Even Greens need leaders

The Greens need a someone to lead them but they must have radical credentials

Since my Green Party membership expired, I am now an official "floating voter", ready to lend support to which ever party is prepared to make the most serious attempt to address climate change. It could be Labour, if Gordon Brown follows through with a strong Climate Change Act, a measure that would put us ahead of the rest of the world in setting a sturdy legal framework for reducing carbon emissions. Or it might be David Cameron, if he can come up with some thing better. The Lib Dems have faded into the background under Ming, but I'm still listening.

There I go, getting carried away with personalities, analysing leaders rather than the policies they represent. Most media coverage of politics is framed by the leadership styles of high-profile politicians. Even a recent Economist carried a five-page article discussing the Brown-Cameron era almost entirely in terms of the personalities of the two men. Whoever first said "People believe not in ideas, but in people who believe in ideas" got it about right. We are social animals, and it is human nature to look at the nature of other humans rather than the shifting, abstract philosophies they claim to represent. We tend to vote for whoever we most trust at gut level, rather than whoever best echoes our views.

The Green Party has long cold-shouldered the follies of personality politics - principally by not having a leader. Instead, it has a system of "principal speakers", one male and one female, selected by election at each party conference. Issue-related principal speakers also exist for every policy area, from animal rights to transport. Intentionally, the Green Party has no single national voice, no one personality or ego dominating its electoral campaigns or media coverage.

That could be about to change. Later this year, the Greens will hold a referendum on whether to elect a leader, and the party has split down the middle - on lines that clearly echo that long-time political division between, as the German greens used to call them, "fundis" and "realos".

On the fundi side this time are eco-socialists such as Derek Wall, the party's male principal speaker, who calls the leadership debate a "trap" and told delegates at the conference last March: "Virtually every radical movement in history has been sucked in and domesticated. If we win power, but at the cost of our ideals, that really would be a catastrophe." Also in the No camp are the London Assembly member Jenny Jones, councillors from York, Lambeth and Scarborough and rank-and-file activists. All point to the need to maintain a non-hierarchical structure in the face of a top-down political establishment.

The Yes camp's strongest voice is the MEP Caroline Lucas, whose enduring profile as a public speaker and media commentator frequently makes her look like the de facto party leader. Lucas rejects the idea that leadership means bowing to authoritarianism and talks about "empowering others", rather than squashing them from above. Darren Johnson, another London Assembly member, also makes clear that Yes campaigners are talking not "about some Blair-style figure who's going to dominate every aspect of the party", but someone to "catapult the Green Party into the mainstream" of British politics.

Both camps have strong arguments, but there is no doubt that remaining leaderless is the one thing which will guarantee that the Greens remain on the margins. Yes, leadership is a double-edged sword: leaders can sink their parties as much as they can save them. But the fact remains that the leaderless Greens are nationally weak and in no position to force their voice more strongly into the mainstream - just what is needed at this crucial time, when every "grey" party is suddenly discovering the virtues of greenness. The national office is staffed by volunteers and the bureaucracy is useless - as my lapsed membership, with no phone calls or letters to chase up my unpaid subscription, shows. Voters respect visionary leadership even when they disagree with it, as Ken Livingstone's enduring popularity proves.

Nor is there any reason why radicalism must be sacrificed to leadership: all that is needed is to elect a radical leader. I hope the referendum outcome is Yes and that this is what the Green Party then goes on to do.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant