Greens to have a leader

Sian Berry responds to the result of a Green referendum on having a party leader

So, the votes are in and counted, and the decision of the Green Party members is that we will be choosing a leader or co-leaders at our next autumn conference.

In our first ever party-wide referendum, nearly half the membership cast their votes and the result was 73 per cent in favour of the change from our current set-up of two principal speakers, well above the two-thirds majority required.

I’m very pleased the members have backed the change in such numbers. I have blogged before about my views on this, about how the title ‘principal speaker’ (which I held until earlier this autumn) was a liability with the public and the media, and how not having voting rights on the national executive further stifled our leadership figures from taking a lead internally in party affairs.

The debate that has taken place over the past few months between ‘Green Yes’ and ‘Green Empowerment’ (for a no vote), has been passionate but constructive, and it has also been helpful in shifting the various groups’ views closer to each other.

I can’t think of anyone on the 'Empowerment' side who would still maintain there was a need to prevent our main spokespeople from voting on executive decisions, and I think many on the 'Yes' side understand more fully now that the Greens must redefine the term ‘Leader’ to fit with our own ideals, not drift towards the way the ‘grey parties’ let their leaders completely dominate the agenda.

We will now, of course, have to choose the right people to represent us. Contrary to the fears of some on the Empowerment campaign, I don’t think we are in much danger of electing a disaster or, as their website postulated, "someone with no charisma, a loose cannon, out of line with policy, inflexible, reinforcing stereotypes, having their own agenda or worse."

Given the wealth of leading Greens who don’t fit that description, I’m sure we can avoid this fate. Caroline Lucas, Jean Lambert, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, as well as many others, have shown by their work as elected Greens that they can take the lead on implementing Green policies, while being excellent personal representatives of our principles, and we would do extremely well to choose any of them to fill the new posts.

A leader of any group of people will always be considered to represent those people’s values, and that’s as true for me in the coming election for London Mayor, as it is for the new Green Party Leader. Londoners know that their choice will become the face of their city, and they will naturally want to pick someone who will say something positive about them to the outside world.

Voting for me as a Green mayor, for example, would be a very strong statement for Londoners to make. We would be saying we see ourselves as citizens of a young, forward-thinking, socially and environmentally responsible city.

Similarly, although Ken Livingstone has become more distant from ordinary people’s concerns during his eight years in office, there is still something left of the real Londoner in his self-confidence and independence of spirit - the qualities that first brought him victory over both the Conservatives and the Labour Party back in 2000.

Whatever his faults, the fact is that Livingstone still represents something about the way Londoners see themselves. And this need to embody the values of our city is, I think, one reason why Boris Johnson will not, in the end, be a serious contender in this election. To have our city personified by a right-wing, upper-class Tory japester will prove to be a step too far for London’s voters, come May 1st.

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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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.