Earlier this month the widely respected campaigning journalist and writer Bea Campbell left the Green Party, citing bullying, authoritarianism and narcissism among radical transgender activists.
Campbell’s description of the impact on the party of what she calls the “extreme trans dogma” that transwomen are women; transmen are men – at the expense of women’s rights and safety – is pretty shocking. Unfortunately, it’s just one aspect of a much wider and deeper crisis in the party.
The party claims to do politics differently but in practice acts pretty much the same as other political parties. It is riven with internal tribalism; allows key decisions to be taken by small groups of well-connected members; prioritises electoral success over radical environmental campaigning; has a dysfunctional, partisan disciplinary system; engages in some questionable employment practices; and has become a platform for those with political or professional career ambitions and/or who want to advance a particular strand of identity politics.
Most Green Party members bask in Caroline Lucas’s speeches and/or focus on local activities, oblivious to machinations at national level. However, in my four stints on the Green Party Executive from 2015 to earlier this year, I’ve witnessed the party become more ruthless and less tolerant of genuine discussion. In addition, as an ordinary, elected, Green Party Executive (GPEx) member, I was powerless to make any real difference because the big decisions are taken by the Administration and Finance Committee and/or a group around the leadership and Caroline Lucas’s office.
This is why I took the sad decision to leave the party in June, after almost seven years of active membership. In addition to GPEx membership and almost daily involvement in national or local organising, I’d spent three years as Chair of Camden Greens, and stood for the party in local council and London Assembly elections, and in Tottenham during the 2015 General Election, when our small, last-minute scratch team achieved our best ever result there.
Many of the Greens’ troubles stem from the decision taken by the party in early 2016 to prioritise winning local council elections under the Target to Win (TtW) system. The rationale was that we desperately needed a second MP to support Caroline and the way to achieve that was to first win control of a local council as had happened in Brighton. The flaw in this logic is that Brighton is atypical of pretty much anywhere else in England and Wales. Plus, there is only one Caroline Lucas!
At surface level it makes complete sense for a political party to focus on winning elections. However the underside is that pretty much all of the party’s resources were devoted to developing and maintaining a national election machinery, with no funds left for issue-based campaigning.
Field offices were established and regular “campaign” schools (in reality elections training) held to enforce the rigour of TtW. Local parties selected to pursue TtW must work only in target wards, with activities limited to door knocking and repeat newsletter deliveries (no street stalls allowed). Newsletters and other publications can only include material on local issues and not cover wider politics, such as the climate emergency or Brexit.
This concentration of resources on elections goes a long way to explaining why the Green Party is often missing from the big political debates. It’s not just that there are few of us and the media is biased towards the big parties: we actually don’t have much substance to contribute.
At an internal review of the 2019 snap General Election manifesto, it was revealed that genuinely radical climate mitigation policies developed by the party’s Climate Change Policy Working Group had been removed by a small group around the leadership team and Caroline Lucas’s office because they weren’t vote winners. Yet the election was being held against a background of almost daily revelations about the gathering pace of climate-related environmental calamity. A squandered opportunity to step up campaigning pressure if ever there was one.
The creation of the manifesto was a microcosm of so much that is wrong with the party. GPEx Publications Coordinator and Policy Coordinator (both roles elected by the membership) were excluded from substantive input, which is slightly odd for a policy-heavy publication. The manifesto was finalised by the group that had removed the climate policies. Green Party Regional Council (which was the body with official sign-off responsibilities) was given around 24 hours to approve an 88-page document. This enabled the leadership to insert favoured commitments (such as transgender people being able to change their legal gender based on self-identification, which is not Green Party policy) and weaken inconvenient ones.
The party has not published a full internal review of its 2019 General Election campaign, despite the fact that it spent far more than on any previous election (£409,475, according to the Electoral Commission) but was still way behind its best showing (2.7 per cent of the vote, compared with 3.6 per cent in 2015) and didn’t achieve its stated aim of winning a second seat.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable for a radical political party to underachieve in elections nor to avoid washing its dirty linen in public. What is more worrying is that these unaccountable actions have become the norm for the Green Party, where even those in elected governance positions are unable to hold the decision-takers to account. Instances where GPEx members have been blocked from raising concerns range from the use of social media election ads quoting comedian Jimmy Carr (notorious for tax evasion and a stage show that includes rape jokes) and a woman posing in bra and knickers, to a staff member being summarily dismissed and denied access to union representation, and a court finding of race discrimination in recruitment practices.
The Greens are supposed to stand for a better kind of politics, based on transparency, integrity, decency and, above all, selfless campaigning to protect our planet’s natural and human resources. The party has no monopoly over environmental politics. Following success by Europe Ecologie Les Verts (an environmentally-focused green party) in France’s local elections, some Extinction Rebellion groups are looking at setting up their own political wing to fight the London Assembly elections and beyond, and there are rumblings elsewhere of setting up a new ecological party.
This may all come to naught. But if those taking the decisions at the top of the Greens have misjudged the wider mood, they risk leading the party into oblivion. A salutary thought for candidates in the forthcoming leadership and GPEx elections.