One of the contested posts in the up and coming Green Party national executive elections is the newly created role of Equality and Diversity Co-ordinator. Members will be able to vote for three options, Maya de Souza (profile), Shahrar Ali (profile) or Linda Duckenfield / Lyndsay McAteer as a job share.
I decided to find out some more about the candidates to help cast my vote. Maya de Souza and Shahrar Ali kindly decided to take part and I hope this is helpful.
Question 1: What do you feel the main priority of the Equality and Diversity Co-ordinator(s) should be?
Shahrar Ali: The Equalities and Diversity Coordinator (EDC) should give equal priority, and be seen to give equal priority, to the full complement of equalities that the Green Party is proud to uphold and defend. Whether we are talking about gender, race, sexual orientation, pay, disability, poverty, age, religion, or lack of religion, the Coordinator should play a key role facilitating party members in their anti-discrimination political initiatives, working alongside officers on the national executive, in particular, on policy, campaigns, publications and election strategy.
Whilst accepting this, I would aim in my first year to take a lead on helping to encourage pools of candidates across the Green Party that are better representative of the society we purport to serve. The need is probably greatest with regard to ethnic minority participation, but in some regions better representation of women will be key. In the words of a Red Pepper reporter, "One obstacle to closer relations is the suspicion in the trade union and labour movements that the Greens are just a bunch of white, middle class academics," (says Alex Nunn in Greens on Trial). We need to overcome the accusation, or at least part of it, by finding ways of improving ethnic minority participation at all levels of the party, from member recruitment to candidate selection and elected representation. This would help raise our credibility with the electorate and bring us closer to achieving our political aims.
I cannot emphasise enough the need to avoid "politically correct" solutions in these aims, and to develop intelligent initiatives that have the democratic support of the party membership, from the grassroots up. I'll say more about this in answer to 3.
Maya de Souza: If elected, my priority would be to make the Green Party a more inclusive party in its widest sense. So it is a party to which people of different ethnicities, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender or class and whether able bodied or not feel welcome, valued and able to participate at all levels and to seek elected office on a local and national level. In my view, two of the most pressing issues at the moment are of gender balance within the party structures, which reflects a deficiency in the political participation of women more widely in UK politics, as well as the limited participation of ethnic minorities.
To ensure the Green Party is a broad based inclusive party, I would work with existing Green Party groups such as “Women by Name” and the LBGT group as well as the new leader to invite others on board by seeking to make and deepen links with womens organizations and ethnic minority organizations as well as LBGT groups and disability groups. The Green vision of a diverse society where all are recognized for their individuality and difference is celebrated as well as where careful attention is given to fairness and balance needs to be publicized. I would liaise with policy groups and spokespersons to ensure that the commitment of the Green Party to equality and diversity is well publicized and our councilors are given guidance on policies that they can seek to pursue.
I would also seek to ensure that local branches follow good practice so that there is good communication to all party members, that all are invited to participate and to contribute, that local membership and external networks are broadened and extended, and that the potential contribution of all is recognized. The Green Party both locally and nationally needs to be an exemplar of good practice in its selection of officers and electoral candidates reflecting the fair, open and diverse society which we seek to promote.
Question 2: How do you feel about the Green Party's record so far on diversity and equality issues?
Shahrar Ali: Our activists, councillors and elected members work tirelessly on a whole clutch of anti-discrimination initiatives, through casework, campaigns and legislative scrutiny. What brings these initiatives together is our promotion of social justice and defence of human rights and civil liberties. Some recent examples: Homophobia and ageism (Caroline Lucas); Policing sexual assault (Jenny Jones); Stop and search (Jones & Ali) Women's Day & sharia law (Jean Lambert & Caroline Lucas); Low Pay (Derek Wall); Human trafficking (Jones and Lambert); LGBT hate crime - petition raised by Brighton & Hove GP to the Home Office; Guantanamo (Lucas); Race-based policing (Ali).
As EDC I would seek to monitor, promote and anticipate this work, both within the Party and to the electorate. Moreover, the Green Party would benefit from an EDC who is proactive in developing a political response or media line in response to news events. In 2006, I organised a conference fringe on "Religious Freedom and Green Politics" to help clarify our thoughts on topics such as Sir Iqbal Sacranie's homophobic remarks, the incitement to religious hatred bill, and the Danish cartoons.
