The Green Party’s class problem

You’ll often hear the criticism of the Green Party that it’s too middle class from both the inside and outside of the party. Over the last few conferences there have even been dedicated fringes to discuss the problem of the unfair perception and the rather more fair reality that the middle classes are over-represented. As someone with a class chip on my shoulder, which I do my best to disguise but is oh so very real, I’ve often felt that many members simply aren’t comfortable around working class people.

Thankfully no one has yet managed to pass a motion to conference keeping us lower orders out and our elected representatives are often reasonably representative of the public at large. Of our two London Assembly members, for example, one was an archaeologist but Darren Johnson used to work in a chip shop. A hero to the class indeed!

Of our leadership contenders though there’s not a binman or dinner lady in sight.

So while it’s good that we have working class activists in the party and have social democratic policies that talk about housing, jobs and the rest of it, we still have a way to go before we have a leader with dirt under their fingernails that didn’t come from the allotment.


So what do the candidates do?

Running for leader we have a journalist, a lecturer, an entrepreneur and someone who describes themselves as a “former teacher and artist”. For deputy we have someone who worked for our South East Green MEPs, a Maths teacher, and a vet. Richard Mallender, with his council job, is the only candidate who has what I’d have called when growing up, “a normal job”.

To be clear vets, teachers and journalists all work hard and are doing socially useful stuff, this is in no way intended as a criticism of  the candidates (after all I’ll be voting for the journalist), nor am I implying they don’t put in the hours. However, you’d have to willfully redefine the term working class to put them in that bracket. It’s not a criticism to call someone middle-class, it’s just facing facts that, overall, working workers aren’t even in the race to lead the Green Party.

I should also point out in fairness that, as far as I’m aware, none of the candidates are actually toffs living off inherited wealth from the slave trade or anything. Some come from working class backgrounds, and one of them has even worked in sheep shearing shed – but that’s all in the past. A train driver or shelf stacker would stick out a mile among them.


It’s a general problem, but it’s still a problem

As it happens it’s a problem for political parties in general. If anyone thinks the Labour benches are stuffed with anything other than lawyers and ex-spads then they’re well off beam. Politics in general is dominated by the middle classes, or in the case of the Tories, the down-the-line rich.You won’t find any coal miners on the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party and precious few posties on the Lib Dem benches.

That doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore the problem just because we share it with the other parties. The first step towards sorting a problem out is recognising that it exists. Nor is it enough to have Oxbridge types talking about the need for diversity, we need working class people representing themselves at every level, not being represented by a well meaning but ultimately privileged class.

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  1. Josiah Mortimer

     /  15/07/2012

    Completely agree on the issue of improving (massively) working-class representation in the Greens (and in general). Think a motion should be considered for next conference to create a committee/role for GPRC or the councillors group, to improve recruitment and involvement of people from working-class backgrounds.

  2. I’m not sure even the mighty GPRC or our councillors are able of seriously addressing this problem. I think it will take a collective effort from the party to start taking the issue more seriously (while not beating ourselves up about it too much).

    I’d like to see our press work focus more on tabloid papers for instance and get out of the Guardian ghetto (and actually this year we do seem to have been getting ore tabloid coverage). I also think that any branches are focusing on living wage and housing issues – I’d like to see that spread. And lastly we (including me) need to get better at expressing ourselves in ways people without degrees can understand and addressing concerns that are close to people’s hearts before more esoteric issues that we might get excised about… that’s my view anyway I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be done.

  3. This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, so I’m glad you’ve written this. I used to think the Green Party didn’t have the electoral success it deserved because we don’t get the coverage that the other parties get. I’ve changed my mind. It’s because we are largely a bunch of poshoes who are too clever for our own good, and, in some cases, we actually sneer at working class people. It’s terrible. We are not going to get more MPs etc until we convince working class people to join us, and then relay our message back to working class people themselves. If I have to sit in another multi-million pound house stuffing envelopes with leaflets about how badly the cuts are affecting the poorest…! (For the record, I don’t know quite what class I am. But I live in Highgate, so I know what people will guess I am!).

  4. Well, that’s better than sitting in a multi-million pound house stuffing leaflets about something effecting house prices… but yes. :)

  5. Darren Johnson

     /  19/07/2012

    I think a lot of this could be improved with better communication. Too much of our stuff reads likes its been written by posh, highly-educated lefties for other posh, highly-educated lefties. I’ve always been keen on trying to produce materials that the majority of people are able to read and understand. That doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down to sensationalist tabloid levels. But if we want to reach out to as many voters as possible we should think more along the lines of The Metro and less along the lines of the Guardian, in terms of accessibility.

    I also think that even if activists have come from the most stereotypical middle-class backgrounds, they might like to put themselves in situations where they are not just meeting people like themselves.

  6. I think we do need to get better at writing for a Daily Mirror audience rather than Guardian readers.

    It’s not st the greens of course. I was at a campaign meeting last night where I said the proposed A5 leaflet was too wordy and needed dramatically chopping down. I think I used the phrase “It’s a bit of an essay”

    The author, a professor of history no less, frowned and said “Are we talking about the same one? There’s only ten points!”

    For one side of an A5.

  7. Such a prole, Jim, such a prole.

    :) :p

  8. If you want to see how we can reach out to working class voters, can I recommend taking a look at what Solihull have done? They have four councillors on one of the most deprived estates in the country. In the two wards we’ve contested there, this year we got 53% in one and 63% in the other.

  9. Absolutely. I think Solihull have achieved great stuff, and Darren Johnson in Brockley has held that seat for ore than a decade now in a very working class area.

    Totally doable. We do need to think about a national strategy for this too though – for instance trying to get in the Mirror more than the Guardian not least because the mirror’s circulation dwarfs the Guardian’s.

  10. Sorry, this article doesn’t speak to me at all. A party that flirts with Leninism has disconnected with the mainstream completely.

    At least you’re honest about having a chip on your shoulder. Me too, mostly against upper-class twits, thankfully I rarely encounter any. But I’ve had my share of knocks, at school and since, from resentful ‘working-class’ (underclass?) people who would like to see everyone else pushed down as much as themselves, whose pet hate is knowledge. It’s by no means everyone from a working-class background that is like that, but if I had to define what working-class meant, it would surely be a key feature. I’d like to emancipate everyone from being working-class.

    The reasons working people are reticent about joining Green, Socialist, whatever, are various. I would suggest that at present it’s got a lot to do with the fact that being part of a small party is a commitment to aims that are not going to be immediately achieved, and that requires someone to prioritise an abstract intention. It’s something you do if you’re driven intellectually, to be part of a long-term movement. Show me a bus driver that thinks like that, and I’ll show you someone that has already moved beyond being defined by class. His masters have not succeeded in distracting him with the lottery, crap TV, endless work hours, the threat of crime, etc. If he’s that free, he’s not the product of a class system any more, he’s acting as an individual based on his own convictions, and is ready to undermine that system.

    As for political parties of the left, there is definitely something disingenuous if they spout Leninist rhetoric and then fail to recruit actual workers. And people can see that. The answer is, don’t go that road in the first place. Don’t say you’re there for class warfare, say that you represent the best interests of all voters.

    Realistically, for a goodly component of poor folks, rightwing preferences reflect an inferiority complex – they’re in love with the status quo, they’ve become more royalist than the king, and they suspect sanctimony when they hear of progressive views. One thing is certain, they don’t fail to join because there is some kind of social barrier preventing them – they’re more than welcome. Leninism is a solution looking for a problem.

    Lastly, if you don’t recognise journo, maths teacher, vet, as ‘normal’ jobs, then whatever the other arguments, I suggest your notion of ‘normal’ is pretty weird. These jobs aren’t /a lot/ more unusual than frying chips for a living.

  11. I think I disagree with a number of things here, but I’ll confine myself to correcting a few misunderstandings first as I was about to go to bed.

    I don’t think we should flirt with Leninism nor does this article talk about class warfare, Leninists are not the only people who care about working class people.

    This discussion is specifically about the difficulty the Greens have that they are *seen* as mostly middle class and in fact that is, in large part, true. As I say in the piece it is actually a problem of politics more generally not just about the greens, but that doesn’t mean it is not ‘our’ problem too.

    I think journalists, lecturers and vets are making a real contribution to society and are people who work hard (pretty sure I said this in the article). I was simply referring to the fact that these are middle class jobs and when I was growing up I didn’t know anyone with that sort of job, except when I came across them in an official capacity.

    I don’t think vets are mutants or anything, so if I implied that in the article then I apologise.

    What I will say is that bus drivers that are interested in politics, well read and articulate are still bus drivers and share the same kind of life as their work mates – they are just a well read,articulate and possibly interesting working class person. For me I think it’s most helpful to see class as a social relationship not a state of mind.

  12. Reading that it may be that I struck a more strident tone than I actually meant to do.

    You can find such bus drivers, and they might well be interested in taking part in green politics if that happens to be their interest. But many of them, for the reason that they are well-read and articulate, may not find it all that fulfilling being a bus driver, and have moved on to something else. There will always be a few people who have their own reasons for choosing a blue collar job despite their own intellectual leanings and capabilities. But there’s inevitably going to be a negative correlation. You can mourn it, but it’s only really a problem if it gets to the point where someone doesn’t know how to vote in their own interests.

