guaranteed that the party conference in autumn will ratify a salary for the new leader, Peter Cranie may be forced from the race.
I’m a fan of Peter Cranie, and I was disappointed that he didn’t deal more quickly and clearly with this situation. But he has now made very plain that there is no chance of him withdrawing, and yet the rumour continues.
The next leader of the Green Party will be the first not to have a political salary either from the European Parliament or Westminster, and so a motion has been tabled to allow for a salary. Figures being mooted for the salary hover around the national average wage of £26k; £28,000 is perhaps the most robust guess (by way of comparison, the current leader Caroline Lucas’s basic salary as an MP is £65,738).
The determination of some to price out of the election candidates who have the audacity to run without the backing of independent wealth ill-serves a party whose future ought to be one of representing ordinary people, abandoned by parties of the rich.
The Chartists, Britain’s first modern workers’ movement, published six demands of which the fourth was:
“PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.”
The Chartists could see that in matters of democracy, amateurism was being presented as a virtue when in fact it was a deliberate obstacle used by the rich to help ensure that only they could hold office. A salary sufficient to maintain the MP’s home and his (as it then was) responsibilities to his family was (and is) an absolutely necessary prerequisite to making Parliament accessible to working people.
So it is with the Green Party. There is a tension underlying this election which is not as simple as left and right, but is about whether the Green Party is actually committed to widening its appeal and opening its doors to the working-class people it (justifiably) claims its policies would benefit, or whether it is happy remaining a party of white, middle-class bohemians which though politically unsuccessful at least remains a comfortable place for those people to hang out with like-minded souls.
Peter Cranie is not only a working-class person himself, who has a young family and no independent means of support and therefore, like almost everyone else, needs a pay packet each month, he is also someone who stands unambiguously for a Green Party of, by and for working people. It is difficult therefore not to see the attempts to financially undercut him as the actions of privileged people, quite probably without any real sense of what exactly they are doing, instinctively (rather than consciously) using their advantage and pulling up the ladder in order to maintain a Party of “their kind of people”.
If the Green Party proceeds with an external rhetoric of the left but an internal culture that keeps working-class people out, it will become a Liberal Democrats waiting to happen. Without fully internalising and understanding the experience of inequality, the desperation for jobs, the Kafkaesque benefits system, Greens under pressure (for example in a coalition) will retreat to what seems most real and pressing to them. And without a diverse party, what that will mean will be a zero waste strategy paper launched to great fanfare on the day the last hospital is privatised.
If you don’t believe me, you need only look to Ireland, where a Green Party under pressure waved through cuts, privatisations and civil liberties outrages, believing themselves to be doing right by their people because they’d delivered cycle hire and a veg box scheme.
The riders of some campaigns in this leadership election carry handbills claiming his working background means Peter Cranie is dead. To borrow the words of Aaron Sorkin, I say: there are worse things in the world than no longer being alive.