A leader for the Greens?

Considering some fundamental changes to the way the Green Party is run

Today was a big day for navel gazing at Green Party conference – organisational motions were discussed, but one in particular was more exciting than most. I have described before my role as 'Principal Speaker' for the Green Party, and why we don't have a single figurehead or a rigid hierarchical structure, but a pair (male and female) of principal spokespeople. This is what attracts a lot of people to the Greens, but is also something of a barrier to communicating with people who want party reps to have more conventional titles. I come up against this all the time, and invariably find myself using up valuable broadcast time explaining the curious way I have to be described.

For many years, motions to adopt the title 'leaders' or perhaps 'co-leaders' for our spokespeople have been a regular feature of conference. They always fail to pass, but recent votes have often achieved a majority in conference, although not the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.

As a result, this year, a different kind of motion was discussed. Instead of asking conference for a decision on the issue, the motion set out various changes to the constitution - including creating posts for a Leader and Deputy (or alternatively two co-leaders if a pair of candidates wanted to stand as a team) - that would instead be put out for a full ballot of all our members later this year.

As you can imagine, on such a philosophical question, passions within the Greens run pretty high on both sides of the argument, with some people frustrated we didn't take this step 20 years ago when it was first proposed, and others convinced that we should continue to emphasise our differences with the other parties and maintain the flat leadership structure we currently have. I've always been a bit torn on this. I maintain a huge fondness for the idea of having 'Co-Leaders' instead of just one figurehead, as I think that achieves some of both sides' objectives. However, I thought the motion was quite a reasonable one to vote on, and I am very keen to see the matter decided one way or the other at last so we can spend our energies doing more of what we're supposed to do – get elected.

Anyway, to continue the fascinating tale of our internal debate for a while, today's two sessions on the motion were not what I expected. There were many, many amendments submitted (changing a whole section of our constitution was never going to be simple), suggesting changes such as lengthening the timetable for the referendum, setting longer minimum membership periods for leadership candidates, making them paid or unpaid posts, and proposing different lengths of terms and different methods of recall.

Despite the contentiousness, I was delighted that discussion was so constructive. Lots of amendments were simply accepted by the proposers, others were voted in after strong speeches from members that convinced large numbers of people on the floor to change their minds, and in the end we agreed by a relatively comfortable majority to put the amended motion out for ballot.

So, what happens now? A big debate over the next six months, followed by a vote. This won't be anything like one of Tony Blair's 'big conversations'. Every local party has people on both sides of this issue and there will be lots of strong, intelligent banter going on, which will result in every member having their say.

These small insights into conference are probably not very interesting to anyone who doesn't belong to a political party. But, given the fact that the potential change in structure will mainly affect how people outside the party regard us, I'd be really interested in the views of non-members – so please do comment!

Meanwhile, I'm actually more concerned about getting my own big idea of standing a candidate in every constituency at the next general election off the ground. It's not just me thinking that a full slate is an achievable 'good plan', and there are tons of practical as well as political reasons why we should (not least the chance that any state funding of political parties coming out of the Phillips review may depend on votes cast at the next general election). I made this the main point of my keynote address to the party this morning – my first as Principal Speaker – terrifying but it went down well I thought. Any members like to comment on it?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.