Why the Green Party should elect a ‘Shadow Cabinet’

This September, when the Green Party of England and Wales meets for the first time as a party represented at Westminster, members will be asked to vote on a proposal to elect a Green Shadow Cabinet.

In some ways it’s a significant step, just as it was a big step to elect a ‘leader’ rather than two ‘principal speakers’.

There has been a lot of sympathetic support, some scepticism and some opposition.  But let me, briefly, set out why I believe this is the right step to take and why this is the right time.

In some ways the Green Party set out from its inception in the early 70s as ‘People’ to be an ‘anti-party’ – hence the steadfast opposition to the style of leadership and organisation shared by the big UK parties. 

But after thirty odd years of clinging to the fringes a new generation emerged, a pragmatically minded and ambitious generation, that sees green politics as more than a gesture or a protest.  We see it as a framework of principles by which our society can become happier, healthier and sustainable.  However we have come to accept that it will be none of those things if we indulge our penchant for opposition and yell impotently from the sidelines.

The Green Party faces a challenge – to continue to professionalise whilst keeping its soul.  I believe our soul is hardwired into our commitment to the rights of the individual, to empowering communities to take control of their own futures and to the belief that power should flow upwards.  It’s indivisible from our desire to have a country and a planet that we can leave our grandchildren and they theirs.

Green thinking emanates from these core beliefs and colours our approach to every area of government and life.  Yet for too long we’ve largely been heard on issues that the media and the wider world consider to be ‘green’ – primarily the environment and peace.

However any serious Green Party needs to communicate its thinking in every area and nothing signals our intention to do that more seriously than our electing a Green Shadow Cabinet.

Let me say at this juncture that I’m not irrevocably wedded to the name.  There is a touch of hubris about it.  However as a descriptive term it leaves us with the least room for misinterpretation.  The Green Shadow Cabinet’s purpose would be to shadow the main cabinet portfolios – though with only 13 members (including our leader and deputy) some briefs, for instance Foreign and International Development, might need to be combined.

By choosing to establish such a body we do a number of key things:

We widen the franchise within the party.  The Greens are more than the Caroline Lucas fan club (though while I’m about it I’ll squeeze in a quick ‘Yay Caroline!’).  We have talent in depth.  Our leader and deputy are not islands of sanity in a quirky and unelectable party; they’re merely the two considered most able from a considerable pool of talent and ability.  The GSC (one can never have too many acronyms) rather than detracting from the lustre of the leader will surely add to it.  Furthermore by electing the shadow cabinet as a single list we maximise the opportunities for people of diverse views, from every region, of different races, both genders and a multiplicity of sexual preferences to be represented.

We make the party more democratic.  Presently the External Communications Coordinator recommends candidates to GPEx.  If Alistair Campbell or Andy Coulson had played such a role under Tony Blair or David Cameron we would have heaped ridicule upon them.  To those who say you can have too much democracy in the Green Party I would say this; trust the members.  Their choice of leader and deputy showed they have common sense aplenty and they’ll soon sort the wheat from the chaff amongst the GSC candidates.

We shift the elected centre of gravity of the party decisively away from administration and towards policy and towards the voter.  The Green Shadow Cabinet would be as outward looking as GPEx and GPRC are, necessarily, for the most part inward looking.

We ensure the making and communication of policy are brought more closely together.  Each shadow cabinet member will handle one or more key briefs and will coordinate policy development in that area with members from each region contributing to the process.  The Green Shadow Cabinet and shadow spokespeople will be better placed to respond to the 24 hour news cycle to communicate our wider agenda when opportunities come up.  We have a panel of clearly identified policy spokespeople, with a mandate and who meet regularly as a body to discuss policy and the way we apply it and put it across.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, as we start to mirror the activity of government in other ways we stop thinking about governing in an abstract and sometimes idealised environment and become more disciplined about considering the real world implication of the policies we suggest.

If we do choose to establish a Green Shadow Cabinet I believe it will be another step on a journey towards our becoming a serious force in British politics with various emphases on ‘serious’.

It may be a while before we are ready to participate in government.  Indeed it may yet be a generation.  However if we start acting now as we mean to go on not only is that time likely to be nearer but when it comes we might be better prepared to decide who we best do that.

