The Party’s Just Getting Started

The Green Party clearly assume they have an image problem. “Think you know us? Think again” is the slogan with which they are campaigning for the European parliamentary elections on June 4th. Can the Green Party mould their single issue voice into a broad-based political platform that appeals to mainstream voters? Their leader, Dr Caroline Lucas, thinks they can, and no one is better placed than her to make it happen.

I met Dr Lucas after the launch of their South-East campaign for the upcoming poll. The event had all the ceremony and media coverage one would expect, but was attended by barely a dozen people who weren’t press or party officials. She seemed undaunted; perhaps because she recognised that for many there in person her speech would be like a sermon to the converted, Dr Lucas spoke straight at the television camera. She has an easy confidence and a clear grasp of what she is trying to convey. It is this clarity of vision that she thinks is essential to the prospects of the Green Party: it was the “urgency of getting our message across as effectively as possible” that motivated the party’s constitutional shift to a leadership system in 2008.

The position of Principal Speaker that the Greens used until last year was meant to be a symbolic rejection of the top-down models that the major parties in Parliament used, but the move away from it, says Dr Lucas, was “a very pragmatic decision”. When I ask her whether this pragmatism was in fact a capitulation to the media agenda that shapes the political culture she evades the implicit criticism, insisting that the public like to have “a person they can recognise and associate with those ideas” – I take that as a politician’s ‘yes’. They have clearly embraced that personality culture judging by the prominence of Dr Lucas’ friendly visage on the campaign leaflets that have poured through my letter box in the last week. She is as fresh-faced as David Cameron, her short-cropped hair strikes an effortlessly modern look, and, uniquely amongst current party leaders, she’s a woman.

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 I am interested in whether Dr Lucas sees gender as an important dimension of politics, in particular regarding the under-representation of women in the House of Commons. She immediately fleshes out the context of the problem: the image of “grey-suited men in Westminster” and the “Punch-and-Judy politics” of their parliamentary exchanges just “isn’t very attractive to women”. She is insistent that the Greens “try to do politics differently”, but this brings us back to the tension between principle and pragmatism that surrounded the leadership issue. I press Dr Lucas on how her party is “more women-friendly” as she claims it is and she outlines on the one hand the support that they offer their female candidates in balancing the demands of a family and a political career, but she also makes reference to the “culture” within the party that, in contrast to the Lib-Lab-Con model, is about accountability and accessibility.

As a woman, she aims to offer “an inspirational type of leadership” in contrast to the “clunking fist of Gordon Brown or the spin of David Cameron”, rejecting an “authoritarian” style of managing her party. I wonder whether this noble approach (including the mandatory re-election of the leader every two years) is only possible because the party has no seats in the Commons, no need for whips, no backbenchers to cajole – in fact, little hope of getting these things either.

  Unsurprisingly, Dr Lucas resists the conclusion that the Greens are bereft of prospects in the British Parliament; although she is herself an MEP, a position elected by a system of proportional representation in stark contrast to first-past-the-post. Even within the Westminster system, she passionately believes, there are a “handful” of seats that are within reach of electing a Green MP, listing constituencies to substantiate her claim. So, what are the Green Party’s ambitions for the next general election, which may only be months away? One million votes.

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She is clearly in favour of state-sponsorship for all parties to level the playing field of funding campaigns, but beyond that she insists that we must “massively rejuvenate our entire parliamentary system”. In her eyes the recent scandal of MPs expenses only adds to the chronic failings of the culture and institutions of British politics, which – when it is not riling them up – switches ordinary people off. She is animated when she insists that “politics has to be something much broader, much more vibrant, much more alive”.

Surely the European Union invokes at least as much anger and apathy though, I suggest. She doesn’t disagree, but insists that this is a product of a “eurosceptic” media and a political elite who refuse to acknowledge that, for instance, on the environment 80 per cent of our legislation originates in Brussels.

As a campaigner on environmental issues she believes it is often possible to have “more influence in Europe” than if she were a backbencher in London, an admission that will not prevent her seeking her own seat in the Commons as Green Party candidate for Brighton Pavilion at the next election. It is with this in mind that I interpret her central European Parliament campaign policy of 1 million ‘green-collar’ jobs in Britain as part of a Green New Deal, reconstituting Roosevelt’s Keynesian revolution for today’s economic as well as environmental crisis.

Dr Lucas may be a great champion of Europe and a dedicated MEP, but she recognises that the Greens will need to offer the voting public bread-and-butter issues with a tangible impact if they are going to make headway in domestic politics. What will prove fascinating to observe over coming years is whether the pragmatic desire for political influence that has recently fired the Green Party under Dr Lucas will inevitably compromise the values and integrity which give them a small but respected niche in our polarized political landscape. If it does not, maybe Caroline will have succeeded in her quest to “redefine what politics is”.