Changing the political conversation: a Green manifesto

‘I used to think I was not interested in politics, just in human rights, animal rights and social justice.  It turns out that is politics’.  So said Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, at the launch of the party’s election manifestos on Thursday 1 May (see the link below).

Too often, Agnew’s observation suggests, people in Northern Ireland grow up thinking that the binary opposition of ‘the two communities’ exhausts politics; that if you don’t come down on one side or other of the traditional denominational and political divide (even if only to reach back across it), you can’t ‘do politics’.

But there are more, many more than just two communities here, the Green Party would point out; and there are other, richer ways to conceive of political life.  There are many voices going unheard, many needs going unmet because the usual, reductive set of political responses effectively throws a blanket over them.  Indeed there are political ‘leaders’ who do very nicely, thank you, out of handing out the blankets.  For the Green Party, it’s time to throw off such thinking and to let in a little light: if it isn’t open, active and transparent, they say, it isn’t democracy.

Indeed open, transparent democracy – ‘clean politics’ – forms the first pillar on which the party platform rests.  The ‘common good’ (the leitmotif of the party’s campaign) is not served when money is pumped, in secret, into party coffers; nor is it served when councillors act as though civic involvement in local politics begins and ends with the casting of a vote every few years.  The party’s local manifesto calls for legislation to require parties to publish their donations, so that voters can see for themselves ‘who is serving their wealthy backers and who is working for the common good’.  And at the launch, Agnew spoke of the ‘corrosive’ effect big money can have on community politics, renewing his call for other parties to match the Green Party in publishing all donations over £500.

Moreover, the party wants to see ordinary people actually getting involved in the decisions that affect their lives – so they welcome the opportunities provided by new ‘Community Planning’ powers.  To foster active democracy they propose novel uses of information technology, facilitating citizens’ petitions, the use of e-surveys, experiments with participatory budgeting, and even web-casts of council meetings, so that the public can see just how ‘representative’ their representatives are.

If a reinvigorated sense of democracy is the first step towards a politics of the common good, the second, paradoxically enough, may be to recognise, and celebrate, the full range of our differences.  The Green Party insists on the inclusion of all members of society, socially and economically.  Too many mainstream politicians here would throw not so much a blanket as a full 15-tog winter duvet over certain issues – minority ethnic communities, disabled, LGBT, and other marginalised social groups, for example.  In Northern Ireland, and indeed across Europe, discrimination against people because of gender, age, race, ethnic origin, religion or belief is still a reality, and Islamophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism are actually on the rise.  The Green Party sets out to combat all such forms of discrimination and social injustice, addressing the causes of inequality and tackling barriers to participation in society.

And nothing is currently contributing more to the growing sense of exclusion and inequality, both social and economic, than the dominant political response to the economic crisis of the past few years.  The policy of ‘austerity’, the party argues, ‘takes us in the wrong direction, reducing social welfare, driving down wages and job security, and privatising public goods in what amounts to a form of corporate welfare’.  All too many of those affected by the ensuing insecurity read the symptoms – people migrating in search of work, for example, and toiling for sub-minimum wages – as the cause, and turn against these conspicuous outsiders, these ‘Others’.

If this strikes you as radical, it is not a word the party recoils from.  As current North Down (and would-be Holywood and Clandeboye) Councillor John Barry pointed out at the launch, the term carries the sense of ‘getting to the roots of problem’.  The root causes of the problem of deepening inequality, the party suggests, are a ‘profit-at-any-cost economic model, and a deregulated financial model geared towards lavishing rewards on those who take ever riskier bets with the money of others’.  But instead of addressing those causes, ‘many of us have been led to turn against each other, in our local communities, and in our wider global neighbourhood’.  It is a phenomenon with which we, in Northern Ireland, are sadly familiar.

Move beyond the limits of politics as usual, however, and you can begin to build a new kind of politics, along with what Barry calls ‘nothing less than a new economic paradigm’: a political economy that is about wellbeing, rather than simply GDP figures; a political economy that is as inclusive as possible, and, being built on rigorously sustainable foundations, is capable of discharging our obligations to the coming generations.  A political economy, in short, that is designed to serve the common good, rather than to maximise the profits of the few.

