As of this week, I am no longer a member of Bridgend Green Party (although I remain a member of GPEW for the time being). This saddens me more than most people will credit. I have devoted a huge part of my life over the last four and a half years to getting the local party off the ground and established. A small but dedicated group of activists have helped us become a respected player in the local political scene and we have achieved a few things of note.
In 2012 we managed to put up the biggest slate of Green candidates in Wales outside of Cardiff, and Gareth Harris’ 24% was, I believe, the best result of any Green candidate at County Council level in Wales that year. We also saw Kathy Lewis returned as our first ever Community Councillor in Laleston and had a couple of other near misses.
Working closely with Plaid Cymru members in Bridgend, we helped establish Bridgend Against the Bedroom Tax, and when it merged to become part of South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax, Bridgend’s Kay Harris was its chair for a while. We have also played an active role in the anti-fracking movement (including trips to Balcombe, Barton Moss and Borras), the 20’s Plenty campaign, No To NATO and Stand Up to UKIP groups, among many others.
Our Elections Officer, John Evans, was commended by BCBC as one of the best organised and most efficient elections officers in the 2012 local elections. He went on to become the Wales ERO for a while.
We have been far from the ‘one man band’ some have attempted to portray us as. I am proud of the team we have built and what we have achieved. I thank them all for their unstinting support, energy and commitment. It has been fun and satisfying. Thank you.
For much of the last couple of years, however, we have been bemoaning the stagnation of both the local party and the Wales Party. So it is with no little irony that we find ourselves with the Bridgend Party in potential meltdown, just at the point where membership of both Bridgend and Wales Green Parties has sky rocketed in completely unprecedented and unexpected fashion.
So what has gone wrong? Why am I so disillusioned at the very point where I might more reasonably be expected to be full of optimism and joy?
I have had a fractious relationship with Wales Green Party Council for some time, particularly over their refusal to hold Pippa Bartolotti to account for a constant stream of misjudgements and gaffes, but it has only been in the last 12 months or so that things have been stretched to breaking point. The key issue has been our relationship as a party to Plaid Cymru.
This may well surprise many that know me well and/or have read my book, because I have consistently maintained that nationalism is second only to religion as a divisive force on this planet. I don’t want to go into the detail of these views now (I have done so repeatedly elsewhere) but save to say I would not have touched Plaid Cymru with a barge pole for most of the the 20+ years I have lived in Wales. Things started to change in 2011 when I read Leanne Wood’s Greenprint for the Valleys. Here was a new generation of Plaid Cymru politician speaking my language. I began to see the ecosocialist dimensions to the PC agenda, and learn about the Cynog Dafis era as well. When Leanne Wood became Leader of Plaid Cymru, in March 2012, it was immediately clear that PC was now a party we could and should work with, especially given their relative strength and electoral success.
It was around this time that I also started to take more note of Plaid Cymru in Bridgend and I was a delighted to accept an invitation to work with them on the Bedroom Tax campaign mentioned above. It confirmed that we have a huge amount in common and that they were actually pretty nice people. By the local elections later in 2012 we were talking informally about, for want of a better phrase, ‘keeping out of each other’s way’ as much as possible, and this contributed to us having a better and more successful campaign than we might otherwise have managed, with it being at our first attempt and all.
I started to try and feed some of this back into Wales Green Party, but was met with something close to hostility for even suggesting such a thing. Too many of the then Council members seemed to want to hark back to the somewhat acrimonious end to the previous attempt at an electoral pact in Ceredigion in the early 90s – rather than focussing on the fact that it had successfully led to the election of the UK’s first Green MP – sort of – with Cynog Dafis’ election on a joint Green / PC ticket. The ‘truth’ behind the demise of that successful relationship depends on who you talk to, which in itself points to likely fact that there was blame on both sides. But hey, this is a different era.
Despite this attitude from WGPC, I was beginning to hear other voices sharing my view that PC should be seen as our allies rather than our adversaries. This was coming from all directions – in no small part because of the obvious achievements of Greens and PC working together in Brussels and Westminster. I was getting encouragement for my standpoint from senior members of GPEW in England, even if it wasn’t forthcoming in Wales. I was getting encouragement from friends in PC as well. Far from all in PC have been kindly disposed to the Green Party, but the majority by far have been and continue to be so.
