Green Party Leader comes to visit Puffles!

Summary

Green Party Leader visits Cambridge – are local greens waking from their slumber?

Puffles with Natalie Bennett after her talk to around 50 people at Emmanuel URC
Puffles with Natalie Bennett after her talk to around 50 Green Party supporters at Emmanuel URC

In October 2012 I criticised the local Green Party for basically disappearing from sight, and highlighted some of the challenges to the recently-elected Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett facing her in rebuilding the local party. From a very strong position following the 2010 General Election where the party found itself with 3 councillors and nearly 4,000 votes for former Friends of the Earth chief Tony Juniper in the Cambridge constituency, from the outside it felt like things imploded.

Yesterday, Natalie – having spent the previous day in Oxford debating feminism at the Oxford Union, found herself in Cambridge first with The Wilberforce Society – a new student-based think tank, talking nuclear power. (Students & young people interested in public policy, you may want to keep tabs on them on FB and Twitter). This was followed by a talk to local Greens.

The Wilberforce Society talk

What was interesting about the Wilberforce talk was that the room was the diversity of academic interests. For a start, the scientists and engineers were conspicuous by their presence. Yes, their presence. Less of the “What did Marx say about this” and more “What does the data tell us?”. Tip for humanities students looking to go into politics & policy: Policy-world is moving more and more into all things big data, such as with the Cabinet Office-backed Open Data Institute. Familiarise yourself with data analysis.

Given criticism of past and present Green Party attitudes towards all things science and engineering – and not without good reason in some cases – it was interesting to see how Natalie coped with questions and comments from an audience with lots of science and engineering experience. To which she seemed to cope well. I can imagine others struggling under such scrutiny. The most difficult question was on the issue of GM crops. This is in part because of high-level support for anti-GM protests. My initiation into all things GM was with Brighton Greenpeace back in 2001 where I toddled along to an anti-Monsanto protest in what was a ridiculous place to hold a street stall: a very busy noisy road with traffic and buses shooting past. The issues for me then as now are around safeguarding people and the environment while carrying out this research, and ensuring that corporations don’t lock up their research in patents while at the same time preventing them from making farmers dependent on buying their crops. The issues that Ben Goldacre has with big pharmaceuticals and medical research mirror some of the issues on transparency, safety and propriety I have with big food.

“Yeah Pooffles, but what did Natalie say to the Greens? Will we all be forced to live in yurts while smoking hippy grass in the middle of doing yoga in a new age paradise?”

No. Which may come as a disappointment to Tim, local Tory who also happens to be one of my webmasters too. (He loves Puffles really, even though he regularly pulls Puffles’ tail on Twitter).

How many were there?

Quite a number – I counted around 50 people overall. It was interesting to compare that audience with the one I was with earlier today, with Cambridge Labour Party. Given the ‘anti-politics’ mood of the country, getting 50 people at a Green Party meeting on a cold Friday night in early February is more than impressive. Even the Cambridge Evening News turned up – thus Puffles got to meet the lovely Lizzy Buchan face-to-face for the first time too! Normally it’s Chris Havergal who does all things local government round here. The number of gatherings and obscure-looking meetings Chris turns up to, tweets and reports from makes him an asset to Cambridge, helping many more people keep track of what’s going on in local government. If you’re an aspiring journalist interested in politics, look and learn the basics from Chris.

So…what did she say?

If you search in Twitter under ‘#GreenParty @Puffles2010′ you’ll find my live-tweets from the events (unless you’re searching from a long time after the event, in which case it’ll be harder to find!)

Essentially it was an opportunity for her to engage in a discussion with local members – many of whom may not have had the chance to have met her before. Interestingly, a key theme was about broadening the Greens’ message beyond ‘green stuff.’ The clue is in the name as to their principles, she said. But less is known about other policies such as Europe (‘Three yeses‘), workers rights, women’s rights and rebalancing the economy so that it favours the people rather than the 1%. The key point here – as I said in September 2012, is that policy-wise, The Greens have parked their tanks on Labour’s lawn.

What difference will this gathering make?

In one sense it’s too early to tell. In another, I think it was a chance for local Greens to reassure themselves that despite the problems of the past couple of years, the significant environmentalist base that received such prominence in 2010, has not gone away. If anything, it is getting bigger. That doesn’t mean that base will automatically vote Green – local MP Julian Huppert has very strong environmental credentials too.

