New Green Leadership: What Happens Next?

by Josiah Mortimer

5 September 2016

Pete Birkinshaw/Flickr

Caroline Lucas MP and Jonathan Bartley are the new leaders of the Green party. Things are about to get interesting – and potentially exciting – for the Greens.

I say this because the turmoil of the British left at the moment should, in theory, provide fertile ground for a resurgence in the grassroots, democratic, proudly progressive politics that the Greens have come to represent. But fertile ground doesn’t create lush gardens by itself – it requires work.

The scale of Lucas and Bartley’s victory – alongside the reelection of the young and left wing Amelia Womack as deputy leader – provides a good basis for the start of that work. With 86% of votes, on the highest turnout in Green party history, it will be seen as a huge mandate for making headway with a central theme of their campaign: building a progressive alliance.

It’s an idea that is not without controversy in Green circles – and that’s before we discuss Labour and the Lib Dems. Almost everyone in the party agrees with the idea in principle – ‘of course we support working together, who doesn’t?’ But when it comes to the nitty-gritty, that’s when things get difficult.

At last year’s autumn conference, for example, Compass chair Neal Lawson remarked to huge applause: “Labour shouldn’t have stood against the Greens in Brighton Pavilion in 2015.” All well and good.

Then came a remark that was met with near-total silence: “…And the Greens shouldn’t have stood against Labour in Brighton Kemptown.” Lucas was one of the only ones who recognised the validity of his point.

But it’s reflective of a mentality – a tribally understandable one – that sees progressive alliances as one-way streets. The Greens give up nothing, Labour gives up seats – and vice-versa. That’s a mentality which must be broken down. The brutal fact is that any progressive alliance would have to involve the Greens standing down in, essentially, all marginals. If the result is extensive democratic reform, then surely it’s worth it. But that is an argument which will have to be won in every individual Green party branch involved.

Lucas and Bartley have a fairly pragmatic approach to all this, writing: “As co-leaders we therefore want our party to fully explore the idea of a one-off, general election only progressive alliance in 2020 in England and Wales, with other political parties of the left. The purpose of such an alliance would be to secure a deal on proportional representation and allow the Green party’s growing support to translate into a fair number of seats in Westminster and on councils up and down the country.” It’s a means to a clear end.

Yet a progressive alliance isn’t incompatible with having a distinctive identity – in fact, quite the opposite. The Greens have to prove the relevance and that a pact would actually be worthwhile. With Labour still tearing chunks out of each other – potentially for some time to come – now should be an ideal time for the Greens to pitch themselves as the ‘real opposition’, as ‘the only united left wing party of England and Wales’. One that takes pride in being left wing. Because while Natalie Bennett has been an outstanding organiser and recruiter for the party, the Greens have failed to carve a niche or vision over the past year. The response to the rise of Corbynism was marked by its absence.

Lucas and Bartley’s leadership, operating in the context of an expected reelection for Corbyn, will have to put more thought into the distinctions between the parties. It is no contradiction to supporting a progressive alliance to realise that the Green party has to prove why it deserves to exist. This could be a time of ideological renewal for the Greens – a chance to reassert its raison d’être.

The easy way is to retreat to a centrist, purely environmentalist position – a ‘back to basics’ approach. This would be a mistake. Firstly, the members would not support it – 80% of the current membership have joined since the ‘Green surge’. They are young, radical and of a ‘new new left’. Their politics are not purely environmental – they are intersectional, semi-socialist and nothing like the ‘deep green’ (population-limiting, degrowthist, lifestyle-focused and often quasi-spiritual) ecologism of the party’s roots. In recent years, the party has come to realise social justice and environmental protection must go hand in hand. That is where the vote is, and that is where the values are.

Some Labour/Green distinctions are already very clear, or becoming more-so. Where Jeremy Corbyn wants to renationalise, the Greens want to co-operatise. Where Corbyn’s MPs will vote for Trident, the Greens’ new leader will vote against – this time, in parliament. Where Corbyn and the parliamentary Labour party back the snoopers’ charter, the Greens stand for a left libertarianism of individual and collective rights. Where Labour vacillate on Hinkley Point and their response to Brexit, the Greens can stand for community-owned energy and citizens’ involvement in what comes next.

And on the big question of democratic reform, where Labour fails to address the elephant in the room – the need for a proportional voting system – the Greens must push harder for this than ever. Lucas and Bartley have already set this out as their goal.

Bennett has left Lucas and Bartley with a positive legacy – and she will leave the helm with high regard from members (if not from the likes of LBC). A larger membership than ever – at around 50,000. The highest vote share ever in 2015. A higher party profile than before, securing a place on the general election debates. And a solidification of the Greens’ place on the ideological spectrum – one which is unapologetically left.

The joint leadership model is a unique one, which will have both benefits and difficulties in terms of media management and the division of roles. But if anyone is going to be able to pull it off, Lucas and Bartley stand a better chance than most. The question is whether they can bring not just the Labour party, but Green party members, onboard. An 86% victory suggests they may be able to pull the latter off. As for the former, well that’s anyone’s guess.

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