How would they go about the task?  By ‘thinking globally and acting locally’ – but acting now.  We should ‘fix the roof while the sun is still shining’ says Barry; that is, start building a sustainable future economy immediately, rather than putting off action until a resource crisis succeeds the financial one.   Instead of binding the economy into a destructive reliance on ‘dwindling and dirty’ fossil fuels, the Greens are calling for a focus on sustainable local economies, on energy and resource efficiency, and on small to medium enterprises – as well as the sort of socially conscious community enterprise exemplified by Common Grounds, the bustling café in which the launch took place.

On the Europe-wide, not to say global scale, however, the party continues to call for investment in a New Green Deal to generate secure, green jobs, clean industries, and sustainable sources of energy.  Europe, says the party, could enjoy a new industrial Renaissance – if we make the right choices now.

Critics will doubtless raise the question of how we are to pay for these environmental commitments (or the ‘green crap’, as David Cameron is supposed to have said).  Wouldn’t we be better freeing up business from burdensome environmental obligations, for example, or going ‘all out for shale gas’ (another Cameronism)?

On the contrary, says Ross Brown, candidate for the European Parliament as well as for Belfast City Council.  Deregulation, competitive tax-cutting and the ensuing financial crisis, not to mention the subsequent imposition of collective austerity, are what has caused our current economic and social problems; and fracking for shale gas would only do the same on the environmental front.  The Green Party, pro-Europe as it is, remains ‘deeply unhappy’ with the direction the EU has taken.  Rather than prescribe more of the same treatment, says Brown, with the less well off having to bear the brunt of the pain (in the form of welfare cuts, low wages, job insecurity and youth unemployment), we need to change direction, and move to a system where the better off, some of whom have done very well out of the ‘recovery’, bear a fairer share of the burden.  We should be reining in our financial industry with much stronger oversight; chasing the tax evaders and tax avoiders; and introducing a financial transaction tax, for example, to generate revenues.

The final pillar, dovetailing with the idea of a clean economy, addresses the issue of ecology.  It should come as no surprise to hear the Green Party endorses caring for our environment – and indeed, the animal rights Agnew mentioned at the outset.  But even here there is an interesting mix of very small-scale, local ideas and large-scale rethinking.

At the local, small-scale level, the party promises, for instance, to push for an expansion of the provision of allotments and the sort of grow-it-yourself schemes championed by Noelle Robinson, standing in Bangor.  Local authorities, moreover, leading by example and working in conjunction, can ‘play a significant part in reducing carbon emissions in their own areas’.  And if a full-scale response will have to be coordinated at the international level, the Green Party, belonging as it does to an international network of parties, is well placed to make a strong contribution.

So: why should we ‘vote Green in 2014’?  For democracy, equality and sustainability, the party says.  For transparent, participatory, clean politics; for an emphasis on inclusive, open communities, an insistence on social justice and equality; and for an urgent focus on gearing our economy up for a sustainable future.  It should be clear by now that Clare Bailey, candidate for Belfast City Council in Botanic, was right to claim ‘the Green Party is not a single issue party’, adding ‘we need to start looking beyond the stereotypes’.

What’s the down side?  Well, let’s put it like this: the Green Party in Northern Ireland is not naive enough to believe it will sweep the boards in the coming elections.  Indeed the party is only standing 14 candidates this year (out of a total of 905 across the Province).

Yet small as it may be, it is a party with big ideas; and even if only a handful are elected later this month, each such voice in each council is, as Bailey puts it, ‘one different voice that expands the political conversation’.  The very idea that politics should be a conversation – something by nature improvised and open ended, rather than an opportunity to shout pre-determined slogans at each other from a distance – is already a refreshing take on the matter.  But then we already know the Green Party don’t ‘do politics’ by the book.  It may even turn out that going off-script, initiating a conversation in which you don’t already know what everyone will say in advance, is the most innovative, and most deeply political gesture of all.

[1] The full manifestos – and to declare an interest, I had a hand in drafting them – are available here:

A version of this post appeared on the Community of Others site on 4 May 2014: