Monday, March 19, 2007

Leading questions

One of the most hotly contested questions at the coming Green Party conference will be that of whether to have a leader(s). It's a question that has consistently arisen over the last few years and has very entrenched positions on both sides.

The motion in question calls for a binding ballot of the membership to once and for all settle the argument, there's even a petition for it here and Another Green World puts the other side here. A quick glance down the names on the first petition will reveal a) some silly entries and b) that signatories come from what could crudely be described as from both the left and right of the party.

The debate, in my opinion, is much more about attitudes towards elections than necessarily how progressive / reactionary a particular member is. As the petition says "we believe that the use of the term leader is a helpful and appropriate tool in helping us convince the public of the urgent need for a green society and a green world" In other words it's a tactical consideration and should be considered as such.

My natural inclination is to have some form of collective, democratically elected (and therefore accountable) body rather than invest too much prestige in one or two people. For instance I've spoken about the "leaders" of the anti-war movement here and here. However, I've got an open mind on the question and will be interested to see the arguments (and behaviour) on both sides of the debate.

As I understand it one of the main reasons for pushing the idea of (co)leader(s) is that there is a consistent confusion on the part of the press and the public over the current terms principal speakers, terms deliberately designed to promote the idea of an open and pluralist party. I don't know how significant that is and it's easy to find a scape goat for how little press minority parties get, but there may well be something in it.

There are a number of hostile amendments to the leadership motion, which as always makes me slightly tetchy. These include not bringing in the system until the Greens have three MPs, delaying the ballot to just before a possible general election, or a clause stating that someone has to have been in the party for eight or ten years before they can stand for the position, which reeks of contempt for the members of the party. There are also some useful additions and amendments, which I may or may not vote for, but clearly have a far more constructive intent.

There is an amendment, for instance, about the election for leader being every two years and in the intervening year having a vote of confidence. I'm not happy about this at all - I mean it's far more damaging for the members to vote non-confidence in their leaders than it is for them to simply select someone new. The press could portray, for instance, Derek's election as principal speaker as a sign that the Greens are moving to the left, whilst if we'd have had to no confidence Keith Taylor first they could portray the whole thing as the Greens falling apart, which we weren't. Personally I think that amendment would be a well intentioned mistake were we to pass it.

There's also an amendment calling for the introduction of Emmeline Pankhurst as an inspirational figure - surely that should be Sylvia? Emmaline supported the First World War and encouraged the giving out of white feathers to young men who weren't eager to die for the British Empire, apparently coming up with the natty slogan "intern them all". Which actually makes her the enemy and not very inspirational. I digress.

Whatever way the vote goes I hope the debate is conducted fraternally and seriously - with passion but without rancour. As I say I'm currently leaning towards opposing the motion - but as it's intent is for a ballot of the membership rather than jumping straight to have a leader then I'm very much open to the idea of a full and proper discussion in the party which perhaps ends this rather divisive topic, at least for the time being.


Sean Thompson said...

Hi Jim,
I'm glad you picked up on the reference to Emaline Pankhurst. She is absolutely not a model for a leader of a party arguing for participatory democracy. She ran the suffragettes in an entirely autocratic manner (with Christabel, who was even worse in some respects). In 1917 they dissolved the WPSU and formed the Womens Party, which took an extreme jingoistic line on the war and which was the organisation that gave out white feathers. The Womens Party claimed that enlisting women for the war effort was far more important than the fight for women's suffrage and it campaigned for the abolition of trade unions.

Anyway, my view is that the move to create a single Leader is a step down the slippery slope towards being just another bourgeois party. The argument that the current Principal Speaker posts require continually explaining seems to me perfectly valid - but if they are simply our chief spokepersons why do't we just call them that?

The argument that the Green Party isn't taken seriously because it doesn't have a single figurehead leader is absurd in my view. The real reasons are that we are seen as tiny and marginal (which is true), and that there is a residual perception that we are nice but soggy lifestylists who don't have a clear political perspective beyond a sentimental attachment to 'green' issues (which is in large measure not true).