With no sign of WGPC changing personnel or opinions, I was encouraged to try and bring about change by challenging for the leadership of Wales Green Party at the end of 2013, especially after coming out on top in the Euro list poll. There were personal family reasons for not pursuing the leadership at that time, to which could be added political reasons for deciding to withdraw from the Euro list. It wasn’t until sometime after we had the Euro list poll that it emerged that Jill Evans was in serious danger of losing her MEP seat, primarily due to UKIP’s continued surge (ours was a pipe dream at this time). Given that, despite Bartolotti’s shameless spin (for which she was forced into public apologies), the Greens were never going to get remotely close to making a breakthrough, it seemed clear to me that for the sake of the Green/EFA group in Brussels, and in recognition that Jill Evans voting record on key issues was actually better than our own MEPs, we should withdraw. But with Bartolotti being number two on the list, that was never going to happen. I had to take a unilateral stance.
Again utterly shamelessly, not only did Bartolotti (legitimately) usurp the lead candidate position, but within 24 hrs of doing so she was attempting (with less legitimacy) to create a whole campaign team that was never on the table for me. WGPC and I had agreed, after my election, that it should be a low key campaign, to be used to simply engage with target wards for 2017. Despite Bartolotti’s best efforts, the Green Vote went down a bit (in line with nationwide trends) and Jill Evans scraped back in. There was widespread relief at this, as GPEW disappointingly only managed to add one more MEP, so losing Jill would have represented a zero net gain to the UK contingent in the Green/EFA group in Brussels.
We will never know how significant my move and the resultant publicity was in saving Jill’s seat in Brussels, but it was a close run thing and PC’s leading lights were duly appreciative of what I had done and were hoping it would signal a new era of closer links between PC and the Green Party. However, it was patently obvious to all concerned that this would not be likely with Bartolotti at the helm of WGP. I openly declared my intention to run against her at the end of 2014, in the absence of any other candidate, with plenty of encouragement from senior members of GPEW again. I was impressed with the mutual respect shown by Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett, and the clear desire of both to build on the constructive relationships witnessed in Brussels and Westminster.
However the campaigning period for the Wales leadership coincided with the Green Surge, precipitated, somewhat ironically, by David Cameron’s advocacy of the Greens going the TV debates and the independence referendum in Scotland, whereby the public showed a clear appetite for a new sort of politics. What should have been a source of joy became a source of consternation for me and the people that supported my ‘Work with PC’ platform.
What the surge did was flood the party with new members who were never likely to be sympathetic to calls for strategic withdrawals from parliamentary seats that PC could win. Given the choice between my rhetoric about the bigger picture and the need to act strategically for the greater good, and Bartolotti’s exaltations that we were on an irresistible roll to world domination, it was not surprising that I came a cropper. Any attempt I made to shine a light on her shortcomings were met by indignation that Greens don’t do ‘negative’ campaigning. I was stuffed.
I had sussed my fate a while before it was sealed and had decided to retreat back, licking my wounds, to focus back on my local party again. But within a matter of a few short days the pictures of Natalie Bennett with Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon were everywhere.
What emerged was a clear message that the three parties, despite their differences, were interested in an anti-austerity alliance, based around trying to optimise their collective strength in Westminster after the General Election. On a purely pragmatic level, if nothing else, this has to mean ensuring as many MPs are elected to this collective block as possible. In Wales, given that the Green Party’s realistic aspirations cannot extend much beyond saving a few deposits, it is therefore incumbent on the Wales Green Party, and its members, to put aside narrow, short-term whims (namely to have a Green candidate in very constituency) for the common good, if it is to be in any way supportive of the concept of an anti-austerity alliance.
So why hasn’t some leadership in this direction been shown? After all, there is no hiding GPEW’s position on this when you see and read the following on its website:
“The people of Wales face a real choice at the election…….
“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.”
