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It Is Not Compromise for Greens to Take What We Believe in, Into New Territory

04/08/2015 16:12 BST | Updated 04/08/2016 10:59 BST

If you are a London Green Party member deciding in the next few days who to select as your Mayoral candidate for the 2016 London elections, your vote is more powerful than it has ever been.

When I entered this contest I wanted to instigate a debate and give Green Party members a clearly defined choice. I welcome the continuation of the discussion because the stakes have never been higher. The outcome will determine not just the future direction of the party, but our electoral fortunes for years to come.

The choice before party members doesn't concern policy. It is about the future strategic direction of the Green Party in London. My fellow mayoral candidate Sian Berry believes we should hitch our fortunes to an alliance of the capital's protest groups. I do not.

Nevertheless, it's an approach I have sympathy with. I too have a passion for changing the world. And I want groups of passionate citizens to have allies at City Hall. The question is whether this is the sum total of what we have to offer. If it is, then the party won't make progress. In fact, it will be a step backwards.

This would be a return to an old way of doing politics. It isn't just the mayoral campaign at stake, but the next generation of Green leadership at City Hall. Why would we want to turn back the clock rather than build on the legacy of Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones? And not only would energies be exhausted accommodating these groups and agendas within the campaign, there is a cost for the groups themselves. It would mean trying to coerce non-party groups into adopting a party colour and asking them to expend some of their power and influence. That's a big risk for many of these groups and one they will be uncomfortable with.

In our attempts to court protest groups, we'd also be sending a message to Londoners who aren't engaged in active campaigning by suggesting that the Green Party is an exclusive club.

Now is not the time to abandon the Common Good. It is time to show Londoners what it really means. If the climate crisis has taught us anything it is that the fortunes of all Londoners are bound together. The forces on the Right want to sow division. They want to separate those defending their homes and their neighbours. They want to drive a wedge between the unemployed and the working poor. They want to turn the 'deserving' against the 'undeserving'. Let's not accept that separatist agenda of the 'Hunger Games' politics.

This is not being "all things to all people". It is not compromise to take what we believe in, into new territory. Indeed, if any strategy will weaken our message it is one which ties us to a few, not the many. It will undermine a thirty-two borough approach, which would see us become a visible and active presence in every part of London, not just at this election but in the campaigns to come. The Green Party must stand for all, not just those with whom our existing message is an easy fit.

I joined the Green Party after a confrontation I had with David Cameron at the 2010 general election over disabled children. It followed a two year battle to get our son into our local school.

We won that battle. And when it came for my son to attend his first sports day, he lined up in his powered wheelchair with the other non-disabled children in his class to 'run' the 100 metres. The starting gun was fired. The children set off down the track as fast as they could go. But Samuel's wheelchair would only go about half as fast as the slowest child. And as the penultimate competitor crossed the finish line, Samuel was only half way down the track pushing the joystick on his chair as hard as his small hand could.

A silence descended. And then someone in the crowd started chanting his name; "Samuel...Samuel...." Others joined in, and soon the whole crowd was cheering him across the finish line.

We all tell our children that it's the taking part that matters, not the winning. Deep down inside we all love it when ours come first. But at that moment, in that school, every child, every parent and every teacher, began to see that it was the taking part that mattered. And the whole community was better for it.

The battle for admission to the school wasn't the end game. The struggle for real inclusion was about winning the hearts and minds of everyone in it. It wasn't a protest or marches on the streets that brought the ultimate win.

Yes, there had been a time for those tactics. But in order for inclusion to mean something, everyone needed to get it. That one idea had to be grasped and experienced by many different people in unique ways.

It is the same with all political ideas. There is a naive view that electoral politics is a simple game in which the party with the most popular policies wins, or that voters are tribal and vote on a single issue like austerity. In reality people vote for a variety of different reasons and with all sorts of priorities. We must not join the establishment in putting people into boxes.

A lot depends on trust - whether voters believe what they are being told is credible and workable. It also depends on whether they grasp what it means for them, and how their interests are bound up with those of others.

For Greens this means that those who are aspirational need to understand how austerity is hurting them individually as well as their community, and that there is an alternative beyond simply shouting 'NO!'. We want decent housing that can be called a home, good jobs that give decent pay and time to spend in leisure and with families. For those who desire security, we must communicate that 20mph limits, restorative justice, accountability in policing and cleaner air makes their community truly safer.

Writing on The Staggers on Monday in defence of Sian's strategy, Adam Ramsay sets up a false polarisation. This school of thought suggests that if policy isn't resonating, the options are to water it down or just aim it at the small group who will readily embrace it.

That's not good enough. It's not why I got into politics, and it's not why most people joined the Green Party. We must go out and win the argument and show London why our ideas will work for this city. And that doesn't mean bludgeoning people over the head with our "right on" politics. It's not about shouting louder. It is about creating trust and confidence, and giving Londoners a clear and distinct Green offer.

It would be a monumental mistake for Greens to retreat now. If ever there was a time to seize the moment, this is it. It is not just that we are better placed than we ever have been with the Green Surge, to show Londoners what we've got. The political landscape is changing. British politics is undergoing a seismic shift. With the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn, the ground is moving in our direction as long-held Green ideas are gaining traction. But we cannot leave Jeremy Corbyn to take these ideas to a mainstream audience. We also have to rise to the moment, not confine ourselves to the margins.

Next year will be make or break for the Green Party. This is a once in a generation opportunity to emerge as England's third party. There is a hunger to burst out of our comfort zone but this has to be realised in action, not rhetoric.

In Streatham, where I live, we implemented a strategy which moved the Green vote from 8% to 30%, gaining a previously "unwinnable" seat. As many elected Greens know, you don't win elections by talking to one kind of voter or attending one kind of meeting. You do it by knocking on every door, attempting to speak to every voter and leaving no margin for error.

Protest was involved, as too was engaging with groups in Streatham who were attempting to change the status quo using every tool they had. We campaigned for the marginalised. We saved a sheltered housing scheme from Labour's bulldozer. This is social movement politics. But we recognised that this wasn't an electoral strategy. The work really began once we had their trust and people were willing to listen. They saw that we were on their side. We were able to show what having a Green representative would do for them. And they voted for us. Many had never voted Green before. Others had never voted at all.

Did we compromise our message? Far from it.

Did we speak to protest groups? Of course we did. But we never asked them to dilute their power by signing on with us.

Did we rely on protest groups to campaign for us? No, because they were busy doing something really important.

In Brighton, we didn't re-elect Caroline Lucas and secure over 40% of the vote by building a coalition based on the good wishes of protest groups. In a values-led campaign, the team in Brighton targeted historical Labour voters, former Lib Dems and undecideds in every ward of the constituency while appealing to small 'c' Conservatives in suburban northern wards who were attracted to Caroline's anti-establishment credentials.

And here's the lesson: Greens don't win big turnout elections by relying on protest groups and we certainly don't do it by asking them to dilute their energies. This is even truer in a London election based on proportional representation in which every vote counts. It is time for a bit of realpolitik. The binary option that we must either be controversial or be ignored is a false one. Shouting louder doesn't make our message any clearer. If we have come of age, we have to demonstrate maturity. We must show that Green Party policies are common sense for each individual, and each community, as well as the planet.

So what is it to be? Do we want to be a party of many or few? Will we be the party of protest or the party that believes we have mass appeal? Will we run with on a limited strategy that accepts defeat before the campaign begins, or build on the foundations we have laid by taking the Green Party to every Londoner? The choice is clear and it's time for Green Party members in London to make a decision.