    Of course in today’s society, with reduced social mobility, there may be more thinking-oriented people without any choice of job. Maybe one day it’ll be just as a couple of generations back, when people would be put into secondary moderns, leave with no qualifications and then turn out to want to do a degree 10 years later. And at that point I suspect the observed middleclassness, of left parties at least, would vanish. But we’re not back at that point yet.

    The reason I say Leninism is that you seem to imply that //only// working-class (and by working-class apparently meaning not just that you grew up without privilege, but in fact, that you did a blue collar job, most recently — tough luck Hugo Chavez) are fit to represent others such. Surely that can only make sense if professionals are all out-of-touch with what it means to be one of the horny-handed sons of toil … that is what I mean by Leninism.

  13. People might be interested that Labour List are having a very similar discussion

    The problem is about under representation and the perception of the Greens as a purely middle class party, not that only working class people can represent other working class people. I personally think it can be dangerous for a party to do what it thinks best for a group of people without a significant number of those people being part of that decision making.

    It’s one reason, for instance, that I think our sex worker policy is so strong is that it draws on the direct experience of sex workers from a variety of backgrounds who have consistent come to speak to us at conference fringes and, to a lesser extent, are party members and have directly informed the party position.

  14. I’m not saying that it would be a bad thing if it just happened to be the case that more people from a blue-collar vocation happened to get involved. Some of the endorsements above do themselves sound a bit middle-class hand-wringy – or maybe that is just to my ear.

    “It’s one reason, for instance, that I think our sex worker policy is so strong is that it draws on the direct experience of sex workers from a variety of backgrounds”

    and if you were making a policy that particularly affects truck drivers, it would be worth at least knowing what some truck drivers have to say about it. That much is common sense. Identity politics is something quite different.

    “I personally think it can be dangerous for a party to do what it thinks best for a group of people without a significant number of those people being part of that decision making.”

    If you were talking about straight blokes making up the policy that affects lesbians, fair enough. But there are a lot of such genuine needs for reflecting demographics; adding “working-class quota” to the mix is making an already tricky situation unnecessarily difficult. If “working-class” means “blue-collar”, then working-class is a choice. While I can’t know what life is like for lesbians, I think I can form some apprehension of what life is like for brickies.

  15. I’m not for a working class quota, and think it would be unworkable even if i was desirable. What I am for is the Green Party upping its game and winning more working class support – I think that in order to do that we have to understand that our current approach only takes so far.

  16. Tom Blackburn

     /  24/07/2012

    Totally agree with the sentiment of this post. Obviously the GP has picked up plenty of progressive middle class support in recent years, but there is a lot more we could be doing to win over the working class, which we really have to do if we’re to kick on. I live in Salford – needless to say, a predominantly working-class, left-wing city – and the GP’s presence is minimal here, although there’s no shortage of dissatisfaction with Labour (they have been presented with an open goal by the Lib Dems’ implosion, however). Working more closely with the labour and trade union movement should be a priority, imo. It goes without saying that there are plenty of trade unionists fed up with years of Labour triangulation and capitulation.

  17. Working more closely with labour ? I think that’s precisely the reason why we are not making any inroads with people on low income and the very poor surviving on benefits. And I have worked in Salford in housing and homeless prevention.

    Our policies to tackle unemployment, against the unecesssary cuts, housing, the citizen’s income and sustainable development to tackle Climate Change are much, much more to the left and THE alternative to Labour for working class people. Not only should we therefore not work closely with Labour, we should attack them as often and as hard as we can at every opportunity. And don’t forget the illegal Irak war !

    Work with trade unions is a different ball game. I just took part in a North West TUC conference in Blackpool about Trade Unions and the Environment, meeting Trade Union Green reps and mingling with local residents campaigning against Fracking. No problems there with the few GP members talking to working class activists. But there is also no doubt that the LP still has a huge hold on them which we will have to break somehow if we ever want to win any working class support.

  18. Tom Blackburn

     /  28/07/2012

    I said we should work with the labour and trade union movement, not the Labour Party. Believe me, having seen Labour in action in local as well as national government, I have about as much affection for them as you (i.e. not a lot) which is why I joined the GP in the first place. Agree with what you say about the importance of winning over union activists to our side, though.

  19. obviously like your website however you need to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I in finding it very troublesome to inform the truth nevertheless I’ll surely come again again.

  1. Greens and Class and leadership « Green Party Elections 2012

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