Let us be clear. This is not calling for Wales Green Party to capitulate. There is no reason for not standing in probably 34 out 40 constituencies. It is simply calling for a constructive attitude to alliance building for the common good. It would involve give and take over a longer timescale. However, the constitution of GPEW seems to be inhibiting Natalie Bennett from getting involved in the Wales situation. I have spoken with her recently and sense her great frustration with the situation, but she steadfastly insists (quite rightly no doubt) that it is for the members in Wales to resolve among themselves. Which means, of course, that given the attitudes prevailing in Wales Green Party, there simply is no prospect of an anti-austerity alliance in Wales. This was confirmed and reinforced by Bartolotti this very weekend:
Thus we have the bizarre and unfathomable situation in which the GPEW is very much in favour of working on an anti-austrity alliance with Plaid Cymru, but the party in Wales steadfastly rejects it and obstructs it. And to cap it all, from my perspective, it is me that is now being openly accused of being out of touch and damaging the party.
What these situations desperately need is leadership. If that cannot be applied from the top down, it is reliant on it emerging at the appropriate level. At the risk of being further accused of an unhealthy preoccupation with Bartolotti, it has long been recognised by many that she is driven by a craving for the spotlight and self-aggrandisement. Self-sacrifice does not come easy to the self-serving. Which means the only other hope of leadership on this issue has to come from within local parties.
Therein lies the next problem. It was not so long ago that outside of Cardiff and Bridgend there was barely a properly functioning local party in Wales. Swansea came perilously close to folding completely, Cardiff imploded after the huge disappointment of failing to get Jake Griffiths into the Welsh Assembly in 2011, and Gwent had to resort to attempting telephone conferences in order to stay alive as it activist numbers dwindled to being few and far between. This was pretty much the state of play 12 months ago, with barely 400 members to our name.
The transformation has been little short of astonishing. I am unsure of the current numbers, but I believe there are now something like 2000 members and maybe 10-12 constituted branches. Awesome! However, with the best will in the world, these people are ‘green’ in all sorts of ways. They are keen and enthusiastic and keen to do things right – I have helped some find their way with organising their party and negotiating the way the party does things like policy making. They have come from an impressive range of backgrounds, from political ‘virgins’ to serial party hoppers. Some are well briefed, others have little real idea, beyond the obvious, what the party stands for. We have passionate ecosocialists I have taken a shine to, and brash green capitalists that I have taken a dislike to. That is all fine and dandy.
What is not fine and dandy though, from my perspective, is the fact that all the enthusiasm they have brought in with them is being inappropriately channeled into thinking they can go out and sweep all before them. Yes, I understand they have joined the Green Party and not Plaid Cymru or any other party – but they need to be told that they are also joining what should be seen as one of the leading elements in an anti-austerity alliance that may require some self-sacrifice for the common good. Yes, I understand they want to put their cross next to a green candidate on a ballot paper wherever possible – but they need to be told that in an alliance situation, that sometimes means understanding that another party logo represents their choice occasionally. With the right leadership people understand this. It is hard to disagree with journalist and PC member Vicky Moller when she says:
“The [welsh] greens have been adamant about having candidates in every constituency. They are full of hubris at this point, seeing a heroic role for themselves and less worried about the immediate outcome than their glorious horizon. I feel it’s a maturity issue, like adolescents behind the steering wheel for the first time.”
The potential for alliances has been demonstrated in spectacular fashion by SYRIZA, which for those that don’t realise it, is a acronym of Greek words that translate as “the coalition of the radical left”. The situation in Greece is not the same as the situation here, but with continued austerity it will soon be much similar. The rise of SYRIZA was driven by utter despair. Would it not be wise for us to learn what is possible before we get to that desperation?
