Understanding Green Party policy making. Clue: its really democratic…

Many of you may have the vague feeling that the Greens are a ‘good thing’ and might provide an antithesis to the usual suspects but still have no real idea what the policies are that we stand for.

Therefore, I have set myself the task of trying to explain some of these policies in a series of blogs. This will of course also have the added advantage that I will have to brush up on them myself in order to write about them and I have been meaning to do that for some time! I am certainly wary of being asked questions on the doorstep about nooks and crannies of Green Party policy that I have no idea about. Having said that, I am not sure it is always the right thing to have a bite-sized sound-bite available for every circumstance. I think that New Labour ‘on-message at all times’ politics is a real turn-off for the great British (and Southville) public. I will therefore try and course a middle ground; informed but questioning, knowledgeable but not pedantic, clear but not simplistic.

The starting question which I try and deal with in this edition is ‘how do policies get formed and adopted in the Green Party in the first place?’

The main guiding principle is that (being a truly democratic institution and different from the others) we are very keen to be ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’. This means that any member can make policy and submit their ideas. If enough people like it, then it will be adopted. Fine words of course but it really is possible for the lowest apparatchik to dream up a policy on say ‘restricting the sale of video games to under 18 year olds’ or ‘banning pizzas from university campuses’ or ‘encouraging councils to adopt a 20 mph speed limit in built up urban areas’ (guess which one of these is a real GP idea which has been stolen by other parties)? Yes they can; all they have to do is get it adopted for the conference agenda, go through a few hoops during the conference (including getting a majority at the conference session to vote for it) and it becomes policy.

So, lets say you have a burning desire to change the Party’s policy on Legal Aid (to have more of it) and Industrial Tribunals (to make them cheaper to use); what do you have to do in practice? I use this example because some members of Bristol Green Party have today (8th March) achieved this very change in national policy!

The first stage was to raise it as an issue in the Bristol Green Party Policy and Ideas Meeting which meets once a month (generally on a Weds evening at 7.00 in the YHA by Pero’s Bridge). This is a very informal meeting where numerous issues are raised and opinions voiced and like-minded people have a cup of tea.

The issue was bought to the meeting by Charley Pattison (who is a barrister) and we had 30 minutes or so of debate following a brief presentation she made. There was some other experience of the issues in the room so various suggestions were made and a draft was sent around by e-mail. This was amended and tweaked until we were happy with it. The key point here is that anyone (with or without specialist knowledge) could contribute and be heard.

In order to make the agenda for the Conference in March 2015, the draft policy had to be submitted by to the conference organisers by November 2014 so you have to think about this well in advance (although there are other ways of getting more urgent or topical decisions made at conference).

However, at the conference there are many more draft policy changes put forward than there is time to debate them all so how do we deal with that? We have something called a prioritisation ballot where members are asked to vote for their ‘pecking order’ of the various draft policies and they are then listed in that priority. This one was fairly popular so we made it to the printed agenda that came out a few weeks before the conference.

Draft policies are then considered by a ‘workshop’ at Conference. This is a structured and guided process whereby interested members at the conference come to chat about the draft and air their initial views. In this case, there was one paragraph that people were concerned about and this caused some debate amongst the 30 odd people there. There was then a ‘straw-poll’; in other words a non-binding show of hands amongst the attendees.

The actual decision-making process only takes place in the plenary sessions at conference; the ones where we can all attend in the main hall. The chair-person announces the policy and it is displayed on a big screen (many people will have read it in their printed books of course prior to coming to conference). The proposer introduces the policy in a concise way from the podium then the Chair asks for the verbal report from the workshop. The workshop representative gives the feedback (including straw-poll result) to the conference but the conference is not bound by that and can choose to ignore the workshop results.

Members are invited to speak for and against the policy in turn until there is general agreement (expressed verbally by the floor) that there has been enough debate and the policy goes to the vote. The policy can be either rejected (in which case it cannot come back for two years), referred back to the relevant committee to be amended or passed. In our case we were very pleased that it was passed and therefore adopted as official policy.

This sounds like a very complex process, and in many ways it is, but it did mean that some ideas discussed in a room in Bristol ended up as official policy of the third largest political party in the country (by number of members). At the same time also ensuring that at every step of the way people were allowed to vote against it, amend it or chuck it out. As Churchill said about democracy; ‘it’s the worst form of Government; except for all the others…’.

Stephen Clarke

8/3/15