The pre-conference period is a good time to start a discussion on the direction of the Green Party. I thought I'd better get myself in gear and start blogging a few of the thoughts I've been having about this. The first of these is about turning our isolated pockets of strength into a truly national party.
During the General Election the Greens pursued a highly targeted strategy, pouring resources into key areas, most notably Brighton Pavilion, in order to beat an electoral system designed to keep out minor parties like the Greens.
This meant that fully functioning branches up and down the country, and to a lesser extent the more modest enterprises had to make a disciplined sacrifice that it was in their long-term interests locally for the Party to break through into Parliament elsewhere.
That strategy was a roaring success and we have achieved the unachievable by gaining our first ever Member of Parliament. Already the Party has seen an unprecedented growth and now more than half our members joined only a few years ago. That's a real opportunity for renewal, especially as those new members are joining all over the country, not just in the target seats.
However, whilst this strategy was vindicated by the results it also came at a price, both electorally and, not least, in terms of resources and capacity building which has been focused on a very small number of places, all in the South East of England.
Members have been happy to pay this price because gaining that first MP, in the form of the excellent Caroline Lucas, promises to reap rewards across the country, boosting our profile and our credibility. It’s now time to shift gears and make sure that the party as a whole benefits from that success. That’s going to take a psychological leap because we’ve been so focused on those constituencies that an organisational inertia could well leave us with a strategy we designed for a very different time.
Our focus needs to move away from a small number of Parliamentary constituencies and towards building regions, both to win new council seats and to at least double the number of MEPs we have in 2014, something that was almost within our grasp at the last Euro elections. Winning an MEP in the South West and North West (the two regions where we were oh-so-close last time) means a change in focus and does not fit neatly with winning Norwich South and retaining Brighton Pavilion in 2015.
However, a focus on building regions could reap more rewards in terms of building party membership and creating a real geographical spread of our influence. More importantly if we continue to target a few areas it will become a self fulfilling prophecy where once we built the strongest areas we could find ourselves in the situation where other areas have been allowed to wither and die.
Last time round it wasn't just the Greens that were gutted that Peter Cranie was just 0.3% of the vote away from denying the BNP's Nick Griffin a seat in the House of Commons, next time we want a result where the left, the disaffected Lib Dems and progressive people are convinced that we're a real party on the ground and therefore worth voting for.
I for one am really pleased by the emphasis that Caroline Lucas has had as our first MP on trying to be the best constituency MP she can be and the hardest working Parliamentarian in the House. How she also finds time to speak at radical meetings and the like too goodness only knows - I only hope there isn't a GM cloning scandal waiting in the wings as an explanation!
It's only right that we build on the good work we've done already and try to keep her seat and win Norwich South for Adrian Ramsay - but it would be a disaster if we decided this meant five more years of targeting in the south. The Eastern region has many strong areas but it severely under-performed as a target region at the last Euros, and we should not adopt it as a target region again purely on the basis that it was last time - other regions performed far more strongly and they should be rewarded for that.
Combining building local parties (and winning new council seats) with a perspective of winning a seat in both the North West and South West in 2014 would take us on the road to becoming a truly national party, breaking out of our strongholds and our comfort zones.
We wont win these seats with a purely electoralist strategy, but if we don't have in mind how we're going to make significant advances in 2014 it won't serve our target Parliamentary seats at all well. Caroline's campaign team did the whole party a favour by winning in May, it's now time to allow the rest of the party, outside of the South-East, to return the favour.