The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works

At recent party conferences and meetings of the London Federation of Green Parties, it has struck me that many members lack any experience or understanding of how our elected politicians work with party policy. I was in the same boat until I started to work closely with our London Assembly members, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, so I thought I’d share my experiences from the other side of the valley.

The main misconception I want to address is that all policy advocated by elected politicians can, or should, be found in our written party policy. Another way of stating this myth is to say that the policies we debate and pass at conference provide the bulk of the detailed policy used by elected politicians.

Some examples in housing policy

Housing policy is pretty complex, especially in a metropolis like London

Here are some questions that our London Assembly members have tried to answer in the past year:

  • How much of the affordable housing grant should we spend on social housing and how much on low-cost home ownership products? Would we prefer to see a greater priority for social homes, even if it meant that we built fewer affordable homes overall, given that social homes require a greater subsidy?
  • Should we press for co-operative home ownership to replace the main “shared ownership” offer?
  • Would we rather see all social homes brought up to a minimal Decent Homes standard, or a smaller number brought up to a standard that also addressed energy and water efficiency?

Now, let us look for guidance in Green Party policy. In the section on housing we find:

HO103 The Green Party seeks a balanced mix of housing tenures, to meet the diverse needs of the community. These include individual and shared home ownership, leasehold, and others. […] The Green Party seeks to increase the amount of social housing and commonly owned housing as representing the best way of ensuring an availability of affordable housing.

In answering the first question we face a quandary. Party policy supports both social housing and low-cost home ownership (of which “shared ownership” and “leasehold” are two forms). How do we prioritise between the two?

Reading through the rest of the policy, it is clear that there is a much greater concern with social housing than other models, and with addressing housing need than demand. So it isn’t a great leap to suggest that our Assembly Members should be more supportive of social housing.

But advocate a drop in the number of affordable homes built if it means more social homes?

How about support for co-operative housing models such as Community Land Trusts? Party policy has a number of supportive statements, so we can assume that promoting them is probably OK. What about practical measures? Until the autumn 2010 conference, we only had this idea:

HO415 A new Co-operative Housing Agency would be set up to promote, support and fund housing co-operatives. It will be run according to co-operative principles with membership drawn from existing co-operatives.

So the Mayor could establish some sort of support service or agency for housing co-operatives in London. But actually when we did some detailed research into the barriers facing housing co-operatives we developed four other solid policy recommendations (along with a slew of more technical points that were pursued through committee work, formal questions to the Mayor and meetings with his housing officers).

Finally, let us turn to Decent Homes. This programme was designed by the Labour government to bring all social housing up to a basic standard – kitchens, bathrooms, windows and the like. There are also calls to include decent energy and water efficiency standards, but that would drive up the cost and so reduce the number of homes you could improve with the available grant. You might expect that Party policy has a lot to say in this area, but this is what we have for guidance:

HO417 Priority will be given to the maintenance and improvement of existing properties before new house building is considered.

HO502 All new housing will be designed for low energy use, and the same standards applied retrospectively to existing houses where practicable.

EN505 Building Regulations for energy standards to be applied to existing as well as new buildings, except where this would compromise listed buildings; Landlords will have a responsibility to ensure that their dwellings be brought into line with prevailing energy standards at their own expense.

We gather that the Party is concerned with improving existing housing, and giving a certain priority to energy performance. But on the question of how best to allocate the inadequate money provided by central Government, Assembly Members are left to come up with their own answers.

Housing is thankfully an area where our policy is relatively helpful, at least in steering our politicians in the most general sense. In most policy areas, the detail of how you insulate every home or improve cycle safety will never be the same across every local area of England and Wales. In areas such as policing, where issues burst into the political space and dissipate within a matter of weeks, politicians have to think on their feet.

The policy process

To develop new party policy takes at least one conference, and for significant changes two or three. This makes our core policy document – Policies for a Sustainable Society – too slow to keep up with the rapid developments in policy that occur in local and regional government up and down the country.

Members vote on policy at the Spring 2008 conference in Reading

What we in effect work with is a hierarchy.

At the top, the Policies for a Sustainable Society provide a sacrosanct policy framework agreed by members at conferences. No Green politician should be advocating policies that contradict it.

Beneath that, we produce manifestos for national, regional, and sometimes local elections. These elucidate a selection of policies that are most relevant to the politics of the time; they conform with the Policies for a Sustainable Society, though at times it is necessary for the member of the national executive (GPEX) responsible for policy to develop new ideas that significantly extend our policy statements with the involvement of the Policy Committee, the Regional Council, relevant experts and our key elected politicians. For example, in the May 2010 General Election manifesto we proposed to cancel all local housing revenue account debts, freeing councils up to build and maintain council housing. This was debated and agreed by policy wonks and politicians; they couldn’t wait until the autumn conference to put the motion to the Party conference.

At the bottom of the heap you will find politicians and the public servants that support them – usually employees of their local authority rather than the party. In the cut and thrust of politics, we public servants look to our politicians for policy direction and trust that they avoid erring from the Policies for a Sustainable Society and recent manifestos. On occasion we will search party policy for more detailed guidance, but we rarely find satisfaction.

So politicians and their support staff develop policies that represent a significant chunk of their work, detailed policies that you will not find in any conference motion or party manifesto.

Sometimes they find their way back, as happened with a motion on co-operative housing models that I brought to the autumn 2010 conference in my capacity as a party member. Mostly, they briefly reach for effect and then wither amongst the ephemera of daily politics.

