Posts Tagged greens

Wither Internal Democracy

Should a party’s annual conference make binding policy, and what role should an ordinary party member have in those decisions? Scotland’s main political parties appear to have come to very different answers to this question, which I will try to sum up below. Please bear in mind that I have only got direct experience of my own party in this respect, and will be happy to correct any factual errors below.

At one end, the Scottish Conservatives adopt an approach to policy-making which does not include any notion of internal democracy. There are no votes on policy matters at conference, even token ones, although early in the Cameron era his Built To Last document was submitted to a vote. Instead, the leadership determines policy: typically just the leader plus his or her kitchen cabinet. In this sense therefore, the Tory system is relatively close to that used by the Workers’ Party of Korea, who rarely bother with the rubber-stamp assembly beloved of other notionally leftwing personality cults. It’s at least honest, and to be fair, since 1998 the Tories have also let the membership choose their leaders from a shortlist of two by one member, one vote. This is clearly progress over the old approach – where MPs only got a vote – or the even older version – a leader “emerged” from the “magic circle”: i.e. it was carved up out of sight in a way that must have been great fun for those who regard politics as a full contact bloodsport.

Next along this sliding scale: Labour. Their procedures used to be highly democratic, including the formal setting of policy through motions such as the composites beloved of union bigwigs and loathed by the Millbank Tendency. This is all basically over now, with the leadership now setting all policy, not even the Blairite National Policy Forum. Some of the changes are relatively recent: until 2007 branch parties and trade unions could bring policy motions for a vote, even if the results would then be ignored by Labour Ministers. Having mentioned leadership above, personally I also deplore the way Labour allows people to join several “socialist societies” and unions and get several votes for a new leader, not to mention the way MPs both sift the candidates then get massively disproportional say in the outcome.

Then the Lib Dems. They have picked a particularly bizarre point on the spectrum from Stalinist control through to radical democracy. As I understand it, their conference is open to all members, all of whom can vote and bring forward motions. The problem is they mean nothing, especially when Lib Dem Ministers have got some selling out to do. This week the issue was so-called “free schools”, discussed here previously by Jeff. As the Lib Dem proponent of the motion said, “Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.” Danny Alexander, described by one Twitter wag as tree-promoter turned economics expert, then declared it would make no difference to policy. The same used to apply to Scottish Lib Dem conference when they were in government here. The membership said that GM crop trials should stop. Ross Finnie pressed on regardless. Curious. Not particularly liberal nor notably democratic.

Although it was put to me that this blogpost was designed to make Greens look good, the brief research I’ve done does show the SNP joining us at the actually democratic end of this spectrum. I must admit I know less about the SNP’s procedures, but I do know that, like the Greens, their conference does formally set policy, with members and branches free to bring motions. I also can’t find an instance of the leadership simply over-ruling them, although Mr Cochrane, the Last Black-Hearted Unionist, has got one. The party’s leadership procedures are posted online in their entirety, and seem pretty hard to fault. Like us, it’s one member, one vote, no special treatment for MPs or interest groups.

The open question is not one of principle, though – obviously it’s hard to make a principled objection to internal democracy. But are parties with actually democratic procedures more likely to survive internal tensions and evolve, or can that internal democracy make it harder to respond to changing circumstances? Does Labour’s “democratic centralism” actually help them more than they pay in demoralised activists, unable even to slow a swing to the right? Those decisions surely weren’t taken simply for self-interest: Peter Mandelson or someone else must have concluded that the open expression of democracy was more damaging than the alternative. My sense is that that move was wrong both strategically and in principle, but I don’t have any evidence for that view.

And is going into government something which ought to change a party’s approach? Did the Lib Dems stick to the policy set by conference except where it restricted Lib Dem Ministers’ activity? Will Labour return to a more democratic approach now they’re in opposition across the country? Have the SNP really managed to keep internal democracy while running the Scottish Government? There seems little point letting the membership set policy only when you’re in opposition, rather than when you might be able to make real change.

As a press officer for a democratic party, I certainly see one downside of the radically democratic approach, not that I’d change it. Any radical new policy development the party makes can’t be unveiled dramatically in March or April of an election year. It must instead be decided in public at our autumn conference. If only there was a way we could agree any policy changes democratically but still keep them under our hats until we could publicise them as effectively as possible.

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Power or Influence?

This post was inspired by the comment I made on James’ Scottish Green Party post yesterday, but its really something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  And the question is this: what role do the Scottish Greens want to play in Holyrood?

