It was interesting to read Steve Bassam’s piece about Green Party hypocrisy. Some years ago, when I first got into local politics I shared the view of those Steve describes who thought the Greens were a left-wing organisation we should try to be friendly with. Experiencing a few misgivings in this regard I asked a Green-supporting leftie friend if the Green councillor I intended to stand against had any socialist tendencies. Not that he’d noticed, he replied, while dutifully adding that he still didn’t think I should stand against her. He has since resigned from the Green Party.
Since then the opportunity to see how the Green Party operates in local politics has led me to much the same conclusions as Steve. One thing you quickly notice when canvassing areas where there are or have been Green councillors is how many people say they vote Tory or Lib Dem in general elections and Green in local elections. This isn’t as surprising as I at first thought: indeed, the congruities are obvious (though I must stress I’m not tarring all Green voters with this brush).
In a rapidly worsening housing crisis, the Greens oppose building the new social housing that is needed; they campaign vociferously for a largely theoretical greenbelt never to be moved an inch, and to keep the disproportionately high amount of green space in the middle-class communities they represent, while expecting new housing for working-class people to be squeezed in like sardines into cramped and inconvenient brownfield sites. They make, as it were, the bleeding-heart conscience case for exclusion of the poor from wealthy communities: wealthy people can afford to be more environmentally friendly. Some people who feel the advantages they enjoy are unfair can thus salve their consciences by voting for the Green Party, rather than supporting practical measures to make society more equal. This can be quite difficult to overcome.
The Green Party also attracts votes among students, where they have a simple case to make: Labour introduced tuition fees, the ConDems trebled them, so you’d better vote for someone else. Of course we can point to the sell-outs of Green councillors in administration in Brighton, and formerly in coalition in Oxford and Leeds, but since they’ve never had any power nationally and never will, they can say what they like about national policy and have a reasonable hope of getting away with it. Oxford has an unusually high number of students who are interested in the City they live in and get involved – big shout out to Oxford Uni and Oxford Brookes Uni Labour Clubs, among many other student groups. But inevitably there is also a proportion who, while having liberal views, don’t know where the estate I represent is and would avoid going there if they did know. The Green Party is perfect for these people, whose engagement in their City and in social issues is purely or mainly theoretical. Witness the Green candidates who thought even after the election campaign was over, that there were “a few hundred” non-student residents in Carfax Ward (there are about one and a half thousand, including a small Council estate and the oldest surviving block of purpose-built social flats in Britain, built in 1866).
There is a limited amount that can be achieved by concentrating on these groups of voters. My argument, therefore, is that if we want to beat the Greens we have to energise other voters – those who don’t normally vote in local elections, be they people in social housing, in insecure private rented housing (the least likely to vote at all) or the majority of students who are concerned about their local community. Rather than just going after Green supporters, our strategy should be to build up Labour support. Inevitably this will involve winning some Green supporters to vote for us, but this is best done by demonstrating that we are there in their communities, working hard for everyone.
The best tactics to use in pursuit of that strategy, in my experience, is intensive local work, mainly on the doorstep, day in and day out. Much is said about the loss of trust in politics, but this in only partly true. People will vote for candidates and a Party they think they can rely on – it’s just that the trust isn’t automatic any more, even in areas we think “should be” Labour. We have to win people’s trust person by person, doorstep by doorstep, issue by issue, and start to solve people’s problems and help them to solve their own problems.
We can’t relax in the assumption that opposition councilors are crap because their parties’ agendas are not conducive to the practical support their communities need. Some of them are but, let’s be honest, everyone reading this will be able to think of a crap Labour councillor or two as well. This has never been acceptable, because the communities we represent deserve people who can and will fight for them every inch of the way; my hope is that now it will stop, because we won’t win elections unless we pick the best people for the job.
What I’ve seen has made me optimistic. In this year’s local elections, we took a seat from the Greens and won two Lib Dem seats the Greens were sure they would win, because our candidates worked tremendously hard and proved to local people that they could be trusted to stand up for their areas.
Mike Rowley is an Oxford City Councillor