The Green Party have an image of being very nice and from the outside are seemingly united. Caroline Lucas is widely admired, so who would have thought there would be a relatively high-profile spat between Caroline and members of a local Green Party.
For those that don’t know, the Green Party, with a big splash of publicity decided to not put forward a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in which Zac Goldsmith is standing as independent candidate. He resigned as a Tory MP due to his opposition to the government over Heathrow expansion. Covering this constituency are two local Green Parties. Richmond & Twickenham and Kingston. Both voted to stand aside to avoid splitting the anti-Goldsmith vote. He ran a racist mayoral campaign and had the backing of the local UKIP party as well. So if the right united in Richmond, why shouldn’t those on the centre-left and left? It makes sense. This is where the “progressive alliance” idea came in to play.
The “progressive alliance” idea has been promoted by the Green Party leadership and it is basically the idea that different parties on the left and centre-left of politics in this country come together to defeat the Tories. Whether that is campaigning on political issues together or to form an electoral pact where one party decides to stand down. The co-leaders of the Green Party had been very clear that decisions like this should be purely down to local parties and that they would not be forced by the leadership to take part in this.
How strange then that after Richmond & Twickenham Green Party voted to stand aside and Kingston were still quite keen on putting a candidate forward themselves, that Caroline wrote an article for the New Statesman expressing her disappointment that the local Greens were still keen on putting someone forward. Add this to the fact that Jonathan Bartley attended the Richmond and Twickenham Greens meeting and persuaded them to stand aside and you get an impression of top-down pressure. Now of course Caroline and Jonathan are allowed their opinions on this but it felt like they were really pushing their views on the local Green Parties. With a heavy heart, Kingston Green Party voted at their meeting to stand aside but were very clear that they were not openly endorsing anyone else but would like to see Goldsmith ousted.
So last weekend, a picture was released online of Caroline with the Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney. Some members of the Kingston Green Party expressed fury at this as they were not made aware that Caroline was going to endorse her. Yes an action weekend was planned to generally promote the Green Party in Richmond Park. More for the local elections and to explain to voters why they were standing aside for this election. Indeed as a member I got an email inviting me to this. It never said anything about us openly endorsing Sarah Olney so I can understand why some in the Kingston Green Party are angry about this.
Having debated with many people on this, I was told by another Green Party member that essentially standing aside against Goldsmith meant that the Green Party automatically would back the candidate most likely to beat him, which is Sarah Olney. Whereas Richmond and Twickenham Greens seemed quite happy with this, clearly some in Kingston Greens weren’t. A group of them even wrote an angry letter to the Guardian which made the front page of the online edition. Some have said with the by-election happening today, there was no point in causing a fuss about this and all it does is make the Green Party look divided. This group of Kingston Greens wanted to keep a low profile during this by-election and they never wanted to come out publicly against the leadership. However, I've been made aware that they felt they had no choice because Caroline Lucas never told them beforehand that she was going to back Sarah Olney.
Just to be clear, I’m not against the idea of progressive alliances and I want Goldsmith to lose today, but the way the co-leaders have handled this by-election is quite frankly very authoritarian and they bypassed one of the local parties in their decision to endorse another party’s candidate. If this idea is going to work and we are going to do this properly, then in future Caroline and Jonathan need to be in full contact with local parties that have to make decisions about electoral pacts and essentially allow them to take the lead on it. One of the things that I really like about being a Green Party member is that local Green Parties have always been given autonomy and the membership are the ones that lead and decide on policy. If Caroline and Jonathan think their personality and popularity in the party means they can get away with dictating to local parties what to do, then they are going to find a lot of people resistant to that, including me.
Whilst I’m not a member of either of the parties affected by this by-election, I just felt that as a member of the Green Party I couldn’t sit by and allow the co-leaders to ride roughshod over local democracy without voicing my opinion. This public disagreement between Caroline and some members of Kingston Green Party has genuinely divided opinion between different Green Party members across the country. However, I’m hoping the co-leaders take note of this and in future allow local parties to take the lead on a sensitive issue like a progressive alliance. If they don’t, it could lead to more unnecessary public disagreements and more division when we need to unite and fight the Tories more than ever.