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10 Responses to “Why the Green Party should elect a ‘Shadow Cabinet’”

  1. “The Green Party faces a challenge – to continue to professionalise whilst keeping its soul. I believe our soul is hardwired into our commitment to the rights of the individual, to empowering communities to take control of their own futures and to the belief that power should flow upwards. It’s indivisible from our desire to have a country and a planet that we can leave our grandchildren and they theirs.”

    This is indeed a correctly identified challenge, but believing that principles are hardwired into being a Green is a really really dangerous step. cf Die Grunen, the Irish Greens, and so on. Apologies if this wasn’t what you were saying – but it is important to recognise that we are perfectly capable of going way way way off the rails – and that it is in no way difficult or oppositionalist to point out this tendency.

    • headstrongclub Says:

      That’s not quite what I’m saying Matt, more that our soul resides in our committment to those principles and moreover our willingness to live them. I’m arguing that our soul isn’t in jeapoardy through professionalising as a party, wherass it might be if we were to row back from the principles I list. However I do agree with you that we are as capable of going off the rails as Die Grunen or the Irish Greens. I’d argue we’re more at risk of going off the rails with a limited enfranchisement at the top (think Icke) than with a wider one, though Caroline and Adrian seem veritably glued to the rails and I conceed there’s no guarrantee a bonkers slate couldn’t get elected to a GSC, I just trust to the common sense of our members (even the ones with Grateful Dead T shirts… actually especially them….)

  2. As a Green Party member for over 20 years, and a Leftist for 15 years before that (and still one), might I take fundamental issue with this piece.

    1) I agree it was a “significant step” ro elect a leader–albeit a step in the wronmg direction. The current centralisation of power within the Green Party is anathema to fundamental Green principles–but you want to take it further.

    2) Your counterposition of “pragmatic” to “gesture” polirics is a canard–the real question is how do we effect Green politics without succumbing to the blandishments of mere “ambition” and “pragmatism” (this latter code for accepting capitalism).

    3) Power can not, repeat not, flow “upwards” if it is centralised in a mimicking of the parliamentary game of Leaders & “shadow cabinets”.

    4) I agree, Green politics needs to be more than “the environment & peace”–it needs to be linked to social justice, opposition to racism, support for those workers & communities struggling against capitalism, including the current Condem attacks on basic living conditions. Not a mention in your piece–yet that is exercising voters far more than Cabinet games.

    5) How fatuous, to believe there can be just “two considered most able”–what an insult to other GP members!

    6) You speak of shifting a centre of gravity rowards “the voter”–what amorphous populism! Where is the role of a party in seeking to shape opinion, rather than merely defer to it?

    7) You give the game away when talking of seeking to “mirror the activity of government”–how tame. The point is not to ‘mirror” the status quo, but transcend it. Have you learnt nothing from the disaster of the Irish & German Greens in government? Evidently not…

    8) A Green shadow cabinet would be another step on the road the Greens becoming a pale shadow of their former selves, a group of New Labour-lite clones representing no threat to the current political/economic system whatsoever. The point is not to “participate in giovernment” but to use any power we get to encourage a fundamental transformation of society. In that, our strategic guide would far better than any parliamentary cretin, be Gramsci–fighting a ‘war of posirion’ prior to a ‘war of maneouvre’.

    I congratulate you, it must be said, for articulating just how shallow & deracinated supporters of the ‘Green Shadow Cabinet’ evidently are. While Tom Paine may have had me in mind, I suspect he would be thinking more of you–age foes not, indeed, guarantee wisdom.

    • headstrongclub Says:

      Larry,
      the fact that you manage to interpret my comment; “Our leader and deputy are not islands of sanity in a quirky and unelectable party; they’re merely the two considered most able from a considerable pool of talent and ability,” and analyse it thus: “5) How fatuous, to believe there can be just “two considered most able”–what an insult to other GP members!” and to take a suggestion of increasing the number of elected officers who represent the party from 2 to 13 and make of it this: “The current centralisation of power within the Green Party is anathema to fundamental Green principles–but you want to take it further,” suggests that you might want to read what I’ve written a little more carefully and think before you react.

      I’m not content to sit on the sidelines of life and whinge, I want a radical party that’s good at the key functions of a political party – and one of those is making and communicating policy effectively. We are a political party not a ginger group. If you want to simply protest or build a decentralised low impact community somewhere you have my support but a political party is the wrong place to do it. Taking your train of thought to its logical conclusion we’d not contest elections at all.

