I will start with a point that will be uncontentious, which is that we are living through a period of political upheaval and turmoil like no other in my lifetime. Things are up for grabs like no other time I have known. From this point on I will not carry everyone with me, I am sure.
The next three years will see whether or not a meaningful change of direction can be achieved through the electoral systems we have in place. We have to hope so, as the alternatives, that will move towards inevitability, will have mass casualties.
When I joined the Green Party, I did so recognising that it would a long hard slog to slowly chip away towards gradual electoral success. Caroline Lucas was elected as the culmination of something like 20 years hard work. Councillors started to be elected in ever-increasing numbers where local activists were prepared to do the careful planning and hard slog of what has become the tried and tested ‘Target To Win’ (TTW) strategy. This remains the most assured way to achieve electoral success, but the last few months have thrown up the prospect of being able to grab some influence and start imposing parts of our agenda sooner than we could have dared hope. But there are all manner of dangers and pitfalls in these opportunities.
The impact of the Scottish Independence Referendum has been quite startling, especially given its outcome. It has injected a much needed dose of vigour into our politics, that has seen the long decline in political party membership overturned and unprecedented surges in membership for the SNP and Green Parties in particular, and renewed growth for Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems (having reached a nadir 2 years ago) and UKIP. It has to be recognised that these collective membership increases are nowhere near as significant as the losses of membership of the Conservatives and Labour parties.
But there is a world of difference between membership numbers, national polling averages and achieving success in elections. FPTP rewards local and regional strength ahead of general popularity. It therefore becomes vital for small parties to target and develop winnable seats (TTW) , and work together with political allies to achieve greater collective successes (alliance building).
This is where sudden surges of new members can become problematic. Two-thirds of Wales Green Party members have been members for less than a year. Half have been members for less than six months. They are full of natural enthusiasm and feel part of a rising tide that they feel has sufficient momentum to sweep all aside to glorious and inevitable glory. How many seats are we going to win next year? At least three? Six I am told regularly. Up to 12 some seem to believe. Of course, not one of those will be in Wales, but we will get most of our 30 odd deposits back, I am assured, even though our best ever Westminster result ever is 3.8%. And all this less than six months before the election and not a single door has been knocked or leaflet delivered.
Not only is TTW not properly understood or being followed anywhere in Wales, but any thought of alliance building seems completely alien to many of the new Greens, and too many of the more influential older Greens. The newbies seem to have joined the Greens thinking our ideals are loftier and more sacrosanct than other parties and that on our current trajectory, we will sweep to power and be able to implement it all soon enough. Just what sort of ‘green’ party are we? Even a party with 90% in common with us is not pure enough for many to touch. This is a recipe for marginalisation and irrelevance. It is also in denial of some of the ‘impure’ campaigning that some Greens are capable of engaging in.
The crucial importance of alliance building in the current political climate is recognised by those intent on grabbing opportunities to get a lever on government and decision-making. The Lib Dems have shown us the pitfalls of coalition, and even more so of making promises that you then too easily bin, but they have had considerable success in getting elements of their manifesto implemented and taken the sharper edges off of some Tory cuts. But the bottom line is that propping up a Tory government is likely to prove unforgivable for many of their previous voters. But with a hung parliament looking a nigh on certainty at this point, these are all useful lessons for us to learn.
So what we have witnessed this week is, I believe, a hugely important opportunity to start doing politics a genuinely different way, and also to start undermining the neoliberal hegemony that has had a stranglehold on Westminster since Thatcher and Blair. I am, of course, talking about this:
The following extracts are from the Green Party website:
Leader of the Green party in England and Wales Natalie Bennett, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood have today stated that all three parties will unite whenever possible to battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity.
During a meeting at Westminster today the three party leaders said that with no end yet in sight to the failed austerity agenda of the Westminster parties, the General Election next May is an opportunity to change UK politics for the better.
“I am delighted to have the chance to catch up with two other female leaders of anti-austerity parties in the UK. Together, we represent, with the Scottish Green Party, a new way of doing politics, a move away from the business-as-usual model of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems that no longer represents public opinion.”