Let me share a history lesson from which we have much to learn. The parties that originally formed the Coalition of the Radical Left in January 2004 were:
- Synaspismós (SYN)
- The Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA)
- The Internationalist Workers Left (DEA)
- The Movement for the United in Action Left (KEDA) (a splinter group of the Communist Party of Greece)
- Active Citizens (a political organisation associated with Manolis Glezos)
- Other independent left-wing groups or activists
In the election of that year, the coalition gathered 241,539 votes (3.3% of the total) but still managed to gain six members of parliament. All six were members of Synaspismós, the largest of the coalition parties. This led to much tension within the coalition.There followed some fairly turbulent years, with parties coming and going. In 2007, the ‘green’ party, Ecological Intervention, joined. The coalition held together and started to make real progress in the polls. But it was not until 2013 that it achieved sufficient strength and cohesion to become a unitary party, with the formal merger of the following disparate elements, who finally recognised that sectarianism had to be completely discarded for the sake of the people of Greece.
So in the summer of 2013, the following groups came together (along with their philosophies):
- Active Citizens (Ενεργοί Πολίτες): democratic socialism, patriotism
- Anticapitalist Political Group (ΑΠΟ): communism, trotskyism
- Citizens’ Association of Riga (Velestinli): patriotism, internationalism, ecology, social justice
- Communist Organization of Greece (KOE): maoism, communism
- Communist Platform of Syriza: Greek section of the International Marxist Tendency, communism, trotskyism
- Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI): left-wing nationalism, socialism, euroscepticism
- Ecosocialists of Greece: eco-socialism, Green politics
- Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA): revolutionary socialism, communism, trotskyism
- Movement for the United in Action Left (KEDA): communism
- New Fighter: democratic socialism, social democracy
- Radical Left Group Roza: Luxemburgism Radicals (Ριζοσπάστες): democratic socialism, patriotism
- Red (Κόκκινο): communism, trotskyism
- Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA): democratic socialism, eurocommunism, green politics
- Synaspismós (SYN): democratic socialism, eco-socialism, eurocommunism, environmentalism, feminism
- Union of the Democratic Centre (EDIK): radicalism, social liberalism
- Unitary Movement: democratic socialism, social democracy
- And a number of independent leftist activists
After nine hard years achieving this, it was rewarded with immediate success, coming first in the Euro elections of 2014, and being swept to government in the snap election of last month.
What we are witnessing here in the UK is the early stages of trying to build a similar coalition of the radical left in the UK. None of the constituent parties in SYRIZA would have come close to participating in Government without the hard work of Tsipras and others to make the coalition work. That work had to include: diffusing sectarianism, focussing on the common ground, putting personalities and egos to one side, realising that making compromises is always a necessary ‘evil’ in getting to achieve anything.
It is vision I want to work towards with anyone who wants to listen. That currently appears to preclude working with the Green Party within Wales. I have failed to convince anyone of influence to my position and am now characterised as a disruptive and damaging influence. The membership has had its opportunity to choose a path and have chosen the one they are now well and truly on.
My options are limited. As willing as I am to work with and embrace Plaid Cymru as allies and partners, they are not the ideological fit that the Green Party is for me still. I do not intend to join PC. I feel as if I have done all I can in Wales for the time being. Remaining involved can only fuel division and acrimony. What is clear to me, though, is that I cannot be party to the possible ruination of historic possibilities in the General Election. If my battle to talk sense into Green Party members in Wales is lost, along with possibly a couple of PC seats, then the best I can do is to try to contribute to securing a gain for the anti-austerity block across the border in Bristol West, and maybe try to get down to Brighton Pavilion to help re-elect the person that inspired me to join the Green Party in the first place.
I have therefore taken the unusual step of asking for my membership to be reassigned to Bristol Green Party/South West Region. This is the only compromise I feel comfortable with at the moment.
It means I will be withdrawing all my involvement with Bridgend Green Party as of the AGM this Thursday. I sincerely hope some of the new influx feel able to take it on and will hopefully nurture it to future success. If and when the issues with the anti-austerity parties in Wales resolve themselves, then I may return.
But in the meantime I simply need a break from it all for a while – certainly until after the GE – to reflect on what do next. As I am facing redundancy shortly, this applies to my work life as well as politics. I am in no frame of mind to get embroiled in political wrangling anymore and I apologise, to those I respect, that I may have offended by being even more blunt than usual at times recently. That, more than anything else, tells me it is time to step back and move on.
Good luck everybody!!