Anyway, I hope you are feeling better and I look forward to discussing this with you - no doubt in minute and exhaustive detail - at Swansea.


Matt Sellwood said...


As ever, a very fair summation of the situation. I'm glad that you (unlike many commentators thus far!) have seen the difference between a motion enabling a referendum of the membership and a motion introducing a leader/deputy leader model. Many opponents of the motion seem to be portraying it as the latter, when it is in fact the former...

My own position is that I am putting an amendment to reinstate annual elections in the referendum proposal, as I think they are absolutely crucial. The silly amendment that you mention (a vote of confidence every year) is intended, I think, as a compromise towards my position, but as you point out is actually the worst of all worlds!

I will be arguing for my amendment, but even if it falls I will be voting for the Conference motion as I believe that the membership as a whole should decide this question. However, if my amendment doesn't succeed, I will be arguing against the leader/deputy leader model during the referendum. If it succeeds, I'll be arguing for a 'yes' vote in the referendum.

Phew, complicated enough? :)


Sean Thompson said...


You are quite right to pick up on the reference to Emmaline Pankhurst - she is quite the wrong role model for the leadership of what aspires to be an ultra democratic party. Her leadership of the WSPU was extremely autocratic, and Christabel was even worse in some ways. In 1917 they disolved the WSPU and launched the Womens Party, which was extremely jingoistic (it is the organisation that actually gave out the white feathers), arguing that mobilising women for the war effort was more important than mobilising for their rights and campaigning for the abolition of the trade unions.

As far as the leadership resolution is concerned, I think the people proposong it are really confused and have a dangerously narrow view of politics and political action. They make a perfectly good point about the title of Principal Speaker being opaque and distracting, but go on to say that the Green Party isnt taken seriously because we don't have a single figurehead Leader. Of course the reasons why we find it difficult to be taken seriously is that by and large we are politically marginal and hardly register on most peoples' radar, and that there is still a wide perception of the Greens as a nice but soggy bunch of lifestylers who have no political analysis beyond a romantic attachment to the environment.

So there's a lot to do, but aping the forms and style of the 'mainstream' parties isn't going to help us - indeed, not being like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee can work very much to our advantage, particularly as Tweedles Dum and Dee are both increasingly being seen as self seeking and dishonest.

Matt Sellwood said...


Thanks for your interesting analysis on this whole debate.

I don't think that the correct point that you make (there are many other, larger reasons that people don't take the Greens seriously) means that the lack of an identifiable leader doesn't contribute to the problem. In my view it is about 95th on the list of '100 things I would change about the Green party' - and I don't understand why people take it quite so seriously - but I think it would make a small positive difference in the way that people view us, so I'll vote for it.

In short - am I 'pro-leader'? Yes. Do I think its vitally important? No.


P.S. Would be interesting to discuss this with you in more detail at Conference. You might find it surprising how many people with a coherent analysis of power and internal structure are in favour of the motion. I just don't have the time to write a coherent essay on it...

Alan Howe said...

Taking the "collective" to its logical conclusion, should the entire membership decide this issue?

Are not the "activists" [the one's that turn up at meetings and conference, put forward amendments, and vote] guilty of the very thing they fear most in a leader?

"Trust the people/membership."

Jim Jay said...

Good points.

To Alan I do think there are often issues with the divide between activists and less active members / sympathetic members of the public and its a good thing to bear in mind that the self selected conference goers are not the only people interested in these issues.

Jon said...

It's great to see this issue generating a rational debate (I'm tempted to say "for a change").

I have the dubious pleasure of co-chairing the conference session when this will be debated on Saturday. Having also chaired the session at last conference which passed the motion establishing the principle of membership ballots such as the one proposed on "the leader issue", I can only hope that the debate on the floor is as contemplative.

Irrelevant of one's views on the leader issue, I don't think the way the issue is debated always reflects the best of the Party.

Here's hoping that the conduct of the debate lives up to our highest hopes rather than our lowest expectations.