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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.