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3 August 2015

The Greens can’t be all things to all people – just ask Nick Clegg

The Greens can succeed by saying one thing in London and another in the Highlands - but as the Liberal Democrats show, it's the road to ruin. 

By Adam Ramsay

Next year will bring the most important elections for the Green party in its history. For the first time ever, all of the devolved parliaments and assemblies in the UK will be elected on the same day. There are significant chances of Green gains in each of them.

On top of that, May 2016 will bring see Mayoral elections in not just London, but also Bristol and Liverpool, and mayorless Sheffield will hold a one-off all-out vote for every councillor in the city. Anyone looking at where the next Green MP may be elected will know that this is, essentially, a roll call of the possible places.

It’s inevitable that the British media will focus much of their attention during that vote on the contest over London’s City Hall. And so the recent debate on these pages between Green Mayoral hopefuls Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley should command the attention of all of the 75,000 or so Green members across the UK: the conclusion of their disagreement about strategy will stretch a long way beyond the capital. Discussions of whether Greens should try to mobilise the marginalised or attempt to appeal to everyone apply as much in South Belfast, South Wales, and Glasgow’s Southside as they do in Southwark.

Before I take sides, which I will in a moment, let me start by saying that both Jonathan Bartley and Sian Berry both make excellent representatives of the Greens. As a political force which has little chance to give its members experience on the national stage, there aren’t many people in the party who I think are ready to go toe-to-toe with the biggest beasts that Labour and the Tories have on offer. Both Sian and Jonathan are.

Having said that, while I have been hugely impressed by Jonathan’s performances, I think his proposals are deeply mistaken. First, his piece is a veritable farm of straw men. He implies that Sian’s dismissal of the risk of Zac Goldsmith to the Green vote means that she thinks there’s no chance of him winning. This is to utterly miss the point: I think Greens won’t vote for Goldsmith because he’s an austerity loving Tory, and most Green voters have turned to the party as an anti-austerity voice. That doesn’t mean he won’t win – I suspect he’s the most likely next Mayor.

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He dismisses Sian’s analogy between London and Scotland, implying it’s impossible to create in the former the conditions which released such energy in the latter. Of course both are different – London isn’t Scotland just as it isn’t Barcelona, or New York, or Madrid, or Athens. But all of these places, each unique, has seen an astonishing rise of radical politics in recent months, leading to election results which shook conventional wisdom. Rather than highlighting how each is different, radical Londoners should be asking if they sit on the same fault-line, and attempting to learn important lessons.

In that context, to dismiss social movement politics as suggesting to pensioners that they “speak to Russell Brand and squat their homes” is to spectacularly miss the point – and, sat in Edinburgh writing this, shows a deep misunderstanding of what has happened up here. The point is that occupations of housing estates from Sweets Way to E15 represent the crests of vast waves of political rage, whose energy largely churns beneath the surface of manicured metropolitan politics. Greens have a duty to ensure that this energy sweeps up the Thames and into City Hall next year: that the terms of debate are driven not to the moribund centre-right, but by those who are usually shut out.

Perhaps most important, though, is the disagreement about the focus of the Green campaign next year. In almost every strategy meeting I’ve ever been in, for any kind of organisation, someone has said something along the lines of “let’s do everything, but better”. That person has always been wrong, and when others have followed them, they have failed.

In election strategy meetings, the equivalent statement is “let’s try to appeal to everyone”. I’ve seen Greens try that strategy repeatedly over the years, and the results lie littered in lost election deposits in every corner of the land.

Those who win start by asking a different question – “what’s the coalition of voters we can pull together in order to secure victory”; not “how can we get 100 per cent to not hate us” but “how can we get 40 per cent to love us”. Trying to appeal to everyone in reality means appealing to no one.

In small (hopefully) insurgent parties, this is particularly true. You don’t win with bland but inoffensive leaflets saying things it’s impossible to disagree with. You win by driving the debate into territory others are afraid of, by standing against the powerful, by accepting that the opposite of being controversial is not universal popularity, it’s being ignored.

For Greens, this question is particularly important for the long term, because the rise and fall of the Lib Dems teaches an important lesson. It is possible, in the short term, to pull together a rag-tag assemblage of very different demographics to whom you present very different faces. You can win MPs in West London and the West Highlands by presenting contradictory images to a different people. But eventually, it turns out, you get found out. In any case, I’m sure no one in the Greens wants the party to become Lib Dems Mark Two.

It’s this second question which really matters for the Green parties of the UK long term. To get more MPs, Greens can’t just target a couple more seats. We need to win over significant new groups. In that context, what is the coalition of voters we should be trying to pull together. Among whom should we be building support?

For me, the answer is that Greens must become the party which pulls together those excluded by the political system – people of colour and private renters; the working class voters who have been abandoned by Labour and who, where I’m sitting in Scotland, vote SNP, but in London too often stay at home because no one’s given them anything to vote for; young people; migrants; the unemployed and the precariously employed.

For the Green Party, which is still too white and too middle class, winning over these groups is the main challenge of the next decade. It’ll be very hard. And if its candidates are spending all of their time looking over their shoulder and worrying about whether what we say might alienate a Tory voter, then we will never succeed.

To characterise Sian Berry’s strategy – which is about working in solidarity with marginalised groups – as “writing off” “the half of London who backed Boris” is to make exactly the same mistake that Liz Kendal is making in the Labour leadership election. Half of London didn’t back Boris in 2012. Only 16.7 per cent of those who were registered did. These are the people that Labour, Tories, and Lib Dems will be focussing on, with their vast machines, which Greens will struggle to match. They aren’t people who need another political party to give expression to their views.

A space has opened in British politics precisely because everyone has tried to appeal to the same Labour/Tory swing voters, and so alienated a huge portion of the public that they no longer vote. Greens will either step into that space, or remain marginal. I do hope that London Greens choose the former road, and back Sian Berry.