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said:
“Plaid Cymru and the SNP provide an alternative to Westminster’s promise of austerity and cuts to public services. As the only parties, together with the Greens, to reject the cuts consensus, it is unjustifiable and undemocratic to exclude our three parties from proposed leaders’ debates during the forthcoming UK elections.”
“If the people of Wales return a strong contingent of Plaid Cymru MPs in May, then Wales will be best placed to secure an outcome to improve the prospects of our people and communities.”
Where does this leave Wales Green Party? Marginalised and irrelevant?
What I am about to say may well be disputed by some, but will be recognised as the truth by many of the longer-standing members. Wales Green Party has long been seen as a slightly embarrassing ‘cousin’ that has a long history of under-achievement and is a source of repeated embarrassment. I do not want to dwell on proving this point to those that doubt it. But I do want to dwell on the opportunity to change this perception that is at hand.
At this point, let me stress that this is not about any bitterness from losing out in the leadership contest. I was more relieved than anything else when I learned the result, as I knew I had bitten off more than I could comfortably chew. This is about laying out my firmly held beliefs about opportunities that need to be grasped, before becoming (happily) marginalised and irrelevant myself.
If we take a realistic look at the state of the parties with regards the 2015 General election, a survey of most recent respectable polls yields the following as my best guesses as to where we are likely find ourselves in May:
The middle figures in bold are essentially median estimates based on recent polls. They are endlessly debatable, but there are a few points I would like to emphasise that are not dependent on the precise numbers.
Firstly, only the most extreme figures allow for any party (Labour) to have an absolute majority. It is strongly odds-on that we will have a hung parliament.
Secondly, if the median figures are anywhere near accurate, then no two-party coalition will be able to muster a majority either (other than a highly unlikely, if not completely implausible, Con/Lab one).
This, I would suggest, is why the social democrats (left of centre) of the SNP are keen to have allies in the ecosocialists (further left) of the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.
However, if the median figures prove spot on, even the combination of Labour/SNP/PC/Green won’t quite make a majority, falling 5 short (hello Sinn Fein?). It is therefore incumbent on all three of the new ‘allies’ to try and edge their contributions towards the higher end of the possible. However, I expect Labour to ‘bounce’ up a bit in Scotland (maybe +5) (probably partly at SNP expense, say -3), but that does not really alter the equation much for the Greens and PC. If they can both hit their ‘hi’ score, that might just be enough.
This is where is gets uncomfortable for Wales Green Party (WGP).
WGP is currently part of GPEW. Given that GPEW is clearly totally committed to building an ongoing alliance with PC and SNP, because they have the potential to deliver seats that neither Scottish Greens nor WGP can deliver in the foreseeable future, then is it not incumbent on Wales Green Party to do whatever it can to make this ‘dream’ alliance possible? This offers exciting possibilities going forward that, I would suggest, make advances for Welsh Greens much quicker, bigger and more secure into the bargain.
What could this mean in practice?
In return for Wales Green Party stepping aside in PC’s winnable seats next year (the 2 key marginals in particular), what could be offered in return? Some, or all, of the following I would hope:
> Joint regional top-up lists, pretty much guaranteeing seats in Welsh Government in 2016
> Electoral pacts, especially for the local authority elections in 2017, providing a clear run and additional support in target wards in every local authority in Wales
> Financial support from PC and GPEW to make the above a stronger reality, in gratitude for assistance given in 2015
> An overtly ecosocialist profile that will broaden the appeal of both parties and act as a magnet to all other ecosocialists lurking in other parties (Labour/Lib Dems/LU/SWP/TUSC etc)
Remember, alliances are not about joint manifestoes and sacrificing principles or identity. They are about building constructive working relationships to enhance the chances of delivering common objectives. Everyone should be a winner.
Just because the WGP members have rejected my brand of leadership (probably quite wisely), does not, I hope, mean that the vision I share with the three women in the photo needs to be rejected as well.
I would go so far as to say that if Wales Green Party is not prepared to support this vision and be a team player, then it needs to go the whole hog and become fully independent of GPEW. I am 100% sure GPEW will facilitate this asap if desired. Then WGP will be completely free of GPEW policy and can do as it sees fit on everything. It may be the quickest way round all its constitutional messes too as a wholly new constitution would be required.
It needs to make a bold decision one way or another, and as soon as possible. The clock is ticking.