The EDC should be available to advise Green spokespersons, candidates and the press office, and have the wherewithal to be able to step into the ambassador role, too. This year, I advised our GLA mayoral candidate Siân on her replies to special interest groups. What's our response to a question about the ritual slaughter of animals? No good sitting on the fence. This was a good response (question 7) - where we signalled our commitment to animal well-being without alienating these electors.
Maya de Souza: The Green Party has done much for which it can deservedly be proud – it is the only party in England and Wales that has sought to ensure gender balance in its public spokespersons. It has made clear its firm commitment to supporting refugees and a humane asylum policy. It has supported, as I am aware from my work on the International Committee, the cause of those who are oppressed at home and abroad because of their sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion.
However, in my view more still needs to be done to make the party more open and inclusive and more welcoming to minorities. We can take from and build on the work of Greens across Europe who have become known for their work to protect refugees and on minority rights, and through the Gender Observatory, sought to promote the position of women in the party and wider society.
The party also needs to publicise the fact that this is a party where women, the disabled and other minorities are invited to make a full contribution and where they can excel and play a prominent leadership role. My work on a national taskforce to increase numbers of women BME councilors as well as an Asian woman councilor myself has given me a useful insight into the constraints that do exist and how these can be tackled.
Question 3: The Green Party, like other parties, is not always completely representative of the population at large in its membership and particularly in its leading members. How should we approach ensuring that our party better reflects those it hopes to represent and empower?
Shahrar Ali: The challenge of the job is to direct meaningful change across the party in a politically astute not "politically correct" manner. In 2007, I was tasked by my regional party to convene a series of workshops aimed at improving a perceived lack of ethnic diversity. The meetings were well-attended and epitomised honest and mature debate. The result was regional initiatives and recommendations to do with member recruitment, media representations, and candidate selection.
I'd like to facilitate such a debate across the wider party. Any gender or diversity initiatives would only flow after full consultation of members and direction by regional bodies. Meaningful consultation takes time but produces better outcomes, allowing all those implicated in any proposals to help shape, or even reject, them. The alternative, ill-considered solutions are worse than leaving it to osmosis: Cameron's imposition of an "A-list candidate" in the 2007 Ealing Southall by-election caused justifiable grievance to the local Conservative association. Committed as we are to localised democracy, I can't see such a scenario happening in the Green Party.
As individuals, we often rightly resist being misclassified, where this runs the risk of perpetuating crude stereotypes or implicates us in a project we do not share by any means. The EDC can only take a lead by carrying the confidence of the grassroots with them. There is a need for the Greens to go further in looking more like the society we purport to represent. But let's combine that with the following inclusivist ideal: It is within each of us as human beings to be able to identify and empathise with the injustices suffered by everybody. One does not have to be Muslim to care about their human rights or express solidarity with them. As Greens, let us have the confidence, irrespective of our own background or belief, to find common cause with all those discriminated against.
Maya de Souza: For the Green Party to grow and to have the position of influence that it is so important that we have, it is vital that our membership and leadership reflects the wider society we live in. We need to work in parallel on extending our membership and networks of supporters as well as making our leadership more representative.
To extend our membership, local branches need to actively and positively go out to meet leaders and activists in community groups and invite them as well as interested individuals to join us in campaigns and attend our meetings and discussions. We also need to understand the concerns and needs of different minority groups and ensure they are reflected in our work at a local authority level and in campaigns, and that we actively support their campaigns such as in relation to individual asylum seekers. It is important also to ensure that we build bridges and invite participation from all social classes – it is important to recognize that the poorer sections of the white population also remain poorly represented. This approach was broadly supported in a workshop at the recent Association of Green Councillors workshop which I led.
In parallel to broadening our membership, it is important that GPEX, GPRC, our various spokespersons and other Party committees also reflect wider society. In accordance with current diversity practice, we should monitor their composition and actively encourage people from groups that are under-represented to stand for posts and take on high profile positions. We should set ourselves broad targets and encourage members to put themselves forward for election. The Green Party needs to be an exemplar of the fair and open society which we promote.
NB: I removed the formatting from these response to maintain some sort of house style (and to save your eyes dear reader) but I've left in the links and made no other alterations to the text. So any errors are not mine for a change!