20 Mar 2007

All parties move to the right......

The reason why this all matters is that the history of all previous egalitarian parties shows that as they gradually developed a professional bureaucracy and a leadership consisting of full time professional politicians they gradually moved to the right and towards accommodation with the ruling political establishment – and with the ideas of that establishment.

this was a great contribution to the lets have a leader debate, I don't agree with Sean especially because I think it is easy to explain what a speaker is and obvious comparison with the kibbo kift kin are a bit of a dig (more on social credit another day)

but Sean, who incidentally is an ex member of RESPECT, covers a lot of interesting ground on the vexed issue of political organisation.

Incidentally this give you a taste of the Green Left group in the Green Party at its best, lots going on the ecology and islam front in the Party which I will blog about soon...any way enough of me on to Sean

Hi Folks

It seems that one can’t post attachments to the GP lists, so I’m afraid I’ll just have to lumber you with an indigestible chunk of e-mail. See you all in Swansea I hope.

A contribution to the leadership debate

In the introductory section of their conference resolution, those who are arguing for the replacement of the role of ‘National Speaker’ with that of ‘Leader’ make a valid point. ‘Principal Speaker’ is an opaque and quaint title, redolent of Kibbo Kift moots and suchlike mumbo jumbo, that has to be explained to any journalist – or for that matter any ordinary person – who wants to know more about us. So when the resolution notes that there is some “public confusion over the notion of Principal Speakers” and that there is an ongoing “…difficulty in explaining to the media what a Principal Speaker is” it is doing no more than describing current reality.

One would have thought that the logical inference to draw from this was that we should change the name of the existing posts to something clearer such as, say, chief or national spokesperson. Given that the proposed job description for the new posts is that the “Leader and Deputy will be the primary public faces of the party, responsible for presenting Green Party policy and promoting its electoral activity and campaigns to the public on a day to day basis” a job title of national spokesperson would seem to be perfectly accurate.

But the drafters of the resolution go further. Not only is the role confusing for the press, it is responsible for a “perception among the public that we as a party do not take our vital political role sufficiently seriously”. Now, since hacks are almost always lazy, ignorant and rushed, it is convenient for them to assume that all parties are built to the same design and to look for just one face, one name, to be the personification of the Green Party. Ordinary people are used to being presented with personality politics in lieu of genuine political debate (inevitable when the actual politics of Tony, Dave and Ming are essentially the same) and might well find a party the doesn’t fit in to the familiar PR mould slightly disconcerting.

However, to infer from this that in order to be seen as ‘serious’ we should disguise ourselves as a smaller, poorer and less powerful version of the venal and discredited parties of the neo-liberal ‘mainstream’ is quite extraordinary. This position is quite wrong for two reasons.

First, it assumes that the Green Party is not seen as a serious player because its doesn’t copy some of the structures and style of the ’major’ parties. I think it more likely that insofar as the assessment of our public profile is true, it is primarily because; a) we are in reality a very small organization with very little clout who most people know virtually nothing about; b) what we have to say is difficult and extremely challenging to received wisdom; c) there is still a perception of the Green Party as a slightly cranky one trick pony.

Second, it doesn’t recognize the depth of disillusionment in politicians and political parties among ordinary people in general, and among younger people in particular. The fact that we are not organized like a ‘proper’ party, when the big parties are increasingly seen as bunches of liars, hypocrites and suits on the make, can be (if we handle it right) a positive benefit to us. As George Monbiot wrote: “I think much of the Green Party's refreshing distinctiveness rests on the absence of a single leader. It's one of the only parties which really looks like a party, rather than simply an apparatus of power designed to sustain those at the top.”

I’m relaxed about the particulars of how we choose to organise ourselves, indeed one of the things which caused me to finally lose patience with the far left sects was their organizational fetishism, which resulted in endless variations of a largely mythical organizational form initially developed in order for an exiled leadership to run a semi illegal party in Russia almost a century ago. I think that the way we organise ourselves must inevitably change with changing circumstances – clearly a tiny group of a few hundred can get away with a much looser and more informal structure that that of an organisation of over seven thousand with a handful of paid staff and four full time professional elected representatives. And of course, in two or three years when (we hope) we have twice as many members, more councillors and more paid staff, we might well need to adapt our structures and procedures to manage the party effectively.

However, while we should be flexible and undogmatic about the organizational forms which might be appropriate at any particular time, the forms have to be underpinned by one crucial principle; that of the absolute necessity for maximum openness and democracy. The Philosophical Basis document states it quite clearly:

“We seek a society in which people are empowered and involved in making the decisions which affect them. We reject the hierarchical structure of leaders and followers, and, instead advocate participatory politics.”

This statement of principle has to be central to the way we organise ourselves, not just because in a general way it is A Good Thing (although it is) but because openness and democracy – more specifically, continual informed debate, active membership participation at all levels of the party and genuine meaningful accountability on the part of party officers, MPs/MEPs/councilors – are vital to the life of the party. The core of our politics is our commitment to participatory democracy.

