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Can the Greens become more than a single MP party in England and Wales?

Zack Polanski has announced his candidacy in a deputy leadership race, which could test the unity of the Green Party.

By India Bourke

In the May local elections in the UK the Green Party increased its council seats to 547. Never before has the country had such a green tinge. At a national level, however, the tinge remains faint. Caroline Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion, is the only Green to sit in the House of Commons. Zack Polanski, who today (6 June) announced his candidacy for deputy leader of the Green Party, believes he can help upend this status quo.

“I want to see two to five Green MPs in power after the next general election, and 1,000 Green councillors by 2025,” Polanski, 39, the chair of the Environment Committee of the London Assembly, told the New Statesman. There is a tendency for the party only to be associated with climate and environment issues, he adds, but “there is no environmental justice without racial, social and economic justice too – and I think the Green Party is the party that truly gets that.”

Polanski believes improving the press coverage of Green candidates and understanding of their policies will be essential to any election success. The media platform he has built while at the London Assembly could be an asset as deputy leader, he says. The Green Party hasn’t been invited on Question Time [the BBC’s flagship political debating programme] once this year,” he cites as an example of the mainstream media’s apparent anti-Green bias. “We now have more councillors than Ukip [Nigel Farage’s Brexit-supporting party] did at their peak and they were never off the TV.”

The party’s former co-leader Jonathan Bartley acknowledges the Greens’ relatively low profile, saying it took three years before he was regularly recognised in the street. He stepped down early last year partly to give the public more time to become familiar with a new leadership before the next election. “I’m not endorsing anyone,” he said, “but Zack is very good in front of a camera, so it’s good he’s announced.”

Polanski and any others who put themselves forward will face a number of challenges, however.

Divides over trans rights have threatened to scupper the party’s dynamism in recent years. The party’s former co-leader, Siân Berry, stepped down in 2021 citing an “inconsistency” between her promise to fight for trans rights and the views of some of the party’s other front bench representatives. Berry did not explicitly mention Shahrar Ali, but the former deputy Green leader has been criticised by other members for his comments on trans rights. This year Ali was removed from his role as spokesperson for home affairs and policing. He has a legal claim lodged against the party for “unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation for daring to express my gender critical views”.

Tensions have also been building between the “deep greens”, who prioritise environmental issues, and the “bright greens” who promote policies of social justice, such as a £15 an hour minimum wage. Meanwhile, in the country at large, the party’s geographically scattered local-election gains don’t bode well for a general election system of first-past-the-post. In Bristol, where the party’s current co-leader, Carla Denyer, hopes to secure a parliamentary seat, support for the Greens in local elections has in the past transferred to Labour in national polls.

The incumbent deputy, Amelia Womack, is also not seeking re-election. A champion of women’s rights and refugees, Womack’s eight years in the role provided the party with much-needed stability during a time of rapid membership growth and a succession of different leadership combinations. (By switching between pairs of gender-balanced leaders, the party has attempted to widen the pool of prominent figures beyond Lucas, yet the system has also arguably contributed to the party’s recognition problem.) “It was a big decision not to re-run this term, but I thought it was important to ensure that space was made to secure better diversity in the party,” Womack says.

Whoever is chosen to succeed Womack will need to be able to help the party’s current co-leaders Denyer and Adrian Ramsay settle these tensions, while also expanding the party’s appeal.

Polanski would like to be that figure, and there is much in his background that speaks to a focus on inclusivity. He says that growing up Jewish and gay in Salford made him aware from a young age of what it means to feel marginalised. That started to change, however, when he transferred from a grammar school to comprehensive. At the former, he felt set-apart from others by a financial scholarship; but at the latter, he overcame his shyness, joined a theatre club and began to make friends who were also gay. The recent hit Netflix series Heartstopper brings back “loads of memories”, he says.

By 18, he went to study drama at university. His subsequent career has included working in Europe’s biggest LGBT BME nightclub, and acting in community theatre – helping prisoners, teachers and others to “role-play power structures in society, dream how things might be different and come up with legislative demands”. He also, aged 18, decided to take back his family’s original Jewish surname, which was changed to Paulden in the early 20th century to evade anti-Semitism after arriving in the UK from eastern Europe. Even though he didn’t consider himself political at the time, Polanski says it was already important to him to find pride, not shame, in his identity.

A desire to help people to build their confidence has not been without mistakes. In 2013, he contributed to an article in the Sun newspaper about the power of hypnosis to increase breast-size, something he now regrets. His concern with strengthening disempowered voices became fully political, however, after the 2011 referendum on the UK’s parliamentary voting system, when he realised the system of first-past-the-post “isn’t fair”.

A subsequent desire to support proportional voting initially led Polanski to join the Liberal Democrats, who failed to shortlist him as a candidate for Richmond Park in London. He then joined the Greens, whom he saw as providing answers to the democratic crisis and the climate crisis together. In 2021, he was elected their third member on the London Assembly.

Polanski has led the Assembly in declaring a climate and ecological emergency, “pushed the mayor” into a target for zero new HIV infections by 2030, and got the words “climate emergency” included in London’s new tourism strategy. Under pressure from Polanski and the two other Green London Assembly members, Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, recently appeared to U-turn on his support for Gatwick airport expansion. Polaski also highlights his efforts to push the interests of striking care home workers, the United Voices of the World trade union, and communities opposed to Khan’s plans for the Silvertown tunnel (a new road under the river Thames, which some fear will increase air pollution and do little to stem congestion). “He gets into the right place eventually,” Polanski says of Khan, “but far too slowly”.

Polanski’s mission if elected deputy, he says, would be to extend his emphasis on expanding representation, both within the party and beyond it. He will likely not be in the race alone though, with the nominations not closing until 30 June and the field wide open. 

Potential challengers reportedly include Tyrone Scott, a housing and climate justice campaigner who stormed the stage at Cop26 to declare the international climate summit “a failure”, and Kathryn Bristow, a transwoman who has served as a co-chair of Green Party Women and on the Greens of Colour committee. There may even be a declaration from one of the many newly elected councillors, which include a substantial number of young members. “I’d love a young Green to run in the race,” says Polanski, “they’ve got really important views”.

There is some fear, however, that the race could reignite the party’s splits. According to Nate Higgins, a 25-year-old rising star recently elected as a councillor in Newham, “much of the media and a small minority in the party are intent on using the culture wars, especially around trans rights, to push us to abandon policies of social justice altogether. But there can be no climate justice without social justice.”

“I hope this race isn’t centred around trans rights,” says Womack. “Our policy on the issue is clear and policies brought to conference opposing them have failed. The deputy leadership election is an inappropriate place to platform a difference of opinion when ultimately it’s our members who decide our policy.”

The wider concentration of policy decision making with the membership could pose problems for any future deputy, or leader, of the party, however. Green leaders have little direct power and every policy must be passed by members before it can be adopted, leaving the party without “the nimbleness and flexibility to be insurgent” in response to fast-moving political events, says Bartley. Polanski says the Greens are right to reject a “strong man” style of leadership, but agrees that the party would do better if it could respond faster.

Whether the Green Party of England and Wales can emulate the national-level successes of green parties in other countries remains to be seen. But the former co-leader Natalie Bennett is optimistic. The Australian Green Party’s recent general election gains in the face of “climate change-denying politics drenched in corruption and machismo,” shows that “political changes can be delivered even within outdated, dysfunctional constitutional arrangements,” she comments.

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