Thursday, 15 March 2012

Spring Conference - Pat Marsh (Canterbury branch)

NOTES ON THE SPRING CONFERENCE
from Pat Marsh

Just some quick background.  I joined the Green Party last year after the failure of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, which I had become involved in after retiring in September 2010.  This was the result of many years of desperation with our electoral system and its antiquated nature.  I believed that my fellow Britons could be persuaded to accept a fairer system of voting in general elections, whilst being too conservative to embrace immediately some form of proportional representation, although I assumed this would inevitably follow in a few years.  The miserable failure of the Alternative Vote proposal made me realise that one should not campaign for something one doesn’t fully support.  Around the same time, I became aware of various Green Party policies which coincided with my own beliefs, but were not represented by any other party.  I had never joined a political party precisely because none of them reflected the whole range of my opinions on most aspects of life.  But it seemed the Green Party fulfilled this condition, and it was therefore time to “put my money where my mouth is” and sign up.  When the Spring Conference was advertised, I decided this was the ideal opportunity to go and listen to the higher echelons and make sure I was in the right place.  I’ve also never been to Liverpool, so that was another reason to attend!
What follows is a summary of various sessions at Spring Conference which relate to discussions we have had at Canterbury meetings.  I am well aware that many members are much more knowledgeable than me in these matters and will find little, if anything, of interest in my summary, but from experience in other fields there is usually at least one new thing you pick up at a conference which is helpful for future deliberations.  So here goes.


Opening Speech and Meet Your MP
Caroline Lucas’s opening speech and Meet your MP session confirmed my opinion that our leader is a remarkable person who combines intelligence, energy and decency with charisma and an unfailing ability to inspire others.  She reminded those who don’t believe it possible for the Green Party ever to be more than a fringe minority grouping that four young men from Liverpool had a sudden, meteoric rise to fame which nobody would ever have predicted. It is certainly clear that she herself has taken maximum advantage of any opportunity to promote the Party now she is an MP, and that the right course was taken in putting all our resources into getting her elected for Brighton Pavilion.  Her impact has been way beyond what could be expected of a single MP.

Rail Fares
Keith Taylor MEP’s session on rail fares gave an excellent review of how we have come to this pass and gave the campaign for Fair Fares some publicity.  The importance of direct action at railway stations involving ‘stunts’ which get into the local paper and draw attention to the situation was emphasised.  Keith quoted a railway industry spokesperson saying that transport was “not a social service”.  As he pointed out, it most certainly is, just like post offices and utilities, and should, of course, be returned to the public sector alongside all of these.

Not All Doom and Gloom - Positive Politics for a Green Society
Of particular interest to me was Professor Erik Bichard of Salford University’s presentation on Positive Choices for the Future.  He was dealing head on with the problem aired at our last Canterbury meeting, namely that if you try to alert the public to the seriousness of the climate change problem by giving them a bleak picture of the future which awaits us, you meet with little success.  Psychologists have proven that the human mind splits off from bad events and tries to ignore them. Although they stay at the back of the mind, people cannot deal with thinking about them every day.  Prof. Bichard gave the example of people’s reaction to flood risk.  Even when they discover that their house is at high risk of inundation, 75% still say that flooding is unlikely in their street!  Unfortunately, green campaigners find such head-in-the-sand behaviour hard to accept, as this is not how our minds work.  We have to remind ourselves that the majority of people don’t have the “unusually large superegos” which we possess!
The solution appears to lie in giving people incentives to do the right thing.  These can be in the form of free fruit and veg, free garden makeovers, or free restaurant meals if they invest in flood protection, or whatever measures we want them to take.  A key factor here is that their neighbours are doing the same thing.  Peer approval is vital for most people.  One example Prof. Bichard gave of this was the case of hotels which have signs asking people to reuse their towels. These apparently have little effect. However, a large increase in the numbers reusing towels is seen if hotels simply change their signs to read: “75% of our customers reuse their towels”.

