John Denham has written an interesting piece on OurKingdom about today’s One Nation Labour and the New Labour of the 90s. In it, he wrestles with some of the same issues as Greens were discussing at their conference last weekend. Denham makes the point that New Labour wasn’t – at first – about a specific appeal to the voters of the centre ground. The project, he says was about defining a set of values that a broad range of people could get behind – including those in the political centre.
At this years’ Green Party conference too, there was much talk about values – with at least two major discussions on the subject, hosted respectively by Compass Greens and the Young Greens. John Denham’s case is first that Labour needs to talk more about values and less about policy – which was also the conclusion of both of these sessions at the Green conference and should be clear to anyone who understands political messaging. More interesting are his second and third points, that the make up of the British polity has changed, and therefore the values to which Labour should appeal should change.
These comments are, I think, particularly pertinent to Greens: “The ‘centre’ has” he says “neither moved to the left, nor to the right. But nor has it stayed where it was! It has become hollowed out as opinions have polarised. In the wake of the crisis and continuing low growth and austerity Britain’s voters have moved further and further away from each other.”
There is another way of putting this, and it’s an important point for Greens – particularly in the run up to a European election. A culture war is brewing. As lines are being drawn out, politicians will need to either take sides or fall into a vanished middle. So far, the biggest winners from this polarisation of politics is UKIP: as Peter McColl has argued, they were already a party of culture war, an English version of the Tea Party, and they have surfed the waves.
Some other groups too are on the rise in the wake of this new politics. It is becoming a cliché to say that feminism is in the middle of a remarkable resurgence. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. But apart from this, the other side of this culture war is notable for its organisational vacuum. If we look at public attitudes, we find a huge swathe of the population who think that benefits shouldn’t be cut. There is a significant portion of the population who believe that immigration bashing has gone too far. The important question, though, is this – who speaks for these people? And who will they vote for?
Once upon a time, the Lib Dems and Labour between them absorbed these supporters. But as they struggle to cope with the new political make up, as they try to stand on both stools as they move further and further apart, they will struggle to pull the two together.
Greens, on the other hand, have an advantage. We aren’t aiming to have 60% like us. We are aiming – in the Euro elections at least – to have 10-15% love us. And this group – those who are fed up with nasty immigrant bashing rhetoric, who don’t like politicians blaming jobless people for unemployment, who think politicians should stand up to UKIP not seek to replicate them – are looking for someone to love.
To win them, Greens need – as Denham says – to enshrine some basic values. And, as Denham does for Labour, here is my attempt to kick off a debate about what they might be. They have to be things that lots of people feel, not new, alien ideas. And they have to be things we can articulate which differentiate us from our opponents. Here goes:
1) Standing up for the underdog
There is a sense, among this group, that politicians are trying to shift the blame for their failures onto those who can’t so easily defend themselves. The most obvious examples are immigrants, those without jobs and disabled people. Green MEP Keith Taylor said at the Green conference this year “we stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants. That is our position, and we will not shirk from it”. He should say this at every opportunity between now and the next election. The most popular leaflet headline of new Oxfordshire Green councillor Sam Coates’ romping, against the trend, victory against Labour this May was ‘stand up to the immigrant bashers’. We should learn from his success.
Immigration – because our position on it is essentially unique, and because, with UKIP on the march and an immigration bill coming up – will be the major issue of the coming Euro election. As I have argued before, talking about it is crucial. Play our cards right, and we will be the only people on one side of this debate. But there are, of course, other important debates too which are best framed as standing up for the underdog.
When we talk about fracking, for example, we should be doing so in a way which is steeped in this basic idea: big companies trying to ride roughshod over local communities.
When we talk about tax dodging, it’s about your local coffee shop vs the big chain. When it’s the bedroom tax, it’s mansion dwellers trying to blame ordinary folks. Right now, it’s bonuses for bankers and stagnant wages for the rest of us. We know whose side we’re on. The notion of the underdog is powerful in the British psyche. Frame any policy like this, and people know which side they are on too.
2) We solve our problems through public co-operation, not brutal competition
In the last Green local election broadcast, Caroline Lucas said “step by step, we’ll return our energy, water and rail networks to public ownership”. The majority of British people support this statement, but no other major political party does. That we should talk about it all the time is, I assume, not contentious among Greens who are interested in success. There is no other major issue in British politics where so many so strongly agree with us and yet have no electoral expression other than us for their view.
But this value encompasses more than just privatisation. It speaks to the drive to ever more exams at schools, to a sense, with high unemployment rates, that each of us must not just keep up with the Joneses, but also overtake them.
This value, though, also requires us to think about another key element of communication – tone. And that’s why I chose the quote above. As Gary Dunion has explained, the director of that broadcast, Gail Parminter, said that it “takes the macho out of political advertising”. If we are arguing for co-operation, we should sound co-operative. The content must be controversial or it will be ignored. It should be angry, because people are. But it should be a statement of determined intent, not a red faced political chant.
3) Change vs more of the same
The current elite has failed like no other for a long time. Denham may argue that much of the population doesn’t want change, but the people to whom Greens must appeal do.
When we talk about this, though, we mustn’t continue our smug habit of saying “only Greens…” because this excludes all of those who aren’t currently Greens. The party isn’t a unique, reified unit, it must be the expression of a yearning of a significant portion of the population. We should talk about how we all want change, how the current elites have failed, how things need to get better. Don’t tell people we are the change. Talk about how much change is needed. The former looks like a smug call for us to be given power, the latter speaks to how people feel.
- Strong communities are diverse communities
With UKIP’s dog whistles trying to herd people into neat categories of ‘OK’, or ‘not OK’, it’s important to be a cheerful advocate for everyone who’s a little bit different. And, when we think about it, that’s almost everyone. Whether people are black, an immigrant, LBGT, disabled, single dads, single mums, have tattoos across their face or, in fact, have for any reason had the bigoted man at the bar make a derogatory remark, then they should see us as them. I don’t mean just that we should represent such people, I mean we should take the platform we have built, and help them onto it.
Ours is a pluralist society. Most people are a minority of one kind or another. Breaking up UKIP’s social boundaries isn’t just the right thing to do, it is also the road to electoral success.
I am sure that each of these could be improved upon, and I am very aware that these don’t incorporate in themselves a vision of ‘the good life’ (though I hope we could build that vision by expressing our ideas through these frames). What’s important for me is that a good chunk of the electorate finds in Greens a set of inclusive values they are hunting for and haven’t found elsewhere – and that we have a proper conversation to work out what these are.