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15 July 2021

What the trans rights row really means for Siân Berry and the Green Party

The resignation of the Greens’ co-leader is a symptom of the party’s increasing internal divisions.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the space of two weeks, both leaders of the Green Party of England and Wales have announced that they will be standing down. Jonathan Bartley, who has co-led the party since 2016, announced on 5 July that he would quit at the end of the month.

The reasoning behind his departure is that the Green Party, like others, anticipates an early general election (the consensus in Westminster is that it will be held in 2023) and wants to provide space for other party figures to introduce themselves to the public and settle into the role.

The party’s next leadership election, which run every two years, was due in September 2022, which would not have given new leaders long to establish themselves before a potential general election the following May. Bartley, in his third term and without intentions to run again for a fourth, is stepping aside a year early in a six-year run.

He also wants to dedicate himself to cross-party work, seeking to form pacts with other progressive parties and candidates ahead of the next general election in an attempt to reduce the number of Conservative-held seats (he describes the current Tory government as having “many of the hallmarks of neo-fascism”). Whether this will be established as a formal party role is to be decided after he stands down.

Siân Berry, who has co-led the party with Bartley since 2018, announced on 14 July that she would also stand down in the autumn. In a statement, she hinted at the politics behind this decision – division among senior Green politicians on trans rights.

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“There is now an inconsistency between the sincere promise to fight for trans rights and inclusion in my work and the message sent by the party’s choice of front bench representatives,” she wrote.

“And my conscience simply cannot agree with the argument that there is anything positive in sending these mixed messages, especially when the inclusive attitudes of our membership and wider society are clear. Failing to win the confidence of a majority of my colleagues to reflect these is also a failure of leadership.”

Trans rights are a key issue for Berry, whose manifesto for the London mayoralty this year promised to “launch a commission into the needs of trans Londoners, with a goal of developing a trans rights strategy for London”.

When we spoke in March, she told me she wanted to “make London the most trans-inclusive city” and enthused about a motion being proposed to change the party’s gender balance rules, “so that co-leaders don’t have to be a man and woman but can be two people who are not men, basically… there might be other combinations of people who want to stand who are two women, or a woman and non-binary person – it isn’t fair to stop them, as a natural team, from standing together”.

[See also: Siân Berry on renting in London, generational guilt, and how the Greens have matured]

Yet what Berry does not mention explicitly in her resignation statement is controversy over the appointment of Shahrar Ali, a former deputy Green leader from 2014-16 who came last in the 2020 leadership election, as the party’s spokesperson for policing and domestic safety on 7 June. His statements in 2020 about what defines a woman triggered accusations of trans exclusion, which he denies, by some in the party.

Owing to the Green Party’s process of internal democracy, its members set its policies. At the party’s spring conference, they voted in support of gender self-identification. This was seen as a “good litmus test” for where members stood on the issue of trans rights within the party, though some members had proposed a motion that contradicted this.

The headache for Berry was less about divides over gender identity in particular, and more about her party’s growing pains. With every wave of new councillors – the most recent being after its record local election results in May – it becomes a stronger electoral prospect, but the party’s internal processes can frustrate policymaking and the influence of elected figures.

For the party’s 13 spokespeople roles, introduced by Bartley at a public event on 7 June, there was an open application process whereby all members could apply for each position. Each applicant was assessed according to key criteria, including policy expertise and media experience, before a small group of elected party representatives made the final decision.

The introduction of new spokespeople had been interpreted by some as another sign of the party’s growing maturity, with excitement over a secondary school teacher taking on the education brief and a former Foreign Office diplomat representing the party on foreign affairs as “global solidarity spokesperson” – a policy area the Greens had not had the space to focus on before. 

The challenge for the Greens has long been to take the party beyond the “Caroline Lucas effect” and provide new faces to capture the imagination of voters, and for broadcasters to count on as assured media performers. Yet the more senior figures a party has representing it, the more internal divisions manifest themselves. Indeed, the upside to having just one MP is that a party never appears split at the Westminster level, as one insider wryly observed.

An internal leadership by-election will be under way in the next few weeks. Potential successors include deputy leader Amelia Womack, but the race is more open than expected, with the popular Solihull councillor Rosi Sexton – who came second to Berry and Bartley in the 2020 leadership election – ruling herself out.

“My view is that the Green Party has some really serious problems. Aside from the issues around trans rights that have already been identified, there’s a strong streak of populist dogma and a suspicion of experts (except when they agree with us),” she tweeted.

“This is compounded by the way the party’s internal democracy is, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers. Delivering meaningful internal change is almost impossible because of the Byzantine governance arrangements.”