Dressing to Campaign
The issue of dress is a particularly thorny one for Greens. We are all proud of buying our clothes from charity shops but aware that, if we look “scruffy and unwashed”, people will be scared off by our appearance and not listen to what we have to say. This session was well attended and useful. There were two basic messages:
1) You don’t have to wear a suit if it isn’t you – the main point is to find your style and the colours that suit you so that you look bright and well. People should dress who they are, not what they are.
2) You have to engage with a person in the first few seconds and so will be judged by what you’re wearing, whether you like it or not. Perception is vital. The important thing is to show you care enough about what you’re doing to make a good impression, just as you would if you were going for a job interview.

Brighton & Hove Greens
Five of Brighton & Hove’s councillors presented the actions they will be taking in the next two years to make the city the UK’s greenest. This session was over-subscribed and many extra chairs had to be brought in. On the day before Conference began, Brighton and Hove’s Green councillors had voted for adopting their budget with an amendment made by Tories and Labour joining forces. This imposed a freeze on Council Tax rather than defying the national government and making a 3.5% increase as the Greens had proposed. One Green councillor resigned as a result, but the rest had decided that it was better to live with “99%” of their budget accepted, since the alternative would be to step down and allow the Tories to have a free hand in the city. After all, more of their fellow citizens had voted for them than for any other party, and they owed it to these people to try to implement as much of what they had promised as possible.
There were a number of voices raised at the session in condemnation of their decision and an emergency meeting was held of Green Party members the following day to force the resignation of Brighton and Hove Green councillors.  I shared the view of those who believe that the Party is democratic and cannot order members to do anything. It was generally felt that the councillors were in the best position to know what to do in their city and, although some of us might have acted differently in their shoes, we had to accept their decision.

South-East MEP Hustings
Ten prospective candidates for MEP elections were present and each had two minutes to present themselves. One minute each was then allowed for answering questions put to them from the floor.
I was impressed by the fact that all the speakers really “knew their stuff” and would clearly be able to represent the Party credibly in Europe. From these particular hustings, experience of interviews and debates in the national broadcasting media emerged as giving certain candidates the edge over others, although there really did seem to be little to choose between them.



Organising a Press Event
An excellent handout from Green Party PR on points to remember when organising such events. I’ll have it available when required in Canterbury!

Biomass
The upshot of this session was basically that, while small-scale biomass energy generation (using coppiced wood, coconut husks, wood chips and offcuts from woodwork for heating local cooperatives, municipal buildings, swimming pools, etc) is acceptable, large-scale biomass power stations are not only unsustainable, but also have as high carbon emissions as coal.

Co-operatives and Credit Unions
2012 is the UN Year of Cooperatives and, with the first new legislation on such a model for thirty years passed in January, there are new opportunities to spread the word on a financial strategy at the heart of Green thinking. The challenge to find savers will be simplified by being able to offer interest rather than just dividends. Many interesting examples were given of cooperatives and credit unions, ranging from housing and bookshops to primary and secondary schools. It is to be hoped that conditions are ripe for turning people away from seeing plc banks as the gold standard and for appreciation of the fact that employees of mutuals see doing a good job as an appropriate reward for their work, rather than expecting excessive salaries and bonuses.

Election Strategy
The Green Party National Election Agent presented statistics on various kinds of elections, past and future, in which we have put up candidates or will be putting them up. One important conclusion is that the Green vote goes down when general elections coincide with local elections, as far more Labour voters turn out on such occasions and our candidates usually lose their deposit. Results when only local elections take place are much better (8%-12% on average across the country), although just two local Green parties have over one third of the total number of Green Principal Authority councillors.
Our Targeting to Win strategy was presented and the finer points of this discussed. It was also concluded that research needed to be done urgently on how to attract disaffected Lib Dem supporters.

Climate Change and Energy Policy
Both these sections of the Green Party Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS) are to be updated for three principal reasons:
1) the government is considering the Green Deal
2) fuel poverty is much higher than when the PSS were made
3) new technologies  for energy generation (eg biomass, fracking) now exist which are not dealt with in the PSS

This session brainstormed issues and solutions which must be included and discussed in proposed changes to the PSS.