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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.