In 2008, when the Greens first elected Caroline Lucas as our leader after years of having a Principal Speaker system, the party were still a marginal force in British politics. With Caroline rightly seeing the need for more Green voices and faces to appear in the media, Natalie Bennett won a close leadership election in a field of four candidates.
My tuppence worth is that a combination of Natalie’s internal contacts, her plan to grow the party at the grass roots, her London base meaning she could drop everything to appear on TV and (let’s be honest) her gender were the main contributing factors in her success.
From 2012 onwards, the tremendous work ethic of Natalie in traversing England and Wales to speak to local Green Parties laid the foundations for the Green Surge that followed. Her ability to speak across the urban/rural divide (has another party had someone so qualified to talk about both agriculture and the anti-austerity movement so convincingly?) hugely contributed to both deep reds and deep greens taking the membership plunge.
A lot has been said about Natalie’s media appearances, and it is an unavoidable fact that this is how national level politicians are judged. Rightly so. When it comes to Green vision, values and policies, it was all at Natalie’s intellectual disposal, but she was simply not a natural media performer.
And that’s still what the party and the green movement at large needs most. Emerging parties do not necessarily need huge detailed answers on every question. They need someone who is charismatic, adaptable to the media’s pressures, and able to present good, radical ideas in a reasonable way under severe scrutiny. ‘Pivoting’ is a crucial skill.
So with Caroline Lucas unlikely to stand and the Greens’ new media star Sian Berry rightly choosing to focus on her new role as a London Assembly Member, who are the runners and riders to be the next Green Party leader from early September?
Our Deputy Leaders are both great public speakers. Shahrar Ali and Amelia Womack must both be considering it, but there is a risk for both of them in going head-to-head for the leadership and not retaining their Deputy positions. Shahrar seems to have had more media experience and a lot of support in London, but Amelia has a huge level of support from the increasingly influential Young Greens.
There are other rumours circulating, most notably of a co-leadership bid from Jonathan Bartley and Jennifer Nadel. (This was part of the compromise when the Greens moved to the leadership model, that a gender-balanced co-leadership would be allowed.) Jonathan is known as a grass roots activist in Streatham and you may remember him from the 2010 General Election as the guy who challenged David Cameron on the subject of the NHS and disability access and cuts. Jennifer, I must admit, is not someone I have come across.
Other outside bets are dependent on other factors. Molly Scott Cato MEP may consider a run if the UK votes to leave the EU (she will have less than a week to decide before nominations close). Andrew Cooper, Energy Spokesperson,is very popular but may see his priority building up the party in the north. Esther Obiri-Darko is the national spokesperson on Science & Technology but may consider it is too soon for a run. The Young Greens are full of ambition and I wouldn’t rule out a run from someone.
The 2012 contenders – Peter Cranie, Pippa Bartolotti and Romayne Phoenix – have in different ways taken a step back from national Green Party activity. Bartolotti’s successor as Welsh Greens’ leader Alice Hooker-Stroud has only recently been elected to that position. With Phoenix’s absence, there is not an obvious Green Left candidate – one of Natalie’s legacies was to subtly bring leftwing ideas into the acceptable mainstream of the Green Party. Some would wish to take us back to the deep green 1980s, but we as a party should not let them – not least because there is not an obvious Deep Green candidate.
The Green Party must continue to be the leading national political voice on environmental action, but we must always keep sight of the full picture. Doorstep conversations about a ‘zero growth economy’ are few and far between when people are struggling to afford their rent or find a job. We must continue to champion an economic alternative that tackles climate change and social injustice in an integrated way. Our next leader will be someone who realises that, but it must be someone who can communicate it in a way that speaks to an ever-growing group of people who are looking beyond the two main parties with their vote.
It will be fascinating to see who stands for the leadership, but I feel the need to clarify here that it won’t be me. In the last 24 hours, my own odds to be the next leader have lengthened from 33/1 to 50/1. I’ll take the hint!