Electoral targeting and the role of leader

There once was a time, not so long ago, that the Green Party did not have any MPs. You won’t remember, you’re a young, fresh faced thing, but old timers like myself can remember those cold, hard times as if they were only a couple of years ago.

One of the arguments of the “yes” campaign in the leadership referendum was that the post of leader was a more media friendly way of promoting our lead Parliamentary candidate(s) than the old arrangements. And so it came to pass. Caroline Lucas, as leader of the Greens, was an easily understandable, credible kind of radical-in-chief that journalists and the ordinary denizens of Brighton could understand.

Without wanting to sound too cynical, the new post did the job it was designed for and we lunged onto the finishing tape after a neck and neck race. A truly historic achievement.

 

However

This was pretty much the only way we have used the leadership role and, lest it be forgotten, we actually had three target seats in 2010. Focusing all the media attention on one of those candidates didn’t do much good for the other two, who we were then forced to sacrifice on the alter of Odin to appease the thunder gods. A tragedy.

We didn’t use the role to help provide political leadership, a national electoral strategy or, God forbid, help shape the party itself to make it ready to become a truly national organisation.

In the coming election it will be first time we’ve elected a leader who was not intended to be the first ever Green MP and so we need to think about whether the role truly is about giving one candidate an electoral boost or whether the role of leader is in some way connected to leading the party.

We do know that our tight targeting strategy in 2010 cost the party votes almost everywhere across the country except Brighton. We do not know if centralising our media messaging on one leader played a role in undermining the other target seats, there’s just no evidence we can look to that would indicate either way. Long term that Parliamentary gain should result in more support across the country (which there does appear to be evidence for) so it was a short-term bitter sacrifice most local parties were willing to make for future rewards.

 

Moving on

All this means we need a discussion about how Green Leadership 2.0 fits with our electoral targeting strategy.

It’s no longer the case that the party has one national Parliamentary beachhead that it hopes to establish but it is still the case that our winnable candidacies are in no position to turn down a half percent boost that might mean the difference between living legend or night of the undead.

It seems to me that to assume the leadership position is there simply to “do a Caroline” is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it may actually hurt the candidacies of other serious candidates for the party to take an over centralised approach to any single winnable seat or region. We have to treat the party as a national team in this regard, not a series of affiliated tribes.

Secondly, it’s an incredibly narrow approach to the question of political leadership in a radical party. It also has profound implications on how electorally ambitious we can become. If each Green MP elected has to be leader first that’s 300 general elections to get a majority (or one and a half thousand years to you and I). This time scale just about coincides with when the mutant weasels are due to take over the Earth. Coincidence? I think not!

 

Conclusion

Certainly people like Jean Lambert, London’s brilliant Green MEP, was elected without the requirement of a party post designed to catapult her into Brussels in 1999 nor were our first London Assembly Members required to wear gold braid and officers’ pips to make the grade either.

If we fall into the idea that either a) only a leader or deputy can win a prestigious election or b) the leadership role is purely there to boost the electoral credibility of one candidate among many then we will be seriously downgrading the role of leader not just in our own eyes, but in the eyes of the public. At a time when the party really does need political leadership (in the broad sense) we need a frank discussion about whether the leadership position is just an extension of our electoral targeting strategy or whether it means something more.

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2 Comments

  1. mattsellwood

     /  22/05/2012

    (a) My sacrifices to the thunder gods were intended to be strictly confidential.

    (b) I agree – to an extent – with your point. The qualifier is that I see no reason why we shouldn’t take into account a leadership candidate’s status in external elections *as one factor* in a decision. The important thing is that it should only be one factor. I certainly agree that it would be unwise to choose entirely on that factor alone, as strategic direction/charisma/diplomacy etc are equally important.

    Luckily, our target candidates tend to have those things, so the two courses are by no means mutually exclusive… :)

    Matt

  2. Absolutely, which is why I’m essentially asking people to think about this question rather than saying it would always be a bad thing.

    However, there are key questions that we need to be careful of. Downgrading the role of leader to a cynical electoral manouver (and other parties already view our leadership role this way) and actually detracting from other winnable candidacies.

    We know that the strict targeting we did in the general allowed the vote elsewhere to slip back, in elections where that means we lose where we could have won the leadership could become a way of the national party making electoral prioritisation decisions which may actually hurt us.

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