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The time has come for the Greens to come of age

The Greens have a choice: persist with the old failed approach and get the same old disappointment. Or we can take ourselves seriously. 

I welcome the debate with my colleague Sian Berry on how the Green Party approaches next year’s Mayoral and Assembly elections in London. As I said last week on the Staggers, I believe it will be a make or break election for the Greens. Our party has come of age to meet the challenge but we cannot retreat to our comfort zone.

I’m glad Sian has engaged in this debate. Our decision on this question will determine our success or failure next year. There is now a clear choice for members in London about the kind of party we want to be.  

I believe I am the candidate who can best take the fight to the Tories and keep Labour honest, while winning new Green voters beyond our strongholds.

I made it clear last week that Zac Goldsmith is tied to the same unrestrained economic model as the rest of his party. But let’s be under no illusion, he will make a play for potential Green voters, and he is backed by the most ruthlessly efficient Conservative machine since Thatcher. Where I differ from Sian is that I won’t underestimate our political opponents. Nor will I write-off the half of London who backed Boris.

Blind faith in London’s anti-Tory majority broke many hearts as Boris won successive contests – including when Sian stood in 2008. How many commentators really believed that an old Etonian representing a rural seat in Oxfordshire could be elected the Mayor of metropolitan, liberal, anti-Tory London? Twice!

We can’t be complacent. The tactics of the past won’t cut it in 2016. The scale of our ambition must be greater than any election we’ve fought in our history.

This is not the time to throw away our hard-won gains on romantic notions of mass street protests. Nor can our election in London be based on the exhilarating ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland; a cross-party endeavour that was years in the making.

We have to understand that the Mayoral election is not the general and it’s certainly not a local election. Traditional tribal loyalties aren’t prevalent when it comes to Mayoral contests.

If we follow the campaign model Sian advocates, we will fall into the trap set by the Tories and Labour, being little more than a marquee of pressure groups; sidelined and defeated. But now is the time for the Green Party to start showing its teeth.

If, when pensioners in Streatham had approached me to ask for my help to save their sheltered housing, I had suggested that they speak to Russell Brand and squat their homes, they would have rightly told me to go take a hike! What they wanted was political advocacy. That’s what I did and, together with my colleagues in the Lambeth Green Party and at City Hall, we saved their homes.

Of course we stand in solidarity with campaigners. The Green Party in London is united in our belief that Londoners need to be empowered. That’s fundamental to our values as Greens.

Yes, let’s renew our 2012 commitment to schemes such as participatory budgeting. And let us go further. Let’s give groups like Save Cressingham Gardens new powers to defend their estate. Let’s bring transport unions and cycling representatives onto the board of TfL. Let’s give victims a decision-making role in the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. But let’s not repeat the election campaigns of the past.

I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with teachers campaigning against cuts to Further Education, successfully battled to save sheltered housing and I was dragged off the steps of St Paul’s during the Occupy evictions. Like many Greens, my politics were forged in the crucible of protest.

But I’ve also seen political opponents attempt to exploit or co-opt campaigns for electoral advantage. It has been a monumental error. These activists derive their influence from being outside the political fray so they can hold politicians – like Sian and I – to account.

Groups such as  London Citizens – their leaders and organisers who are deeply rooted in London’s communities – are already ‘in the room’ at City Hall.

The Living Wage, ending child detention and securing 1,500 local jobs for the Olympics and Paralympics, were some of London Citizen’s finest moments and they achieved those wins without having to tie their fortunes to any political party.

This isn’t the time for comfort zone politics.  This isn’t the time to “act more like them”. It’s easy talking to the converted. But our core vote won’t be enough for the Green Party to make our mark in this campaign.

In 2012 over 20 per cent of Londoners trusted us with their second preference votes. They didn’t all live in Hackney and Camden, there would have been pockets of these people across London’s thirty-two boroughs. They aren’t activists and organisers, although some will be. Many of these people be will be hairdressers, call centre staff and even taxi drivers.

With Labour in disarray, trying to work out what it stands for, the Green candidate for Mayor will be the standard bearer for progressive politics in the capital. That is why we must not waste this moment.

We should have a conversation with all Londoners. Most of whom, whether red, blue, green or undecided, are not involved in activist politics. The Londoners who do the everyday things; dropping the kids off at school, jumping on the bus to work, collecting their pension, looking for a job, grabbing a coffee with friends and making the evening meal. This is where our conversation should be.

We know the Green Party has the right policies. We share the values of many people in this great city. But I want the Green Party to be a realistic choice for every Londoner.

If you want to change the world through single issue pressure groups, charitable work and direct action, I’m right behind you! I’ll march with you, I’ll organise with you.  But don’t ask me to convince my neighbours or the parents I speak to at the school gates to vote for you.
Being grown up about our politics isn’t Tory any more than it is Labour.  It is simply about having the confidence that the Green Party can get the best for Londoners. I want to seize this moment so the Green Party can take the next step towards becoming the third force in British politics.

Jon Bartley is a candidate for the Greens' mayoral nomination.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party. 

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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