The other thing that I picked up is that the national party is now funding a part-time local co-ordinator. One thing I forgot to ask the people there was who that local co-ordinator was. But the fact that there is one and that he/she is getting paid changes some of the dynamic locally. For a start – as with any job – there are objectives and expectations that come from being paid. While the post is only a three/four-month post, if the post-holder is successful in recruiting significant numbers of new members locally, will it make that post more financially sustainable in the longer term? Outside the strongholds of London, Brighton and Norwich, given the Green’s showing in the 2010 general election, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge all polled highly for the Greens. Compared with the rest of the country, would it not make sense to concentrate some resources in those areas with the greatest potential to get a critical mass of members, supporters and activists?

The opportunities

As I mentioned, Cambridge has a significant number of people interested and passionate about the environment. Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Transition Cambridge, & Cambridge Cycle Campaign all have locally vibrant communities. (Interestingly, the more nationally prominent Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace seem to be conspicuous by their absence).

Climate change is regularly in the news, and given the demographics of Cambridge there is raised awareness of it. Can The Greens tap into that consciousness? Ditto with science and engineering research in Cambridge. The Wilberforce Society talk demonstrated that people with expertise in science and engineering are happy to engage in serious discussions on climate change challenges. Can The Greens tap into that expertise as far as policies go? Finally, there is a growing public policy community in Cambridge following the launch of Cambridge Public Policy. What can local Greens do to engage with this community – in particular learning how ‘the system’ functions and learning how to provide focussed scrutiny as well as fleshing out how its own policies might be delivered.

The challenges

The big one is simply that Labour are no longer in power. The general election defeat – although expected in various circles – sent a shockwave through the party. But it needed it. As a result, there has been a resurgence within Labour as it tries to reconnect with its grass roots – tackling issues where the Greens have tried to make headway. In particular trying to engage with trade unions.

One of the things that struck me about Cambridge Labour Party – which I’ll explore in a future blogpost, is that the grassroots are more radical than the leadership. Thus on things like workers rights, there isn’t as much policy differentiation between the Greens and Labour as perhaps there was say in 2009. Labour, now no longer in power, and no longer burdened by the offices of state, can afford to be more aggressive rather than being continually on the defensive. While their guns are aimed at the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, The Greens are also beginning to appear in their sights too. What will happen if/when Labour turns its guns on The Greens?

Locally, the most prominent Green politician is ex Labour Councillor (and council group leader) Simon Sedgewick-Jell. The untimely death of the highly-regarded Cllr Margaret Wright, and the switch to Labour by former Green Cllr Adam Poganowski meant that rather than having three prominent local Green politicians, there is currently only one. What I’m going to be on the look out for over the next few months and beyond is who will rise from the talent pool to fill the voids left by Margaret and Adam. On Margaret’s side it was with the organisation, and on Adam’s side it was his very public, if somewhat outspoken former social media profile.

“Yo Pooffles – you’re obsessed with social media. Why does it matter locally? Why not use recycled paper instead?”

There are two things. The first is with mainstream news. Journalists are now using Twitter to source quotations. Far easier for the likes of the Cambridge Evening News – a number of whose journalists have taken to Twitter like ducks to water – to pull quotations from a local politician’s Twitterfeed than have to phone/email for a comment to a specific issue. If it saves time and is more convenient for a journalist, they will be more tempted to use it than having to make the effort to get hold of someone who might not be in or available.

The second is the long term trend towards people taking up and using social media. For me it’s more about listening & engaging rather than broadcasting. Cambridge Liberal Democrats have probably got the most well-established social media presence. In part this stems from having a strong academic base of supporters – remember that Facebook was first made available to academic communities first before the rest of us could access it. Thus they had the opportunity to become familiar with it far earlier than the rest of us. The challenge here for The Greens – as it is for Labour – is to learn how to use social media effectively. Who, from their pool of supporters and members is willing to put their heads up and join what is sometimes (especially around election time) a vibrant, combative and growing local political social media scene?

In that regard, the same is true for local Conservatives too – only they are further ahead of The Greens with the likes of Cllrs Samantha Hoy & Steve Tierney joining my two webmasters Tim and Andy having already formed a nucleus of a local social media presence. In my view, Cambridge Greens will need to do similar – have four or five local people to form that self-supporting nucleus (who can cope with Twitter debates against their political adversaries) while at the same time reaching out not just to the wider community, but to their local national party counterparts across the country and into national policy debates.

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