      As for “You speak of shifting a centre of gravity rowards “the voter”–what amorphous populism!” you risk sounding far too like those humourless Socialist Workers who have scant regard for democracy. Too many on the old left are, though they’d be damned to admit it, contemptuous of their fellow citizens. Communicating with people outside the party does not need to amount to populism – populism is about telling people what they want to hear at the expense of a commitment to truth. We need to communicate radical but fundamentally democatic green ideas for a better society. If we can’t persuade them then we don’t deserve to be elected and the alternative to being elected is what?

  3. 1) I do not believe the Leader/Depury Leader will necessarily be the “most able”–you do.

    2) You suggest I read what you say more carefully–likewise applies to you. You have not responded to my point about the GP needing to connect with those struggling against injustice/current govt.

    3) You unfairly mischaracxterise me as suggesting we “sit on the sidelines and whinge”–if the GP follows your model, that’s all we’d be doing, within parliament.

    4) No, it is not a ‘logical conclusion’ of my thought that the GP should not contest elections–rather, we should understand politics is about far more than elections, and that centres of social power are not all in parliament. Hence, as the disaster of the Irish & German Green Parties shows, those who naively imagine ‘getting in government’ (or a share of it) is the summit of our political ambition will be doomed to failure.

    5) You compare me to the humourless SWP–I would suggest to you I am rather more radical than Last Century Leftists of that ilk. A comparison with Gramsci however, I would find far more palatable.

    6) Your vision of democracy is people ceding power to (no doubt besuited) ‘professional’ Green ‘leaders’ who act on their behalf (‘mirroring’ the status quo while they do so). My vision, for within the Green Party as well as out, is delegate democracy/decentralisation of power. Rather different, but at the very least, not less democratic

    7) As I have never said the GP shouldn’t stand in elections, nor argued it should not seek to persuade people, your final rhetorical question is what is known as a non sequitur, not requiring an answer.

  4. headstrongclub Says:

    Larry,
    I’m glad that you’ve dropped the abusive tone. I very nearly didn’t approve your initial post – if you are going to be involved in politics it’s a good first step to accept that people of good conscience can hold views other than your own. I draw the line at racists and fascists, you seem to draw it far closer to home. If you see your fellow greens as the enemy Lord help everyone else.

    Nevertheless you persist in gratuitously reading what you will into my post. I don’t, for instance, believe that an elected leader will always be the best person in an organisation however at least their being elected has the virtue of involving the membership as a whole and that it a big step forward over having self appointed leaders or those with no mandate. We shouldn’t believe that not holding elections prevents leaders emerging. They do all to often and they do so without the checks and balances involved in persuading one’s fellow members/citizens.

    I will say however that both Caroline and Adrian have demonstrated good communications skills and organisational abilities. One has played a key role in building the most successful local Green Party in the UK, the other played a key role in our getting our first County Councillor, our first MEP and recently our first MP – namely by being all three. So far so good in my opinion – they’re more effective than any of the speakers we had previously.

    Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t connect with other groups standing up against cuts – this is a post about a forthcoming motion to Green Party Conference. You are, to use the common parlance, off-topic. Having an elected team of speakers is no obstacle to our organising opposition to the likely cuts.

    Likewise a careful reading of my comment “I’m not content to sit on the sidelines of life and whinge” will reveal my cunning use of the first person pronoun. That’s commonly used when the writer or speaker is referring to themselves. No Larry, it’s not all about you. Sorry.

    Nor am I suggesting that all we are concerned with is getting elected however that is one of the key goals of any political party in a democracy – democracy is after all a system under which the people temporarily lend a group of elected representatives power to do things and I would like us to do things. I agree that protest is effective as is leading by example but unless you are suggesting taking an undemocratic path to power, which I would resist with every fibre of my being whosoever attempts it, if we want to do stuff at some point we’re going to need to get elected.

    Point 5 – go on Larry – this is your chance. Tell us a joke.

    Point 6 – I’ll wear whatever I damn well need to wear to get people to forget about what I look like and listen to what I’m trying to say. 80% of people’s attention when they watch TV is focused on what they see. If you have something hanging off the end of your nose then you could be announcing the end of the world but half your audience will be focused on your nose and not what you’re saying. Some people wear suits sometimes, some people wear afghan coats and embroidered flares. I have both. If you must labour the point the suit has its origins in the French Revolution. It’s supposed to be a democratic form of clothing. No one is demanding you wear one, so relax and don’t be so judgemental.

