Published on September 29th, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
Green Party Conference 2015: “The Year That Change Started”
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party since 2012, began her 2015 conference speech with what must be the best line so far of this year’s conference season: “I am aware that we’re in this venue following the Liberal Democrats. We’re getting used to taking seats away from the Liberal Democrats.” The hall dissolved into the sort of self-satisfied giggling that must be fairly foreign to those who support a party with only one MP in Westminster; even I had a chuckle to myself. Despite this little dig, however, the biggest speeches of the Green conference, and the political line to emerge from it, focussed on collaboration – even with parties like the Liberal Democrats, or on the issue of electoral reform, even with UKIP. Both Caroline Lucas (former Green leader and the party’s single MP), and Bennett, stressed the need to work with other parties and MPs. After the Liberal Democrat conference, where Farron proposed a single-minded focus on being the UK’s principle opposition party, and the UKIP conference, where other parties probably have a status just above that of Eastern European migrants, this represents a massive shift.
Lucas’s speech most exemplified this: she spoke of the Conservative MP David Davis being a powerful advocate of human rights in the Commons, and even of UKIP MP Douglas Carswell promoting electoral reform. She insisted that “we’re stronger when we work together”, but also laid out the undeniable fact that the Green party has no other option than to work with others, even if they profoundly disagree in some areas. Of course, electoral reform is a massive issue for the Greens: they have said their membership is now at 67, 000, and they gained 3.8% at the general election in May, but only one parliamentary seat. As Bennett said, if the UK worked on the basis of proportional representation during its elections, Lucas would be walking into the House of Commons with twenty-four other Green MPs. So, you can see why the Green Party would want a proportional system – however, you can also see exactly why the current Conservative government would do everything in their (now very considerable, fixed-term) power, to avoid it. Presumably this wall of unwillingness in Westminster to alter the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system is behind the Greens’ suggestion that they will even work with UKIP to campaign for proportional voting: I can’t imagine any other reason why either Bennett or Farage would agree to stand next to each other.
For a long time, the Greens have struggled against the British voting system, and they have come out with a seat in Westminster, a House of Lords member, three MEPs, two London Assembly members, and over one hundred and sixty principle authority councillors in England and Wales. Not bad going. But, just like UKIP, like the Liberal Democrats in the beginning, they are having trouble getting any further. In May, they were beaten in vote percentage by UKIP, who gained a staggering (and for me personally, worrying) 12.6%. They were, it seems, beaten by Nigel Farage and his pint glass. Now, as a political party started with the issue of climate change at its centre, the Greens have been put in a tricky political situation: they cannot, surely change policies and priorities “with the political winds”, as Bennett put it, without the point of their very existence being lost. Unlike the Conservatives who view pragmatism as part of their ideology, they can’t just go away and airbrush themselves into an electoral force of media managed magnitude – at least, not without ceasing to be the Green party, and probably ceasing even to be called that. So, they are faced then with the prospect of existing on the fringes of a parliamentary system which will not guarantee proper representation for their voters, and a Conservative/ Labour battle which has been entrenched in the electorate’s minds from birth. Unless, something changes; or indeed they change something.
This is exactly what Bennett is proposing, as is Lucas. The Greens have clearly brushed up on their political strategy since May, and their talk of collaboration shows their awareness of their own position, and its realities: Lucas even declared “we need a progressive Labour Party, if that’s what Jeremy Corbyn transforms it to be, to do well.” Lucas also spoke of a new programme called Generation Green, which is soon to be rolled out across the country, a programme of support and training for future Green MPs; training that those in bigger parties such as Labour and the Conservatives see as expected, but which has not been provided by the Greens before now. However, though this might look like a party becoming more politically aware and savvy as it gets older, it is not just that. Normally, I am a fan of the cynical line, but that is not what is happening here – or at least, I really don’t think so. For the Greens to propose working with other parties, to campaign for electoral reform with – of all the political parties in Britain – UKIP, is a shift which is necessary to achieve the changes to this country that they want, and that their members and voters want. It does not guarantee them electoral support; it does not guarantee them power: it only guarantees them a better chance at making these things happen.
So, the Greens are proposing to do something truly new and different in British politics – they actually appear to be doing something without the final result being their own gain. I mean, I could be wrong. They could have some strange private deal with UKIP; they could be secretly supplying Labour with deforested paper to print their leaflets on, in return for a proportional representation referendum. But, I don’t think they are doing those things. Yes, if the UK changes from the first-past-the-post system, the Greens will benefit, but they are proposing collaboration on things like the new immigration legislation, Trident, and TTIP – things which they simply have no ability to change without cross-party help. Their will to bring parties together and Lucas’ admission that the Greens need a progressive Labour party to make gains, is demonstrative of a new way of doing environmental politics. It is tempting, when your political priorities differ from the Westminster establishment, to turn away from them; it’s tempting to give in to the frustration, shout at News Night, and to protest rather than reach out to those with whom you disagree.
Yet, the Green Party conference this year shows that something new is approaching – if Bennett actually does what she maintains she will do. She is a politician after all, so let’s not hold our breath for too long. But, let’s wait and see. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn (who the Greens seem to want to adopt as some sort of honorary member) to lead Labour, and the massive outcry from all sides (except UKIP’s and Katie Hopkins’) about the refugee crisis, it might be that Bennett is right, “the political times, they are a changing.” Bennett still retains her predictably cynical and rather patronising attitude to the Conservatives – talking about the planned wind farm offshore from Bournemouth, which has been cancelled by the government, she sighed “of course, the government had to tackle a difficult concept: the wind turbines are big, but they’re far away.” But, to her other political peers, she seems to be saying welcome; the welcome appears to simply depend on you agreeing with one Green policy and wanting to oust the Tories. This strategy is of course opposite to that of the Liberal Democrats in particular, and it will be interesting to see how the two fair in comparison. Like I said, I’m not holding my breath indefinitely and neither should you, but if nothing else, a British politician is now invoking Bob Dylan and hopefully setting out to do something for the UK and not for power – which is a definite start. I have to agree with Bennett in her use of Dylan as a paragon of polemical wisdom, and who better to sum up the Greens’ 2015 conference: “come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall. For he that gets hurt, will be he who has stalled.”