We in the Green Party often complain of not being listened to enough. Often, we argue that we are being ignored by an aloof, London-centric media and government. But the real question we should be asking ourselves is: are we listening effectively?
It’s true that, with our unfairly meagre representation in the Houses of Parliament, Greens can be underestimated by those in power who believe that they can pay less attention to the concerns and wishes of our members and supporters. One instance where this is clear is the government’s ignorance of our call for a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal, with Theresa May’s Conservative cabinet committed to making crucial decisions about the future of our country away from scrutiny in Westminster corridors. This is why we call strongly for proportional representation, an elected House of Lords and a written UK constitution. However, we Greens can also be guilty of this ignorance, outside of the scope of our party and more traditional political structures.
As a committed Green Party activist in Manchester, I have no illusions that I’m unusually politically engaged, but one incident earlier this year struck this home to me particularly. Several months ago, our local party held a sparsely attended ‘business’ meeting. Our discussion was dry but necessary, concerned with planning for the upcoming local elections (in which we gained nine per cent of the vote citywide but not a single seat), so in itself the turnout wasn’t surprising. When the meeting ended and we walked back out into the city centre, we stumbled across a much larger protest that had been organised by unaffiliated local people. There were speeches, a boombox; it was clearly more exciting than the meeting we had just held, yet we had no idea what it was about. In that moment, our own awareness felt limited.
It’s understandable in the current political climate why people don’t believe that supporting us or any political party is for them, particularly if they’re made to feel that they aren’t knowledgeable or genteel enough to contribute. The Brexit vote was, in part, a result of working-class communities rejecting the establishment after years of being ignored, having been allowed to develop the feeling that the European Union was not a party that they were invited to. It’s notable that many towns outside of cosmopolitan centres ignored their MPs’ Remain position to vote Leave, no longer in tune with the middle-class professionals that represent them.
The only people this remotely surprised were those who lived in those centres. There is a clear need for grassroots democracy, and it is vital that we as Greens have something positive to say to these communities in order to engage and involve them.
Part of the reason for our being tone-deaf is that our social circles are getting increasingly stunted, our perspectives skewed by insularity and social media. We choose our Facebook friends and the Twitter feeds we follow, leading to our experience becoming even more blinkered. This first became clear during the 2015 general election when young people woke up stunned on the morning of 8 May, saying, ‘I don’t know anyone who voted Tory!’ Even well-meaning Greens aren’t immune to this, engaging in fashionable ‘clicktivism’ such as changing our profile pictures temporarily to a ribbon or flag. Social media is one important way for us to engage people, especially the young, but we should not prioritise making a show of our support and anger over actually going out, learning more about our communities and making the effort to help.
Ultimately, as Jo Cox understood, we are far less motivated by politics than we are by our fellow human beings. Not long after the Brexit vote, when hate crime sharply rose, people of all ages, classes and races publicly spoke, held flash mobs and made solidarity walks with those affected. These all offered something promising and tangible. While increasing the Green Party’s political representation is invaluable, it’s therefore also vital for Greens to get out of our halls and homes – to talk to those whose lives are different from our own and grow to understand and reflect their experiences. It’s only through that openness that we will be able to revive our democracy.
This is an edited version of an essay first published in The Skinny (North), Issue 40, Sept/Oct 2016