    Lastly if you accept the democratic process for electing people to parliament I find it strange that you prefer an unelected panel of party spokespeople to an elected one. The current system is risible and a gift to our opponents should they ever wake up to our shoirtcomings. There’s no need for it to be centralising but we do need to be able to work in a world where most people get their politics through the media. If we don’t have a coherent way of tackling the media and involving ourselves in trhe national debate then the media will happily pick any old soul in your decentralised Green Party and that might well be an cheery old ex Tory whose views could well be several leagues away from your own.

    And Lord protect us from a delegatory democracy. When Hampden and
    Pym stood up against Charles I they did so as elected representatives not delegates. We want lions not lapdogs.

  5. 1) Given you cite Tom Paine as an inspiration, and use the word polemic on your masthead, I’d have thought a bit of knockabout wouldn’t be too troublesome…But there we go. To pull you up on one point, I am not “going to be involved in politics”–I have been, for 37 years, ever since I attended my first union/IS meeting…
    2) Having said the leader and deputy leader are the two “most able” in the party, you are now drawing back from that. Fair enough–but it wasn’t me that said it.
    3) You measure ‘effectiveness’ by attainment of elected office alone–like Gramsci (and Derek Wall indeed) I have a broader conception of politics.
    4) I am not doubting you hold your views in good faith/conscience–I just happen to disagree with them!
    5) You say it is ‘off topic’ to talk about resistance to cuts–I beg to disagree. Whereas you clearly prioritise the Greens copying (‘mirroring’) the establishment parties, I prefer us aligning with those in struggle. That you consider it ‘off topic’ shows your electoralist conception of politics–no doubt held in good conscience, but that isn’t the point.
    6) You seek to imply that I personalise political differences by taking exception to the phrase “sitting on the sidelines and whinging”–but given it is me you were debating with, it is not unreasonable to assume that was an attempt to characterise the views I was advancing. My point was not personal, but ideological.
    7) You put up the straw man of me talking about an “undemocratic path to power”–yet I was merely pointing out that being elected is just one facet of overall transformation, to be elected alone will change nothing. It is the context of elections, and how it relates to popular struggles, that counts.
    8) You want me to tell you a joke? Dig out a copy of ‘Paradise Referred Back’, which I co-wrote 20 years ago to help resist those who wanted then to centralise the Green Party and turn it into New Labour-lite. It has plenty of laughs, but I doubt they’ll impress you..
    8) Your comment on sartorial matters seems to show I have hit a raw nerve. Speaking of TV appearances, when I have been on TV (Channel 4 News/Sky News etc) I have tried to be smart–but I just do not think we will win by orienting ourselves primarily to “what people watch on TV”
    9) You say we “need to work in a world where most people get their politics through the media”. Not only can the GP not rely on the mainstream media to give us a fair hearing if/when we look like we are getting somewhere, the two forces who have nade electoral headway in the last 30 years or so–Liberal Democrats & the BNP (sadly)–both made ground by going direct to communities, not primarily through the estsablished media. I also doubt whether Sinn Fein’s initial electoral surge came through the media and so on.
    10) You seem to be implying that if we don’t dance to the mainstream media’s tune, they will attack/misrepresent us. Well of course they will, as they will too if it looks like Green politics are challenging vested interests successfully (I remember 1989). The question is do we anticipate and prepare for this, or give up in advance in the hope we’ll be left alone. If even Nick Clegg was vilified in the Tory media when the Lib Dems surged in the pre-election standings, don’t you think the Greens would (and hopefully will) be attacked. I do
    11) As for you lauding Pym & Hampden–they were elected, but only by a pitiful few. The real ‘lions’ in the English Civil War & beyond, were not them, but the Levellers & Diggers, who we Greens should be identifying with, not equivocating grandees. Give me John Lilburne any day…

    • headstrongclub Says:

      Larry you really do have a tendency to read what you please into things.

