On Twitter rumours that the local party has disbanded: Why such little activity, what it means for Cambridge and what could the Greens do about it?
This post stems from a tweet by one of my local councillors, Sarah Brown of the Lib Dems (pictured here with Puffles). The rumour is that the local party has disbanded. Looking at online activities, they certainly seem to have disappeared off of the face of the earth. Website needs updating, next to nothing on the Facebook page – which also indicates a zero Cambridge University/ARU presence too, and nothing on Twitter for over 18 months. I spotted a couple of Greens with a stall at the Stourbridge Festival (they are hidden on low deck chairs behind the table), and despite standing a wide slate of candidates (that received nearly 3,000 votes on a low city-wide turnout in local council elections in 2012, bearing in mind the nearly 4,000 at the general election in 2010), there was almost zero canvassing. Following the sad death of Cllr Margaret Wright, and the switch to Labour of onetime prolific tweeter Cllr Adam Pogonowski, the only remaining councillor in Cambridge is former Labour Cllr Simon Sedgewick-Jell (who left the party not long after Blair took over as leader).
I’m not going to do a hatchet-job in this blogpost
Local politicians from all of the main parties said that the Greens’ presence in the city made things more interesting. Certainly having representatives on the council from four political parties rather than three or two makes for a more diverse political scene – and keeps the other sides on their toes. The simple fact being that each political party faces scrutiny from more than one side.
I’m not going to go into the personalities of who may have done or said what. I have met and get on with politicians from each of the main political parties locally, so deliberately try to avoid being partial to one major grouping or the other – in Cambridge’s case it’s a two-horse race between the Lib Dems and Labour. My main interest is getting more people interested and involved in local politics so as to make it more exciting and to increase the calibre of people that put their names forward within their respective parties for election. In the grand scheme of things, for the stuff I am interested in most of the levers are held in central government. In order to solve those things – such as the Oxford to Cambridge rail link, national government is required to step in. Local government simply does not have the legal powers or the financial muscle to make the big things happen.
That’s not to say interesting stuff locally does not happen – as this gathering showed. Yes Cambridge City Council, your officers made a promise to Puffles to involve local schools in the decision-making process on spending all of that money. Puffles is going to hold you to that promise too!
But what of the Greens? Nationally?
For a start, I followed the Green Party Conference 2012 reasonably closely, and there was a significantly greater amount of energy coming out of that conference – in particular following the election of dragon-fairy-watcher Natalie Bennett as leader. (Puffles is followed by the leaders of two political parties represented in Westminster – Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru being the other). How come Cambridge didn’t seem to feel any of the ‘love’?
The Greens have a number of strongholds – Brighton being their most well-known, but Bristol, Camden (London), Oxford and Norwich are some of the more high profile ones. Yet with several thousand people voting Green in elections that had a low turnout, why have the Greens been unable to capitalise on those votes, turning voters into members, members into activists, activists into candidates and candidates into councillors?
Looking at it from a numbers game, I’m interested in what the figures are for other parties. What percentage of your party’s voters are activists? What percentage of both respectively are candidates? What percentage of all three respectively are councillors and/or elected representatives?
The money game at a national level is also interesting – especially looking at the 2012 returns to the Electoral Commission. The Greens are operating on income & expenditure around a tenth of the Liberal Democrats, and behind UKIP which benefits from the EU allowances having more MEPs. In 2012 The Green Party did not spend nearly as much compared with 2010 and 2009. The conference report for 2012 makes for interesting reading on why. One thing to note with the conference report is that Natalie Bennett’s role as leader appears to be a full-time remunerated one (assuming the motion was passed). Amongst other things this allows Caroline Lucas to focus on Parliament and defending her seat in the run up to 2015, while Natalie can meet the demands of being party leader that had previously fallen on Caroline. Will Natalie come to Cambridge to see what’s going on?
What could a new national leader achieve locally in Cambridge?
I have no idea what happened inside the party since 2010, but if bridges were broken, a new leader with a new mandate is in a position to help fix them. Perhaps just as importantly in terms of reaching out to the people that voted Green in the elections, Natalie may choose to host one of the policy breakfasts she mentioned in her manifesto in Cambridge (or perhaps have it in an evening or weekend) targeted at, and specifically inviting the environmental and campaigning groups in Cambridge. Finally, there is the lack of internet and social media presence that she needs to resolve pretty quickly as well.
How would other political parties respond?
As things stand, 2013 & 2014 provide Labour (and the Lib Dems) with an opportunity to stomp out what’s left of the green shoots of the Greens locally. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have a number of very good and very active local councillors – though the latter tend to be more engaged as far as social media is concerned. The local Tories too have a handful of very active social media types – two of them host my main website. (I chose them because they know about IT things inside out and also understand the local and national politics/policy/public administration context and local contexts too).
Given where the Greens are on the political compass matrix of 2010, I can’t see it likely that they pose much of a threat to local Tories. It’s mainly the Lib Dems (over being in the Coalition in general) and Labour that the Greens appear to be more of a threat to. Locally too, Cambridge Labour Party feel more left wing and ‘old Labour’ compared say to the “Progress” badge-wearing types in Islington. This a greater policy cross-over. Labour institutionally are beginning to wise up to the threat posed by the Greens in general – recalling the Greens parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn. With the Greens running a council down in Brighton, they have a record to defend – something they didn’t have in 2010. As time goes by and inevitably as more mistakes and/or difficult decisions are taken, so its political opponents will stock up on such stories for use at a later date.
Can you see the Greens making a come back?
Not in the near future – unless a sound organiser appears from somewhere in the calibre of the late Cllr Wright. A number of her former adversaries commented to me that she was the difference in getting Greens elected onto both Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Councils. In the meantime, with Labour in opposition both at Westminster and in the city, but with the political momentum on their side, getting back the lost seats might be even harder – especially if voters that originally voted Green for the first time have lost faith. Lost votes are much harder to get back than winning over first time voters.
In the more distant future, if the Greens continue to grow in other parts of the country, it may get to the stage where they choose to target Cambridge from a national perspective as a fertile ground to rebuild a local party. Because the voters are there. For me, the two key factors are: 1) Finding an organiser of the calibre of the late Margaret Wright, and 2) Finding a webmaster and a series of social media users that can take the debate to their political opponents. Because over the next few years, people’s use of social and digital media is going to become more influential in both local and national politics.
Finally – and this is a challenge for all local parties: Can they organise themselves in a manner where their online and social media activities complement their offline organisation, campaigning and events?