I went to my first political conference a couple of weeks ago. The Green Party Conference, held in Birmingham.
I’ve been rather remiss in terms of conference attendance since I first joined the party 4 years ago, so it was good to finally tick that box, especially as it was quite a momentous occasion with the election of not one, but two new leaders. Well strictly one new leader and one recycled, but that’s probably what you’d expect from the Greens.
The new member of the job-shared leadership duo was Jonathan Bartley, whose two claims to fame seem to be having once worked on the John Major leadership campaign and, more recently, annoying the hell out of David Cameron in a car park.
During his half of the acceptance speech, Bartley made the somewhat inevitable comment that the Green Party have just elected two new leaders while ‘other parties’ are still arguing over one.
Perhaps a cheap shot at Labour, but I had to admit that our election process had been exactly the same as theirs – with the entire membership being eligible to vote – yet we’d seemed to manage to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and a lot less in the way of negative publicity.
Even the scepticism about the leadership becoming a job-share seems to have been turned into a positive and both our new leaders seem to have hit the ground running. Caroline Lucas being the recent star of a Parliamentary debate on Brexit that had some huge gaps in the opposition front benches. Apparently many of the senior members, including Corbyn, had better things to do.
It’s fair to say that electing a leader when we only have one MP is the proverbial piece of political piss, but even the Tories seem to have been able to get the job done amidst the shrapnel generated by their own internal divisions over Europe.
UKIP of course had to add its customary air of buffoonery about selecting their new Bigot-in-Chief, but even they have completed the process in spite of expectations that Nigel Farage would have to be surgically removed from office. Quite why they bothered is slightly beyond me though. Diane James must be the first person to be declared redundant before she even starts her new job.
If you wanted to write a manual on how to completely destroy the credibility of a political party you could probably base it on the last couple of years of Labour’s apparently randomly scripted behaviour.
First, change the leadership election process that allows virtually anyone with three quid and an internet connection to stick an oar in, regardless of demonstrable ideological commitment.
Then backtrack furiously on that principle, meticulously investigating your new supporter’s social media feeds for the vaguest hint that you may once have owned that D:Ream single.
All while the latest in a long line of internal pressure groups take over your party and install a leader completely out of phase with the majority of the MPs you’ve just campaigned for and got elected.
After a year or so of general infighting, eye gouging, door slamming and flouncing, launch another leadership bid during one of the most important periods in the country’s history, with your Parliamentary party on one side and your hugely swollen but electorally insignificant general membership on the other.
Throw in a few carefully orchestrated rallies in safe seats, some dodgy PR moves, painful TV appearances and a wilful obsession with your own internal power dynamic and what do you get? The virtual emasculation of your party as a credible opposition to Theresa May’s ambitions to be the new Thatcher. Maggie May, if you will.
I’m not saying that having a leader like Corbyn is a bad thing, I agree with much of what he says, especially as virtually everything in his hastily cobbled together set of policies has been borrowed from the 2015 Green Party Manifesto. But the optimum point to make this shift in focus was just prior to a general election, during the selection process for parliamentary candidates, not immediately afterwards.
Right now the Labour leadership elections looks more like the manoeuvrings in the ancient Roman court than any impression of modern democracy. I can just about see Mandelson as Caligula but I’m not sure Corbyn’s role as Caesar is that convincing. Maybe when he utters those immortal words ‘Et tu Owen” the tableau will be complete.
Actually Corbyn probably has more in common with Nero as he watches his own party burn in preparation to build a new one. A playful comparison I know, especially as he’s an MP who we know has never been on the fiddle. But if they needed a further incendiary ingredient, we now see that the PLP will be given a vote on who makes up the shadow cabinet after the leadership election. Considering the odds are that the winner will once again be Corbyn and the vast majority of the PLP don’t support him, it’s unlikely they’ll install a cabinet that isn’t openly hostile to him.
Cue another 18 months of bickering before either another leadership challenge or the eventual splintering of what remains of the party before they limp into the General Election in 2020, gift-wrapping the keys to number 10 for at least another 5 years of Tory rule, probably more.
Just a few days ago Caroline Lucas stood as the only MP taking the government to task on the appalling state of rail services in our country. Not a single Labour MP seemed to think this was worth the trip to the house. Yes it was an adjournment debate, and at 10pm – presumably way past the PLP’s bedtime – but you’d have thought someone could have made the effort, considering it was a debate on the state of the railways that Corbyn had been so vocal about only a week or so earlier.
Another feature of the Green Party Conference was a debate on proposals surrounding a progressive alliance. On the platform with Caroline Lucas, along with representatives from the Libdems and other proponents of political cooperation, was Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan.
A quick look at Hansard told me that she was one of the majority of Labour MPs who stayed away in their droves from Caroline’s 10 minute rule bill only a couple of months before, where she called for electoral reform, including some form of PR and a reduction in the legal voting age to 16. This was a vote that was only narrowly defeated and could have brought about PR in time for the next election.
The rumour at the time was that Labour MPs had been whipped not to attend the vote, meaning the majority of support for it came from the SDP, even though it’s arguable that the bill would actually disadvantage them in future elections.
Corbyn puts great store by the ‘will of the people’ and party unity, yet Labour continues in disarray under his leadership while he pays lukewarm lip service to electoral reform. This is one of the major problems I have with Corbyn and with Labour being the major component of any kind of left alliance.
The PLP and Jeremy are obviously opposed to an alliance and to PR for reasons best known to themselves. Indeed they have been overtly hostile to parties like the Greens in both national and local elections, targeting Green seats, sometimes at the expense of other more winnable constituencies nearby.
We’ve now seen the first terrifying details of Boundary Commission’s proposals to re-draw the constituency map of the UK. As many suspected, this is going to see many more Labour seats lost than Conservative, with traditional Labour strongholds such as Wales taking an even greater bashing.
Labour put great store by their growing membership, and rightly so, but party membership is no guarantee of electoral success. Labour may have a million supporters by the next election, but the Greens polled more than that in 2015, yet only scored one MP.
We need more than just grassroots support, we need an electoral system that truly reflects the wishes of those grassroots. Moreover, we need co-operation between and within parties to achieve a true governing consensus. Neither one of those ingredients alone will be enough. Even under PR we’ll need to be able to form strong coalitions to achieve our aims. If Labour can’t even agree amongst themselves what their party should look like, it’s going to be a long road to electoral nirvana.
Without a united and co-operative opposition, many people will continue to be denied a discernible voice in Westminster. Until everyone on the left genuinely opposes that injustice and agrees to work together, it really doesn’t matter who leads and who follows, we’ll still fall divided.