      Let’s get this back on topic. A Green Shadow Cabinet isn’t the sine qua non of what the Green Party should be about but it is intended to help us deal with the national stage better, coordinate the making of policy better (it’s not intended to shrink the accessibility of the process but it would allow us to respond effectively to issues that come and go within the news cycle) and dealing with the media. Whatever you say those jobs are there to be done and I am arguing that a GSC would help do that better. All you seem to be saying is that we shouldn’t worry too much about it. I say if there’s a job to be done let’s do it properly. I’m certainly not suggesting we dance to the media’s tune but they are people with a job to do and programmes to get on air and they’re not going to wait for us to get our act together, and I say that as someone who has worked in newspapers, radio and TV over the last twenty plus years.

      I wouldn’t argue with you about the need for effective community organisation. It is essential. A GSC, if properly constituted, shouldn’t interfere at all with that. What it should do is to take care of the other front – that of dealing with the media and presenting policy and that in turn ought to raise awareness and help make people on the doorstep more amenable to being approached. Think of it as another front in the campaign.

      You also seem to think, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that by shadowing the mainstream political process we will somehow be consumed by it and become less radical. I hope that we don’t and see no reason why we should. However I’m all for encouraging us to make sure that policy is joined up so that every one of our proposal’s ramifications if properly thought through. Radicalism yes but practical and implementable radicalism. People want solutions that work, not dreams. I’m prepared to think the unthinkable but I’m also of a disposition to then discard the unthinkable if it’s not going to work, just as I’m more than ready to abandon established wisdom if it’s patently not working (the current debate on drugs is a good case in point).

      As to Hampden and Pym – again Larry I’m making a point about elected representatives. I named two great parliamentarians, both representatives. Name me two great delegates. Lilburne is irrelevent to the point as he wasn’t elected which is not to say that he isn’t a hero. What might England be like now however if Hampden had presided at St Mary’s Putney and not Cromwell and pondered Rainsborough’s immortal words. Who knows but Hampden’s death after Chalgrove Field offers us one of the great what ifs of English history.

      Lastly ‘I wrote some good jokes 20 years ago’ isn’t a very convincing response to an invitation to tell one, nor is prefacing that with ‘but I doubt you’d find them very funny anyway’. I suspect your future in stand-up is bleak. As for a bit of knockabout, Larry, I approved your comments didn’t I….! That still doesn’t change the fact that invective in debate rarely creates light, only heat.

  6. I’m not a Green Party member, I just wonder how this will work. Will a Green Party that represents only England and Wales shadow UK wide ministries, like foreign affairs?

    What if the Scottish Green Party takes a different line, from the ‘Green Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’? What to stop the Scottish Greens have their own shadow ministers?

    What happens when the ‘Green Shadow Minister for Education’ says Greens want to ban faith schools, and the Northern Irish Green Party pops up to say they wouldn’t – despite the reality of devolved government, separate parties, to the general public this would seem utterly absurd.

    • headstrongclub Says:

      I’d make a number of points.

      The three UK Green Parties already have spokespeople, in the case of the GPEW unelected ones, and thus there is already the latitude for them to say things that are at odds with one another. Similarly one already finds differences of opinion between members of other political parties sitting in the regional assemblies and Westminster. Some people may find that absurd, others may find the efforts to paper over the cracks or even deny outright disagreements in some parties even more absurd. Personally I find the hoops that Labour politicians jump through who now say they were against the Iraq war but who kept very quiet in public at the time not so much absurd as discreditable. If the public can’t respect honest and principled disagreement then they risk getting unprincipled and dishonest but outwardly more agreeable politicians.

      Secondly education is not a good example as those matters have been devolved and thus it’s already the case that there are policy differences around the UK – to whit tuition fees. However there are still a few areas, as you say, where responsibility is UK wide such as defence and foreign affairs. There’s nothing to prevent spokespeople liaising with their counterparts on such matters or for the GPEW to include as non voting members Scottish and NI representatives or any number of flexible solutions.

      As Greens have hitherto resisted the notion of whipping in Parliament I’m unclear what the arrangement would be should Greens be elected to Westminster from Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England, whether they would form a single group and if so how formal that would be.

      Those aren’t problems peculiar to the notion of a Green Shadow Cabinet but are part of the wider issue of the relationship between the three UK Green Parties. The prime purpose of the GSC idea is that we replace unelected spokespeople with a proper elected body that coordinates policy and makes day to day policy decisions on a collegiate basis.

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