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  1. Politics
18 June 2015

How Green party members’ long-term influence over policy leads to bizarre results

How the Greens make - and then forget - their policies.

By Tim Wigmore

Remember when artists fell out of love with the Greens? No it wasn’t one of Natalie Bennett’s gaffes. It was the moment when it was revealed that the Greens advocated reducing copyright to 14 years. The hopey-changey stuff could wait when creatives’ livelihoods were under threat.

It was all very easy to mock. But in one way activists in the main parties must have been rather jealous: when it comes to policy-making, Green party members are far more empowered.

This is how it works. The manifesto is the simple bit. This year it was co-written by Brian Heatley and Andy Dobson, researchers at the Green House think tank, in close coordination with around a dozen leading Green Party figures, including Natalie Bennett, her two deputies, and Caroline Lucas. The Green Party Regional Council then had to give final approval on the manifesto: a smooth enough process until Bennett had difficulty explaining what was in the document and why.

The real problem is in what the Greens call “long-term policy”, which (unless it counts as a “substantial change” and has major implications for other policy areas) can be changed by a motion at Conference, which requires only a simple majority.

It all means that ordinary party members have a lot of power. Every spring and autumn conference, they have the chance to propose policies that need only a simple majority to be adopted. To many it is wonderfully democratic. But it also carries the risk of the party adopting policies that appeal to the most committed activists but not to Green Party supporters outside the conference hall, let alone those whom the Greens are trying to attract.

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And perhaps the biggest problem of all is that a policy is “live” until it is voted otherwise. So it was with the party’s policy on copyright. Voted on over 20 years ago it had long since been forgotten about – until it was dug up in a dusty corner of the Greens’ long-term policies. The effect was disastrous for the party: not merely because of the unpopularity of tearing up existing copyright laws, but because it showed that the Greens did not even realise what all their policies were.

Green activists see their role setting policy inspiring and invigorating – and it is certainly a profound way in which the Greens are distinctive from other political parties in Britain today. But if this authenticity comes at the cost of seeming zany and plain weird is it worth it? The status quo might please current Green members, but the policies that result too often make the party seem self-indulgent and risk off-putting the professional urban middle-class that form the bulwark of support for much more successful Green parties on the continent and New Zealand.

This is why many senior Green figures, including Caroline Lucas, favour reforms to the party’s policy-making process to make it more professional, structured and coherent.

The challenge is to do so in a way that retains the bottom-up feel that attracts many to the Green party. Members are unlikely to take to change kindly. But, when it comes to policy-making, the general election campaign proved that the Green Party’s authenticity comes at a steep price.

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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