Lets work on the basis that the grain of truth in the saying All Publicity is Good Publicity still holds true.
On Sunday 25th January, after hearing the occasional BBC headline (yes, headlines) that the Green leader had said her party would make the membership of al-Qaida and ISIL perfectly legal, I began to have my doubts. I looked up the Sunday Politics interview Andrew Neil conducted with the leader, and was appalled.
Forget it, said my Barnet Green Party colleagues, news is ephemeral. Here today, not fish&chip wrapping tomorrow. But on Friday the Now Show mocked us, and Will Hutton in his Observer column today picked up on it. So that particular news isn’t chip paper. It is here. It merits a response.
The leader put up a valiant fight in the face of a merciless onslaught from Andrew Neil who seemingly wants Paxman’s Rottweiler title. He sat on his set, with all the quotes and figures in front of him, and his producer in his ear; she just had the lights and the nation’s eyes on her and a glass of water.
The headlines about terrorist membership were built out of something she never said. They were words put in her mouth by the interviewer. She was trapped by the Green Policies for a Sustainable Society, by an inappropriate approach to political interviewing, and lets face it, she didn’t handle being trapped all that well.
The leader didn’t crumble. She made the Green points on all the motley array of issues hurled at her. She stuck to her Green guns, and remembered her Green principles. But she seemingly had no strategy for dealing with the pressure. The figures got jumbled, and all she had were prepared responses that in the face of repeated questions, she repeated in return. Where some humour, charm, and ironic subversion might have served her, she only had defence. She offered no deflection, or appeal to good sense in the face of specious challenges such as how much did the wealth tax raise in Sweden?
She was facing a hostile, bullying style from a man armed with the longest “manifesto” of any UK party – the Green vision of an ideal Green World, recently renamed Policies for a Sustainable Society [PfSS], publicly available on the web. It is the sum total of the ideas agreed by the party’s conferences over the four decades of its existence – and adds up to a vision of a just, green, and perfectly-run post-carbon world. To print it out (god forbid) would result in a very thick tome indeed. Even the most brilliant memoriser would be hard put to remember it all, never mind defend each of its sometimes-idiosyncratic clauses. Now that we are being subjected the kind of scrutiny that a major party (heading to being the third largest in England & Wales) enjoys, there is a good argument for taking this hostage-to-fortune out of the public domain, and releasing only the manifesto – a document that is thought-through, costed, timely, and appropriate for the election at hand.
(I understand the danger of top-down direction – to which we Greens are exceedingly sensitive. But the PfSS could still be visible on the members website, where the grassroots retain full access.)
While the PfSS is not the election manifesto, and was misused by the Sunday Politics, the whole approach was inappropriate as well. Neil was going at the leader as if she were standing to govern the country. She isn’t. She knows that, Neil knows that.
But because of the FPTP winner-takes-all system that assumes parties stand to govern, Natalie was having to explain how she would run the country, for instance fund the army, which, with respect, is an irrelevance. Greens are standing in all seriousness – but recognise that this time it is not to govern the country. Rather we are standing to make certain points, to shift the election in particular directions, and to have a presence in parliament. Such an approach is ever more respectable as the mainstream parties hemorrhage legitimacy and support, and perfectly common in countries that have proportional representation. Relevant questions would be to ask what our bottom lines are, what issues we would compromise on, and what principles would guide our support for the government of the day.
Not only the media, but the party should sort out the thinking behind why we are standing, and what our pitch is for the next parliament – and allow that to determine how we approach our campaigning, our media strategy, and our manifesto. That document may be at risk of being an uncomfortable agglomeration of long-term ideal world policies (a generous citizens income*,) and short-term imperatives (bringing the railways back into public ownership, scrapping TTIP, and ending austerity). Perhaps the manifesto should match the occasion. It should delineate what policies we would support government on, what policies we would press for the hardest, and how we intend to function in parliament. Such an approach would only strengthen our growing reputation for integrity, plain-speaking, vision, and realism.
*Update – Monday’s news is that the plan has been dropped for this manifesto. Good!