The Politics of Imagination: Green Party Empowered by Conference Speech

Why This Speech Now

I was especially looking forward to Green Party Autumn 2014 conference at Aston university, 5-8 September. This was the party’s opportunity to hear from the newly elected Deputy Leaders, Amelia Womack and myself. We had been voted in just a week before that and an official announcement had been made. The morning of Saturday 6 Sept was our slot.

No hard feelings. Former Deputy Will Duckworth handing over the baton to Shahrar Ali, who narrowly beat him as male Deputy

No hard feelings. Former Deputy Will Duckworth handing over the baton to Shahrar Ali, who narrowly beat him as male Deputy. Photo: Vicky Duckworth

I was determined to talk about lack of ethnic diversity in the party and how we might collectively improve that. I knew that many had voted for me both as a means to visibly address that in some small way and to delegate me to steer progress on this front. There were electoral reasons why failure to do so would continue to damage our credibilty, but moreover, other reasons to be especially keen to reach out to migrant communities – our policies were practically written for them. All this needed to be explained in a short address. At the same time, I wanted to be able to identify and get my audience to grasp why I perceived this to be a collective enterprise, and essentially so. I knew we could not rely on ethnic faces in the party alone to jump start this initiative — if only because of their smallness in number, and the self-prophesying difficulty of getting them to grow as a result — but had long been convinced that nor should we rely on ethnic faces alone.

Deputy Leader Shahrar Ali addresses Green Party, 6 Sept

Deputy Leader Shahrar Ali addresses Green Party, 6 Sept. Photo: Vicky Duckworth

The contrary view represented a misunderstanding about the nature of discrimination and where responsibility lay for tackling it. Anti-discrimination was everybody’s business, whether they were personally affected by it, witting or unwitting perpetrators of it, or witnesses. Nobody could afford to be a bystander. The key to my speech was to generalise the judgment about racial discrimination and our co-responsibility for tackling it, to other forms of discrimination – whether gender, age, disability, sexuality, or neglect for future generations, nonhuman animals and the biosphere. I also knew that what it meant to be Green was essentially humanistic in inspiration — whether in the defence of human rights or simply in the determination to help those in need or to support victims of injustice and address the causes. These claims and aspirations were universal. At a fantastically well-attended Green party conference, I managed to get delegates to appreciate that. I think most of them must have known it already (think Plato), but they needed to hear it articulated and affirmed. Call it a timely provocation (which could not have been pulled off at UKIP convention).

Green Party Autumn 2014 conference felt empowered by The Politics of Imagination

Green Party conference empowered by The Politics of Imagination. Photo: Vicky Duckworth (click to enlarge)

In a speech which began by acknowledging the messages of support and good will I’d received from members on hearing of my election, I ended up after the speech even more overwhelmed with people wanting to congratulate and talk to me. A real chord had been struck  – members had long known about the ethnic diversity problem that I spoke about, but it was as though it had remained a belief, without the requisite emotional buy-in necessary to motivate change. I also wanted people to have the confidence to carry this agenda forward, as Greens. There was a real debate to be had, I felt, in wider society, too, about the politics of representation. On the one hand, the people most affected by a particular characteristic were often uniquely placed to relate the negative impact it had on their lives, but this did not mean, often for systemic institutional reasons, that they were best placed to tackle it. On the other hand, witnesses equally disturbed by the ubiquity of prejudice could feel as though the victimised group’s permission was required before they could take up the cause. To the contrary, the two were not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive! What is the politics of imagination, if not the ability to adopt a point of view as one’s own, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to get others to recognise their obligations through politics and social change?

Watch: The Politics of Imagination

I find it deeply Green for our elected to lead on the anti-discrimination front, especially when they may not be directly affected by it themselves – whether Peter Cranie fighting the BNP in the north-west region, Jean Lambert MEP attacking Islamophobia before a predominately Muslim audience, Caroline Lucas MP fighting for the freedom of Palestinians, or Jenny Jones AM attacking the Met for their latest stop-and-search figures. This is what solidarity is all about. I think the electorate applaud this. However, there is something about the promotion of these causes which greater ethnic diversity within would facilitate. Perhaps there is an intransigence amongst some in the affected communities to take us as seriously, simply because they do not immediately recognise us as able to represent them – for sure, a potential failure of imagination. At the same time, our collective experience, imagination, and voice as a party is surely enriched by increased diversity. It would simply give us more means of charting political identification, whether real, perceived or actually better.

On-line Reactions

Write-up by Dan Holden in Shifting Grounds: The Greens Pursue “The Politics of Imagination”.
Article by Bradley Allsop in Huffington Post The British left just came Roaring Back to Life
Highlights of reaction to the speech on Twitter
Full text of speech at Green Party.

