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
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.