It is the lifeblood of our party because it is the only antidote to what Robert Michels described as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Michels noted in the early years of the last century that the European socialist parties, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass participation, seemed to be dominated by their leaders, just as much as the traditional parties of the Right. Modern democracy allowed the formation of organisations such as political parties, but as they grew in complexity, they paradoxically became less and less democratic

Michels argued that any large organization is faced with problems of coordination that can be solved only by creating a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy, by design, is hierarchically organized to achieve efficiency This process is further compounded as delegation is necessary in any large organization. The delegation however leads to specialization : the development of bases of knowledge, skills, and resources among a leadership, which further serves to alienate the leadership from the rank and file and entrenches the leadership in office.
People achieve leadership positions precisely because they have unusual political skill. Once they hold office, their power and prestige is further increased. Leaders tend to have access to, and control over, information and facilities that are not available to the rank-and-file. Leaders are also strongly motivated to persuade the organization of the rightness of their views, and they use all of their skills, power and authority to do so. By the nature of the organisation, the rank and file are less informed than their leaders, and of course we are all conditioned, to some degree, to look up to those in positions of authority. Therefore the rank and file tend to look to leaders for policy directives and are generally prepared to allow leaders to exercise their judgment on most matters.

The reason why this all matters is that the history of all previous egalitarian parties shows that as they gradually developed a professional bureaucracy and a leadership consisting of full time professional politicians they gradually moved to the right and towards accommodation with the ruling political establishment – and with the ideas of that establishment.

While Michels used the pre First World War SPD as a case study there is a more recent and relevant example at hand. During the 1970s and early 1980s , the German Greens made a conscious effort to try and break the Iron Law. Anyone could be or could remove a party official. There were no permanent offices or officers. Even the smallest, most routine decisions could be put up for discussion and to a vote. When the party was small, these anti-oligarchic measures enjoyed some success. But as the organisation grew larger and the party became more successful, the need to effectively compete in elections, raise funds, organise mass demonstrations and work with other political parties once elected, led the Greens to adapt more conventional structures and practices (allowing MPs to be members of the Executive Committee for example). And of course that inevitably led their leaders to being incorporated into the neo-liberal establishment and ending up supporting cuts in welfare and German troops taking part in the invasion of Afghanistan.

Michels thought that all forms of organisation, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible. However, he was an anarcho-syndicalist and was living in an era before the sort of technology that we have at our disposal for making participatory democracy a practical possibility existed.

Of course, the problems of bureaucracy and the tendency towards the development of hierarchies and a self sustaining professional leadership are endemic in our party as they are in any other organisation – and the more successful we are the more powerful those tendencies will become. To counter these tendencies we need to do two things.

First, we must continually resist the ongoing furring up of the organisation with necessary and inevitable bureaucracy and the development of a semi permanent leadership group based round our leading full time representatives by ensuring that our constitutional and administrative procedures minimize their tendency to develop. Thus, though I have no eternal moral objection to a party post with the title of Leader (or Grand Poobah for that matter) I oppose the current proposal because it would inevitably encourage rather than discourage the development of a centralized professional leadership group.

Second, and much more important, we must continually strive to develop the conditions in which active democracy can thrive. That means above all encouraging discussion and debate at all levels within the party, which in turn demands ongoing programmes of political education (particularly for new members) in order to build the capacity of party members to both take an active and informed part in developing party policy and to effectively hold the leadership of the organisation to account. And yes, we need to be continually building the capacity of our members to take leading roles within the party at all levels. We need more leadership in the Green Party rather than less, but leadership spreading up from the base rather than down from the top or out from the centre.

As we grow, we will inevitably develop an increasingly professional bureaucracy – and we need to. We will also, one hopes, have a growing number of professional full time elected politicians. There is no doubt that we must pay a price to ensure that these hierarchies do not slowly begin to dominate the party, as they inevitably will without the conscious commitment of the membership to counter that trend. Decision making will inevitably be slower and more cumbersome than in a more ‘efficient’ centralized organization and will involve apparently endless debate over everything. However, that endless debate is in fact the lifeblood that keeps our politics alive and healthy. Bureaucracy and centralized leadership is like the clotting agent in that blood – essential if we are to operate, but fatal if not kept continuously in check.

Sean Thompson (Camden Green Party)
March 2007


Anonymous said...


I am monumentally uninspired by such detailed organisational navel gazing. I’m sure potential voters are as well. Come on people, let’s talk about how we can tackle climate change and save the world. The next election, that could be anytime from May 2007 is likely to be the first in history to have environment so high up the agenda. This is your moment. So raise your game.


a different anonymous said...

Perception is reality!

If the media continually describe the Prinicpal Speaker role as joint or Co- leader then the public will already perceive the Greens to have a conventional Party structure.

So, what's the problem?

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