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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.