2003 Parliament

The party has, arguably (and you will probably debate this point) secured more in the way of concessions to an environmental agenda from the current Scottish Government than the previous one, despite only having 2 MSPs in this session to 7 previously.  Now I’d argue that is mostly because the parliamentary arithmetic has placed the Greens in a position whereby their 2 MSPs have a disproportionate amount of influence for their size – they have, in essence, become kingmakers.  While this hasn’t always worked to their advantage (when the other, larger parties agree – see Trump development, AWPR, Forth Bridge) they have forced the agenda at times (home insulation stuff, climate change targets – though the latter are not ambitious enough for many Greens).  Thus it seems  that, through fortunate circumstances of electoral mathematics, the Greens wield some influence in Holyrood, evidence that the wider environmental movement does influence the politics of Scotland.

2007 Parliament

Yet, with May 2011 and the coming Holyrood election on the horizon I’m led to consider that the party may face a trade-off.  If we look towards recent poll numbers (and, indeed, the historical precedents of 2003 and 2007) we’ll recognise that any increase in Green votes and, ultimately, seats, leads to a corresponding decrease in SNP votes and seats.  They are, historically speaking, inversely proportional.  When the Greens go up, they take SNP votes (witness 2003).  When the SNP poll well, the Greens suffer.  Thus I’d wager that the Greens may pick up a couple of seats in May – and the SNP will maybe lose a couple at their expense.  My question really though is, regardless of who wins the election, will the Greens be better off?

My answer, somewhat paradoxically for a political party increasing their representation, is probably not.  Depending how the election works out (and I’d be very surprised if the parliamentary arithmetic works out quite as tight next time around) the four potential Green MSPs would find themselves in a situation whereby they couldn’t influence budgets and bills in quite the way they currently do with two.  And that is interesting.

It begs a further question – are the Greens a party or a movement? In many ways this can be asked of any party which is part of a wider ideological movement.  Indeed, I’d argue that you don’t necessarily have to answer in the definitive to be influential (though I would argue that the SNP have, with their ditching of the referendum bill, defined their existence and priorities much more as a party than a movement dedicated to independence – but I digress).  But at its heart is a fundamental paradox of green politics.  Do the party need parliamentary representation to move a more environmental agenda or can influence be brought to bear on the political process without wielding power?

In some ways this taps into a post I wrote about the Lib Dems taking office in May, but in particular the analysis of Wolfgang Muller and Kaare Strom regarding the motivations of political parties – the so called “Policy-Office-Votes” triangle.  For political buffs, it is worth a read, and I won’t go into too much detail here.  The point I will make though, is that, as a movement and, crucially, as a party, the Greens focus is clearly on policy – and that can be achieved without necessarily gaining votes or office success, though they will be proximate goals on that path.

Final conundrum.

From what I’ve said in this post, it may be implied that I don’t think there’s any point voting for the Greens.  This would be entirely misconstrued.  I’ll leave it to the party members in our ranks to explain why, on policy terms, you should vote Green.  All I’ve done is show from a structural perspective that the parliamentary arithmetic has provided influence without power.  However, if we look again at the Policy-Office-Votes triangle, the one thing that is clear is that far from being exclusive, the concepts compliment each other.  Votes provided the basis for office success which provide the platform to deliver policies.  If policies are the ultimate goal of the party – and I think they are – then that journey begins with votes.

I think that’s a long way round to tell you that voting Green actually does help the environment!

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Scottish Green Party 2011 candidates announced

With my party hat on, and some party poppers too, I’ve been publicising the first group of Green Holyrood candidates. Here they are, and I’m afraid I will enthuse about them all. I do mean it, though:

Lothians. Robin’s replacement at the top of the Lothians list is a big deal for Greens. It’s the first Parliamentary seat any Green ever won in the UK, and Councillor Alison Johnstone will take on the scarf of responsibility. I’ve known Alison since she first started working for Robin right back at the beginning of devolution, and she’s smart, determined, kind and, above all, normal (unusual across politics, that last one).

We’ve won two here before, so I should also mention her Councillor colleague Steve Burgess second on the list. He’s your classic Green candidate. Scientific background, plays the fiddle, served on Rainbow Warrior II.

Mid Scotland and Fife. Mark Ruskell will be top here again, having served as the region’s Green MSP from 2003-2007. Another comrade from the epic 1999 Green campaign, he proved a natural Parliamentarian from the off, with an eye both for the detail and the big picture. Trivia fact: he was the year below me at school, although we didn’t properly meet until that first Holyrood campaign.

Highlands and Islands. Eleanor Scott has also been reselected top, another of our Magnificent Seven MSPs from last session. Eleanor made the health brief her own in the last session, having specialised in paediatrics, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t warm to her immediately. She is also the party’s national co-convenor alongside Patrick, ruling the party with an iron rod. It feels wrong being in Parliament without her.

North-east. Councillor Martin Ford is a new entrant at number one here, and deserves a little more introduction. Martin made his name internationally as the man who stood up to Donald Trump over Menie. Mr Trump’s alleged billions met Martin’s definite principles and lost before skullduggery and machinations by his former Lib Dem colleagues came into play. I’ve worked with Martin since he joined the Greens last year, and he will be an excellent candidate and an excellent MSP too. Made out of pure integrity, he also knows how the media works, and is one of the shrewdest political campaigners I’ve ever met.