There are checks on this. The London Federation scrutinises our Assembly Members’ monthly reports, and an Elected Members Liaison Committee provides an opportunity for further detailed discussion about any points of contention.

This process of policy elucidation and innovation enables our politicians to be relevant, to press for and at times achieve real change in the spirit of Green Party policy, as defined by its members.

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14 thoughts on “The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works

  1. jim jepps says:

    Interesting post. However, I’m going to take issue with this;

    “At the top, the Policies for a Sustainable Society provide a sacrosanct policy framework agreed by members at conferences. No Green politician should be advocating policies that contradict it.”

    Actually they can. Like every political party in the country Green politicians are allowed their own views and can deviate from party policy as long as they are clear it is their view not the party’s.

    We’d like that deviation to be at a minimum and they can expect to be given some stick if it is on a high profile issue or core principle – but the PSS is *not* a holy document.

    • Tom Chance says:

      Perhaps I did overstate it a bit. It’s certainly quite tricky trying to draw the line at the point where we’d think a politician had veered too far from party policy.

      • jim jepps says:

        Well, we have a problem in that we don’t have very many politicians so they feel the weight of responsibility that they are representing the party.

        Caroline Lucas, for example, is in an uneviable position where, like any human being, she couldn’t posibly agree with all of party policy but as leader and sole MP anything she does will be seen as party policy – we’re lucky that she knows this and doesn’t abuse her position, but I’d hate to be in her shoes where policy will occasionally be a straightjacket rather thann a guide.

  2. Martin Childs says:

    Theoretically all elected Greens, council or parliamentary, should only be promoting those policies democratically decided by the membership at conference and which then appear in the PSS. They certainly shouldn’t support anything that contradicts it. However, there can be problems around new issues that occur between conferences that are not yet covered by the PSS or snags in pursuing agreed party policy which are revealed only once work on them commences. Decisions have to be made. I don’t think anyone yet on this blog has mentioned the role of the Executive in this process? My understanding is that, when the issue of whether to have a leader, or not, was settled, the amended party constitution clearly stated that between conferences the Executive was charged with the responsibility of ensuring that all elected members, councillors, MPs, MEPs etc, were following party policy as agreed by conference and the membership? Thank you for bringing this issue up as it is right to settle it now rather than later when when we might have more elected members in influential positions.

    • Tom Chance says:

      Thanks Martin.

      The problem is that no politician could do their job if they followed a strict interpretation of your theory. It’s not just about new issues, it’s a matter of the depth and detail of decisions they have to make, and the extent to which they are responding to somebody else’s agenda rather than their own.

      Our PSS would have to be truly enormous, and our conferences a week long every few months, to deal with the kinds of issues I raise in my original post.

      The question is how you provide the right framework in the PSS, e.g. to make clear that the party sees social housing as a priority and minimum standards for homes an absolute requirement irrespective of their impact on other budgets.

      • jim jepps says:

        But the other problem with this is that we are a more decentralised party and to pursue the kind of aproach Martin is suggesting here would make us a hundred times more control freaky than New Labour ever were.

        It actually is not true that elected representative have to follow the PSS to the letter. This is just wrong.

        They are allowed to disagree with areas of party policy and members of our council groups, for example, have often voted in different ways without problem because we have no party whip.

        The problem is how we square democratic accountabiliy with a rejection of authoriarianism not how we force everyone to think the same thing.

  3. Martin Childs says:

    Thank you for your replies but we have to think of the role of the Executive between conferences. New Labour has been mentioned, but the Labour Party long ago downgraded the position of their conference, Executive, and therefore also their members by allowing their leaders to consistently make policy on the hoof. That is top down, integrity for conference decisions is bottom up.

    I agree that the PSS can’t encompass everything, nor should it, but that is why the Executive’s position is so crucial in interpreting where any line is crossed. I think this discussion is very timely while we are still a small party. Perhaps the Executive could discuss their role on this matter?

  4. Martin Childs says:

    So the GPRC, that is ok. What I am afraid of is a situation developing whereby the membership and their conference decisions are forgotten. I remember David Steel leaving a Liberal Assembly where they had just voted for unilateral disarmament. He said to waiting journalists that the Assembly didn’t decide policy, he was the leader, and the party would continue to oppose unilateral disarmament. I hope that the Green Party never treats its conference decisions or members in that way.

    • Tom Chance says:

      Martin, I hope you’ll see from my original post that we’re not talking about that kind of situation. The main point is that conference can’t possibly decide every detail of policy, but it can set the general framework; the secondary point Jim makes is that some politicians may disagree with aspects of our Policies for a Sustainable Society (that’s only natural) but that there are many checks and balances for the party to hold them to account if they err too far from the party.

      • jim jepps says:

        It’s also important to say that while party members elected to positions retain their right to disagreee with party policy party organs (the web site, press releases, etc) do not and should not be pushing a different line.

        This does happen occasionally but usually because a press officer makes a mistake rather than any malign intent.

  5. [...] the rest here: The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works « tom … This entry was posted in Green Politics and tagged environment policy, Green News, party, [...]

  6. Martin Childs says:

    I guess it comes down to publicising widely in the party what exactly those ‘many checks and balances’ are? I for one am not clear what they are. Everyone will then understand what leeway they have re policy implementation. Furthermore we will, hopefully, mitigate against too many problems arising in the future when the party goes mainstream and starts attracting career politicians.

  7. Ben Samuel says:

    I like your multi-coloured tags at the foot of the page :)

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