Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Preston's Green Respect question

A little while ago I was asked to justify (twice, by different people) the Green Party standing "against Respect" in Preston. Not living in Preston the answers were not immediately available to me, but diligent little blogger that I am, I made some enquiries and here I am to report my findings.

Putting Preston on the mapBut first some background. Last year I wrote this piece attempting to address some of the myths that were building up around Respect at the last elections. Firstly I was keen to defend Respect against the charge of communalism, these arguments need not concern us here, but it was the second point, that the Greens had run a "spoiler candidate" in Preston Town Centre ward that continues to hold relevance.

Respect supporters were understandably frustrated that they were beaten to first place by a mere seven votes and their fire soon turned on the Green Party whose candidate received 82 votes, well short of fourth place. Preston Respect supporters felt these votes were theres by right. Had the Greens stood down in this ward Respect would *probably* have won this seat.

It's a seat with some history. It was the scene of the Socialist Alliance's first council victory in 2003 with Micheal Lavellette (pictured) and was held up as an example of the left and the Muslim community working together successfully. It became a kind of template that led to the launch of Respect. But whilst in 2003 the Socialist Alliance won with a healthy majority (546 to 440) Respect has been unable to win seats in Preston since. This year is the first time Lavellette has faced the electorate under the Respect banner he adopted soon after his election and so there is an added importance as to whether he can retain his seat, something that I hope he does.

Lavellette with GallowayOne point I was keen to make last year was that Respect *probably* cost the Greens two seats in Hackney and didn't seem too bothered about that. It seems that spoiling the vote only works in one direction. As I said at the time "Respect in Hackney stood against the Greens because they didn't care if Greens did not get elected due to their presence on the ballot paper, and if that's okay for Hackney it's okay the other way round in Preston."

I pointed to what I thought was a positive step in Haringey where the two parties stood a combined three candidates (2 of one and one of the other) in three seat wards - and it looks as though that paid off in terms of the vote. I'd like to think both organisations were willing to do this kind of thing more often. Indeed there were lots of instances of local cooperation that were not immediately apparent because clashes had been carefully avoided. Negotiations and positive engagement are good things whilst sectarian entrenchment is, I think, a bad thing.

That said it seems that this time round the Green Party nationally is being blamed for the local organisation standing only one candidate in Preston, significantly against Respect's only councillor. This is more about Respect's internal propaganda to its members than a reflection of how that situation came about.

PrestonRoughly, the Respect line is that many Greens like Respect (because it's so brilliant) but the national organisation is wickedly sectarian and would do anything to destroy them. If anything the opposite is the case. The Green Party's election strategy is to promote anything that assists Greens getting elected and that includes non-aggression pacts, working with other groups (including Respect) and a sensible and rational approach to other political parties. It is local groups (of all parties) that are far more likely to be suspicious or conservative - possibly down to the personality factors that inevitably creep in when you begin boiling things down to a local level.

The Green Party's national strategy dictates the Party should stand the maximum number of candidates in towns like Preston, with a view to bolstering the chances of achieving an MEP at the next Euro elections. Preston Green Party were strongly advised and assisted to stand a number of candidates, including the Town Centre ward. It was the local party, who we are being asked to believe were opposed to standing in this ward, who made the decision (partly based on pessimism and not getting it togetherness) to stand only one candidate and for that candidate to be in the Town Centre ward. That's a bad decision on their part in my view, but one they a free to make.

It's useful for Respect to blame the national organisation but the decision to only stand in the Town Centre was the local branch's alone. Respect may be a highly centralised organisation but the Greens are a highly decentralised one, the national office of the Greens were unable to direct the local party in a more positive direction. The actions of the local Green Party are far from ideal because they fall short of the ambition required to build a stronger branch in Preston but this does not make them malign.

On election nightThere are many genuine political differences between the Greens and Respect. Political differences are not the same thing as sectarian rivalry. The Tories and Labour stand against each other whilst sharing many more political perspectives than the Greens and Respect do however, it is not "sectarianism" that prevents Labour and Tories coming to an accomodation but politics.

Respect stood in every euro-constituency against the Greens and did not come close to beating them anywhere, but they potentially could have cost Caroline Lucas her seat - something that lost them the support of George Monbiot. Is it likely they will do the same again? Of course it is and, as far as I'm concerned, that's fine.

Respect have stood in many places (including my own Cambridge) against the Greens, polled less than them and not thought twice about standing again potentially taking votes away from a stronger progressive candidate. That's because they want to build their organisation and are focused on the bigger picture, not other minor parties. Likewise the Green Party are thinking about how the local elections fit into the Parliamentary and Euro picture and would be seriously taking their eye off the ball if they began taking tactical decisions based on what Respect are upto.

I want the left to come together more but unfortunately I see this criticism of the Green Party nationally for a decision they opposed that was taken by a local party as more of the same entrenched organisational positioning than actual political debate.

Respect and the Greens are both progressive parties that share an opposition to privatision, war and environmental destruction. But they do not agree on how to combat these foes, where the emphasis should lie and what positive direction in which to take society. They do not agree on what kind of political organisation is required to combat the ravages of modern capitalism, nor do they agree on how political parties should be organised. They disagree on policy, tactics and fundamental principles, sometimes in a minor way and sometimes very strongly.

I'd like to hope friendly communication between the groups could grow and joint work where possible would be mutually beneficial - but lets not pretend mutual respect means we'll never stand against each other. At the end of the day if you fundamentally disagree with the Green political outlook you can't huff and puff that this disagreement is being put before the electorate, particularly when Respect itself has "cost" the Greens seats by exactly the same behaviour.


AN said...

well argued Jim.

I am also coming round to the view that there is only limited overlap between the green vote and the left vote, even if the political platforms (sometimes) share a lot in common.

Don Fraser said...

Well written piece.

I think that there is a world of difference between the way the Green Party goes about its business compared with a lot of other left wing groups.

If there was some give and take might have some more sympathy with their position.

Enjoy reading your blog Jim.

Don Fraser

Mike Armstrong said...

The Green Party should stand candidates against all other parties. Going into an alliance with SWP/Respect is simply giving ground to a minor, localised & undemocratic leftist party.

Paul said...

Quite right, Mike. Respect are a joke - absurd, contradictory 'policies', oppositionist claptrap, bandwagon jumping and the ever-expanding Galloway ego. The day that the Green Party allies itself with this bunch of moribund hard-left jokers is the day I promise never to vote for them again. Green politics was supposed to provide us with an alternative to the left/right bunfight. Let's keep that in mind.