Central. Kirsten Robb is top for us here again, which wasn’t a massive surprise given her hard work and strong media presence. She’s another proper community activist, a fairtrade campaigner, and also has great media sense. Her local, the EK News, had a page lead of her with her new baby not that long ago. Not bad before she’d even been reselected. Determined, passionate on the issues, and would be a real asset to Holyrood.

Glasgow. A young man you may have heard of got himself reselected: Patrick Harvie. Please bear in mind he pays me to represent him, but if I could afford it, I’d do it for nothing. There can’t be many people who encourage the boss to kip on their sofa when he’s through, but I do like those nights set the world to rights.

Over the eight years he’s been at Holyrood Patrick’s become widely accepted as one of the Chamber’s true stars, as well as a natural in the Newsnight hotseat. We normally agree, and when we don’t it’s normally because he’s right. If it wasn’t against party policy, I’d clone him a couple of times. All three would have pretty busy diaries.

We’re still selecting, by the way, and West and South will follow.

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Is Labour minority now the most likely outcome?

Graphic based on Mail on Sunday pollThe Holyrood electoral system was explicitly designed to make one-party majority virtually impossible, some say to “dish the Nats”. Sure enough, eight years of stable but unambitious coalition have been followed by three years of stable minority administration.

The polls suggest Parliament has settled into a relatively constant formation, with two large parties competing for first place, two medium sized parties competing for third place, then Greens and sometimes others. The most obvious coalition shapes are a large party plus a medium party, given the unlikelihood of the grand coalition.

To narrow that down still further, the Tory brand has never been properly decontaminated in Scotland, despite the odd sensible young buck on their Holyrood benches, and neither Labour nor the SNP could formally go into coalition with them here. You can’t point and shout at London cuts implemented by your Deputy First Minister’s Ministers at Westminster.

This also means the Tories’ partners down south are also off the table come May next year, at least as far as Ministerial office goes. To my mind, this leaves a limited range of options for the next Scottish Government. They are, starting with the most likely (based on current polling):

  1. Labour minority. They’ve seen how it’s worked for the SNP, and they quite like the idea of not having to share office, even if they’d share power with Parliament.
  2. Labour supported by another party more informally. The Confidence and Supply model might allow them to be propped up by the Lib Dems, or potentially by Green MSPs.
  3. SNP minority supported through Confidence and Supply. It’s hard to see them coming out ahead of Labour in May, semi-irrelevant though that is for making a majority.
  4. Either an SNP or a Labour formal coalition with the Greens. Again, looking at the numbers, it’s even less likely for the SNP and Green votes to make 65, so that alone puts Labour as the most likely partner. On the pro-side for either large party, we’re not contaminated by Westminster. However, the actual policy differences would be stark, starker than the (non-constitutional) differences between the two largest parties themselves.

Today’s poll in the Mail on Sunday is just another straw in the wind, but it is clearly blowing against the SNP and also the Lib Dems. I haven’t seen a non-SNP-commissioned poll which had them close to Labour at the top, and it’s been a while since the Lib Dems were as close to the Tories as they used to be. This one is also current, conducted this week, unlike the last one to get attention, which was from early August.

Voting intention

Labour: 39%/36%/55 (+9)
SNP: 29%/26%/35 (-12)
Tory: 16%/15%/18 (+1)
Lib Dem: 11%/12%/16 (0)
Green: na/6%/4 (+2)
Other: 5%/5%/0

(note, I used Weber Shandwick’s predictor, and am not sure if it reflects the new boundaries. Either way, the result was one more Green MSP than John Curtice estimated for the Mail on Sunday)

Again, the SNP couldn’t form a two-party majority with anyone except Labour, and SNP plus Green plus either Lib Dem or Tory isn’t a majority either. Conversely, Labour would only ever need any one of the three largest parties to win any given vote, and given how well Bruce Crawford’s dealt with the need to find Labour or two others, that would look pretty tempting.

This would be a radically changed Holyrood after May. A massive swath of the SNP back benches would be out after one term, and the fight for first and second place would be very clear. Salmond would surely be gone as leader, too, despite the desperate counter-polling, which would almost certainly lead to a mouthwatering contest.

Labour’s substantial lead over the SNP in voting intention would put them 20 seats ahead, yet the Lib Dems’ constituency strengths mean they wouldn’t fall much behind the Tories. The gap for third would still be very clear, though, at least in votes. As Malc suggests, if you back the Coalition, why vote Lib Dem instead of Tory? The Green Group would double in size but no longer hold the balance of power. One wee thought – an extra one percent on the Green list vote from the Lib Dems, and we’re up three more to seven. It’s going to be a hard-fought eight months.

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