“Maiden” Radio Interview

The following morning I went along to BBC WM for an interview with Michelle Dawes on the state of the conference. I was accompanied by a Young Green member of the 30 under 30s group, whom I had agreed to mentor. We had a nice, relaxing chat about the conference and he even helped me liaise with the producer to find the offices (my calling credit had expired). I was very pleased with how the interview went and got a chance to advertise the theme of my maiden speech at the outset. Here’s a copy of the broadcast, followed by a precis of the main points I made:

BBC WM Sunday morning breakfast show, 7 Sept

BBC WM Sunday morning breakfast show, 7 Sept

  • Improving our ethnic representation within the party so we can better serve society. Groundswell of opinion that we need to move forward on that faster.
  • We need to have people within the party that everybody can connect with. Within our party there’s always been that great sense of urgency that we represent everybody.
  • Social justice, make sure people have enough to feed their families and a decent wage.
  • We are part of the protest movement but much more than that, too.
  • Amelia Womack also Deptuty Leader – two for the price of one!
  • People recognise that something’s got to change, sustainable green jobs and clean energy.
  • Across the generations people recognise that we can’t go on in this way. They want a party that means what they say and have been saying so consistently.
  • We need to cost things according to the cost to the planet and rich need to pay back to taxpayers so they can afford basic things.
  • Broad brush policies – education free for all, affordable housing for key workers, national health service.
  • Things that Labour party used to talk about but still on the agenda in voters minds.
  • We need you to vote for us so we can help you.

Dialogue among Members and Some Action Points

Back at conference, I had organised an impromptu fringe for the Sunday afternoon entitled, “Ethnic Diversity and Outreach”. This was in response to the volume of interest in the central topic of my speech and I felt it was vitally important for us to be able to tap into this zeal and  newfound energy. I was assisted in the advertising and chairing of the meeting by a member of the Equality and Diversity committee, Manishta Sunnia. The meeting was well attended by a very varied cross-section of the membership, either in terms of gender, ethnicity or age. We went round the group as inclusively as time would permit — allowing everybody the opportunity to say what drew them to the meeting and what they wanted us to achieve, with a number of dialogues entered into if not completed. When the meeting was finished it was difficult to get people to leave the room and separate conversations continued. Notes of the meeting were taken by Shan Oakes, Equality and Diversity Coordinator. We undertook to progress this work electronically, where feasible, but to organise a follow-up meeting at the next conference, with a healthy preference for face-to-face meetings.

A few areas that I am particularly keen to progress are as follows. They may seem relatively small or simple to acheive, but then all the better to pursue the easy wins first. Certainly they would amount to non-trivial first steps, that could get us to set some institutional markers about our seriousness to tackle the problem of ethnic under-representation across the Party:

  1. Publications – let’s try to increase visible diversity in our own produced materials. I’ve many a time encountered campaign or election materials without any evidence of awareness that our faces are lacking diversity. This should be simple to fix, when using photo libraries to illustrate articles, but we should also be on the lookout for members in the party who can feature in group photos, etc, to redress major imbalances.
  2. Staffing – the lack of diversity seems to be apparent not just amongst the membership but amongst paid staff (with no disrespect meant to anybody). Equal opportunities policies in recruitment can be notoriously weak in redressing these imbalances (generally, for good legal reason), but we can still endeavour to encourage more applications from particular groupings, using the standard nomenclature, or by reviewing our membership on interview panels.
  3. Data collection – I’ve been heartened by the number of members identifying as ethnic or visibly ethnic who have come forward to introduce themselves to me. It as though they have an additional interest in furthering this agenda and they have taken extra pride in seeing some small representation in the leadership team. Can we not find a way to capture ethnic data on new or pre-existing members and candidates, wholly voluntary of course, through questionnaires or joining forms to enable us to better assess the scale of the underrepresentation and to monitor it over the coming years?
  4. Outreach – let’s look for more opportunities – a theme touched upon in the closing of my speech – to engage with migrant communities. Often these encounters will be social – such as attendance at religious events – not overtly party political or even political, but constitute an invaluable means of relationship building. Even before we get on to gauging how we can best serve a community or see how or policies may be tailor-made for them, we need to listen. I’ve been receiving invitations from local parties already to try to help them to make these inroads.  A particularly imaginative proposal comes from Green Seniors, who have asked me to facilitate their visit to a mosque.

As I left conference, I encountered an Asian cab driver (okay, I needed a cab) and was quite struck by his first, spontaneous comment to me when told of my position in the party: “I expected the Deputy Leader of a party to be white.” I tried to involve him in an interview since he had a very thoughtful analysis of it all, but he was too shy. Still the encounter had an element of synchronicity about it and I like to think that everything happens for a reason.

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