Recently I was lucky enough to attend and speak at a State Committee meeting for the New York state Green Party. The gathering was a managable size and well-defined, with delegates having been elected from various areas, some holding proxies for absent colleagues; it shared similarities with – I imagine – Green Party meetings around the globe: a chair valiantly maintaining order against some members’ tendencies to talk too much, an imposingly long agenda and a tasty shared lunch.

I was impressed however by the members’ attempts to keep a sense of discipline in the face of what is a state-imposed uphill struggle: they’re not even on the ballot paper.

To get on the ballot paper in the UK in a general election it costs £500 to stand in each seat (which is returned by winning 5% of the vote or more) and the European Elections require a £5000 deposit for each regional constituency (which is returned by winning 2.5% of the vote or more). In most constituencies in the UK Greens find it fairly difficult to win 5% in the first-past-the-post General Election, but easy to win more than 2.5% in the pseudo-proportional regional European Elections.

For all the strategy and political debates the US Greens might want to have, they acknowledge that this one thing comes before all that: they need to get on the ballot paper, and no amount of ideology, or money for that matter, can get them there. In NY state, they need to first collect 15 000 valid signatures from registered voters to appear on the ballot paper for the governor race. And doing this opens up the other races for them. In order to get 15 000 valid signatures they will collect 30 000: so, a big job ahead of them in the next few months. If they then go on to win over 50 000 votes in the gubernatorial race, they win “ballot status” which means they don’t have to collect the 15 000 signatures the next time, and energies can go into campaigning, not meeting the starting requirements. Needless to say this is not something that the Republican or Democratic parties have to worry about, and it represents a large step between the bottom and first rungs of the ladder for new parties hoping to chip away at the two-party duopoly.

One of the things that shocked me most is the desperate underdevelopment of any national or federal party: state parties seem fairly self-contained, and if anything members regard “national” activity – when it happens – as interfering with state autonomy. Of course this is arguably a “green” attitude and, dare I say, an American attitude. But when I learned that the national party has literally a handful of staff members, that there is no nationally-used Green Party “brand”, no logo, no strapline, no message, and no national figurehead or even mandated public figures, my reaction was one of horror.

This means of course that there are also few national resources in terms of best-practice dissemination, of web-resources/design/hosting, and there is ongoing massive duplication of administrative tasks.

As under-developed as the England & Wales so-called “national” party is, with its long history of being ignored by successful local parties such as my own home party of Lancaster (for fear of sucking local activists into a black hole, the local reasoning goes), a practically-non-existent US national party seems an incredibly sad thing. Imagine how powerful the combined administrative and technical resources of enthusiastic US volunteers and paid staff would be if channeled into a functioning US national party…!

Indeed, most of the best things I have seen in the Green Party in England & Wales in the last ten years have been when the “national” party – bringing to bear the economies of scale it can muster – has engaged with stakeholders and provided resources that can raise all boats on the same tide. Explaining these I presented a Powerpoint (given as a PDF in the files linked-to below) outlining the 2004 national rebranding for which I was responsible (rebranding the party as the party of “real progress“), which brought modern typography, dramatic and illustrative colour photography, and copy-written prose to the party’s publications. It also brought shared large print runs (bringing down the unit price of publications to affordable levels). I talked about the 2005 silent-revolution that came with large-scale quantative research and the use of geo-demographic software such as MOSAIC. To this day, targetting strategy in key seats, both locally and regionally, is heavily informed by geo-demographics, as it is in all other serious political parties

And of course spending money and time on advertising agencies at the national level has been (if not always plain-sailing) a hugely useful contribution that has transformed the media and public’s perception of the Green Party.

Greens both in the US and the UK need to fully grasp a contradiction: local action (specifically our “Target to Win” strategy of local door-to-door campaigning, which has been the bedrock of our local success in the UK) is not inimical to national action, and a healthy and functioning national party crucially complements local activity, rather than distracting from it. To my mind, history has shown that individual Greens seem attracted to either the pseudo-glamour and pseudo-power of “national” party internal politics, or the hard paraochial graft of local campaigning. I believe that neither solution is complete, and indeed neither impulse is thoroughly healthy, without being balanced by at least an understanding of the other. Until us Greens manage to overcome our fetishism of the local and work at “the most appropriate” level, sometimes interchangeably, then I do not believe we will make real progress or reap the gains that a collective national effort could produce.

If anything, I believe there is a case for a federated worldwide Green Party network, sharing best practice in voter research, in media, web-building templates & expertise, open-source software for admin tasks, design and photography… not to mention sharing policy research and feeding-into a shared dialogue around political strategy and messaging.

Frankly, Green Parties around the world, and regional and local parties in the UK, spend an awful lot of time re-inventing the wheel. A degree of best practice dissemination would, I believe, put some parties to shame for how long they have spent simply duplicating processes that other people have had established for years or decades. If we owe anything to our colleagues in neighbouring towns, cities and countries, I believe it’s cutting through this false ideology of “local is best” and asking hard questions about how local/regional/national parties are performing compared to best practice. Green Parties need leadership to show the way to being more effective and efficient: this leadership doesn‘t need to come from the top down, but it needs to come from somewhere, and information-sharing, even decentralised information-sharing, is the first step towards it.

Forging a truly effective national party in the US would be a hard task, especially with the specific conditions that have prevailed against it, but I can’t help thinking it would be a worthwhile one, if only so the vast energy it would inevitably take does not have to be duplicated many times over by regional parties.

My presentation, and some fascinating and indicative historical Green Party publications are linked-to below.

The_Green_Party_in_england_and_wales_presentation_for_US_greens

mini_manifesto_2005_general_election

Two_historic_Powerpoints_that_informed_our_research_strategies

advertising_agency-designed_flyers_for_the_2008_london_mayoral_elections

two_regionally-produced_campaign_leaflets_from_the_2009_euro_election