» green party ¦ What You Can Get Away With

policy-definition-and-ruler_1283516768There’s a certain inevitability in the fact that the day after the Greens break through 10% in a poll, a ‘look at all these wacky Green policies’ article appears in the Telegraph. Those of us with long memories will remember similar articles appearing on a regular basis over the years, right back to 1989 when they normally featured some reference to David Icke as Prime Minister. (At that point, the height of Icke’s weirdness was having played for Coventry City and being one of the Greens’ five Principal Speakers – the wearing turquoise and seeing alien lizards everywhere were still in his future)

However, it seems to me that this sort of coverage misses the main issue and reveals the media’s expectation as to how political parties should work. The general picture painted of political parties is that they’re monolithic entities in which all members will agree with the party line at all times. When a party’s policy on something changes, it’s usually presented as the product of some nebulous process going on behind closed doors (‘party sources tell me they’re thrashing out the details of their new policy…’) that all party members will be expected to adopt when its decided by those same nebulous processes.

In short, most journalists appear to have got their ideas of how parties work from Stalin. Policy comes from above, all members must agree and factions or dissent are intrinsically bad. And in true Stalinist style, any facts that disagree with this narrative should be ignored. This is why coverage of party conferences is happy to depict them as a never-ending range of set piece speeches and photo opportunities, with party members as just a backdrop for the Important People to speak at.

In this view, the only policy-related thing members have to concern themselves with is memorising what the party line is that day, and they definitely should be kept well away from making it. This is why they have such a problem in covering democratic parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, where policy actually comes from members, and especially so with the Greens who properly collate all the policies of the party and put it on their website. (While the Lib Dems are good at encouraging people to make policy, the party’s not so good at actually displaying that policy in an easily-found way)

The problem is that this giant block of policy isn’t seen by the media for what it is – a body of ideas that’s been built up over many years, through many debates and votes of the members – but through their existing idea of how parties work. Thus, they assume that these Green policies have been worked up by policy wonks through the usual processes and aren’t something that’s come from the bottom up. The question that should be asked, but never is, is where are the similar detailed policies from the other parties? Sure, there are various issues and policies on their website, but those are normally limited to whatever’s salient at the time, and all can be easily dispatched to the memory hole the moment someone in the leadership decides it needs to be changed.

People may agree or not with the Green policies, but they should be congratulated for putting them out in the open and sticking to them, not hiding them away or not even bothering to come up with them.

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This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

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I don’t normally read LabourList, but this morning someone on Twitter linked to this article about Labour’s fight against the Greens. It starts out almost sensibly, then descends into such a pit of belligerent tribalism that I began wondering if it was a parody. (Then I noticed it was by arch-Blairite ‘moderate’ Luke Akehurst, and was assured it was serious)

There’s a certain category of politico – and I’ve seen them more in Labour, but they exist in every party – who are convinced that theirs is the One True Party and argue that case with a near-religious zeal. In this world view, anyone who disagrees can only do so because they are evil or misguided. There are only two sides to any political debate – the right side and the wrong side – and the One True Party is invariably on the right side. Anyone who disagrees with the One True Party is obviously evil, and anyone who suggests there might be a way to achieve something that’s not the One True Party’s way is misguided.

This is what lies at the root of Akehurst’s assault on the Greens – that they’re getting in the way of Labour, his One True Party. His arguments aren’t based much on ideology (and when they are, it’s all about how hard it is to triangulate Greens) but purely on the principle that Labour are always right, thus Labour need to be in power, and thus anyone who gets in the way of that is harmful and needs to be stopped. The Greens didn’t actually win a seat in Hackney – in Akehurst’s view, they ‘blocked’ someone from Labour getting their rightful place on the council. Greens aren’t people with different views and arguments, they’re ‘a huge drain on campaigning resources’, because all that matters is how the One True Party does. It’s probably the statement that ‘if you want PR for councils at least let your primary motive be improving Labour representation in rural areas, not giving a free pass to the Greens in councils where we have been fighting for years to stop them getting elected’ that shows the One True Party view most clearly. The idea that PR might be a good thing in itself cannot even be processed, and everything must be judged in terms of how it helps or hinders the party.

