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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Leave will leap on the immigration rise, but Brexit would not make much difference

Non-EU migration is still well above the immigration cap, which the government is still far from reaching. 

On announcing the quarterly migration figures today, the Office for National Statistics was clear: neither the change in immigration levels, nor in emigration levels, nor in the net figure is statistically significant. That will not stop them being mined for political significance.

The ONS reports a 20,000 rise in net long-term international migration to 333,000. This is fuelled by a reduction in emigration: immigration itself is actually down very slightly (by 2,000) on the year ending in 2014, but emigration has fallen further – by 22,000.

So here is the (limited) short-term significance of that. The Leave campaign has already decided to pivot to immigration for the final month of the referendum campaign. Arguments about the NHS, about sovereignty, and about the bloated bureaucracy in Brussels have all had some utility with different constituencies. But none has as much purchase, especially amongst persuadable Labour voters in the north, as immigration. So the Leave campaign will keep talking about immigration and borders for a month, and hope that a renewed refugee crisis will for enough people turn a latent fear into a present threat.

These statistics make adopting that theme a little bit easier. While it has long been accepted by everyone except David Cameron and Theresa May that the government’s desired net immigration cap of 100,000 per year is unattainable, watch out for Brexiters using these figures as proof that it is the EU that denies the government the ability to meet it.

But there are plenty of available avenues for the Remain campaign to push back against such arguments. Firstly, they will point out that this is a net figure. Sure, freedom of movement means the British government does not have a say over EU nationals arriving here, but it is not Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault if people who live in the UK decide they quite like it here.

Moreover, the only statistically significant change the ONS identify is a 42 per cent rise in migrants coming to the UK “looking for work” – hardly signalling the benefit tourism of caricature. And though that cohort did not come with jobs, the majority (58 per cent) of the 308,000 migrants who came to Britain to work in 2015 had a definite job to go to.

The Remain campaign may also point out that the 241,000 short-term migrants to the UK in the year ending June 2014 were far outstripped by the 420,000 Brits working abroad. Brexit, and any end to freedom of movement that it entailed, could jeopardise many of those jobs for Brits.

There is another story that the Remain campaign should make use of. Yes, the immigration cap is a joke. But it has not (just) been made into a joke by the EU. Net migration from non-EU countries is at 188,000, a very slight fall from the previous year but still higher than immigration from EU countries. That alone is far above the government’s immigration cap. If the government cannot bring down non-EU migration, then the Leave argument that a post-EU Britain would be a low-immigration panacea is hardly credible. Don’t expect that to stop them making it though. 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.