One True Party types exist in all parties, though, not just Labour and we shouldn’t pretend that they’ve never served a useful purpose for their parties. In a time of tribal and class-based politics, where voters (and even activists) generally had little information to work on, it was important to build loyalty to the party as an institution, not necessarily the ideas behind it. When most elections were just about two parties, descending into tribalism ‘the One True Party is always right’ partisanship does make a certain kind of sense.

We’re not in those times any more. Obviously, for some people politics still is a predominantly tribal affair, or even just a game between opposing sides where winning is the only important thing, no matter how you get there. However, I’d argue that with the breakdown of strong loyalties to parties amongst the voting public, this sort of approach isn’t likely to attract support in the way it used to. Trading insults back and forth with your opponents might feel good to the One True Party activist, but it’s not likely to attract the voter who knows that there are no true parties, just a group of different parties that might do different things. When offered with ‘you must vote for us because we’re right about everything’ in several different forms, is it any wonder when they go for something entirely different?

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On current trends the Green Party will have a significant, if not decisive, impact on the 2015 election – Some interesting data from the LSE’s British Politics blog.
I Was Raped At Oxford University. Police Pressured Me Into Dropping Charges – A rather shocking story.
Motorists have ruined England – and they need to pay the price – Given the current drive to make things as centred around the car as possible gets called ‘war on the motorist’, I dread to wonder what this might get called.
Can UKIP scale up? – Excellent post from Flip Chart Fairy Tales on the problems of growing a political party rapidly.
Ricky Gervais Broke My Heart – “Having once been a slightly overweight white male millionaire does not give you the insight required to speak with authority and flippancy on the complexities of body size and the effects of anti-fat stigma. Or race, or disability, or rape, for that matter. In fact, it makes you look fucking ridiculous. This just in: New Millionaire Discovers Millionaires Were Right All Along.”

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All sorts of link-based goodness for you.

Atos: A Privatised Service Provider In A Post-Satire World – Chris Coltrane on what is actually happening behind the mask of cutting DLA ‘fraud’.
Doctor Who Bechdel test – Some very interesting results here, though I’m sure most people won’t be surprised to learn that the number of episodes passing has dropped dramatically since 2010.
The Political Awakening of a Republican: ‘I Had Viewed Whole Swaths of the Country and the World as Second-Class People’ – Fascinating account of one person’s awakening to what American political culture conceals, though there’s an irony in that he only got exposed to the facts because of the privileged position he’d attained ignoring them.
We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say – I’ve seen other data showing a link between recent rising food prices and civil disorder (it’s likely it was a major driving factor in the Arab Spring) and this is worrying.
Can Labour *do* pluralist politics? – AC MacGregor on the latest outbreak Labour tribalism. Against the Greens this time, though.

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Greens, conservatives, drugs, proboscis monkeys and liquid democracy. How’s that mix suit you?

Don’t vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry – Tom Chivers explains, yet again, why GM crops are not the horrible bogeyman that some like to portray them as.
You don’t have to be a leftie to think Beecroft is wrong – Flip Chart Fairy Tales explains how conservatism can support models of capitalism other than the most rapacious ones.
Take it from an ex-addict, outlawing drugs does not work – “When society hates and fears you, criminal conviction means little.”
Declan Ganley and the need for nuance – Nosemonkey returns to blogging with an interesting perspective.
Liquid Democracy: The Future Of #ldconf – Spineless Liberal looks at the Liquid Feedback system I linked to in an earlier post and suggests a use for it here. I can hear the ‘ooh, that’s far too much change for my liking’ objections already. After all, why use something efficient when you can waste people’s time with a meeting?

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Rocket-powered octopi all the way down…

Space Stasis – Fascinating Slate article from Neal Stephenson on all the factors that had to come together to make rocketry so important
Caroline Lucas’ U-turn on taxes – It seems that Ten O’Clock Live stumbled on an exclusive as Caroline Lucas radically rewrote Green Party policy on air. Unfortunately, they were too busy coming up with the great satire of calling Harry Cole a journalist to notice
Tree octopus exposes internet illiteracy – In the spirit of this article, I would like to point out that you all owe me £100
Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code – “People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person because I didn’t take advantage of the lottery,” he says. “I can assure you that that’s not the case. I’d simply done the math and concluded that beating the game wasn’t worth my time.”
Evidence supporting your NHS reforms? What evidence, Mr Lansley? – I think I’m approximately the 9,836th person to link to this approvingly today, but if you haven’t read it from any of the 9,835 other links, here it is.

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