Green Party activist, Clifford Fleming, writes a guest post for the Social Liberal Forum

Almost exactly one week ago today Sarah Olney became the MP for Richmond Park, ousting the Brexit-backing Tory (turned Independent) Zac Goldsmith. The story that dominated the headlines: ‘voters had rejected a hard Brexit; Liberal Democrats were back in business’. But what really happened in this by-election and why did Olney win?

On Friday 4th November the Green Party made a decision not to stand against Olney. Following decisions from UKIP and the Conservatives to back Goldsmith, the ‘regressive alliance’, the local Green Parties (Richmond and Kingston) chose not to stand a candidate. Caroline Lucas even came to visit and support Olney, causing division amongst Greens. In the 2015 General Election the Green Party candidate Andrée Frieze came in 4th place, polling 6% with 3,548 votes. Sarah Olney won Richmond Park with 1,872 votes.

As a Green Party activist for the last 5 years, Co-Chairing the Young Greens and sitting on the National Executive in the past, I have had mixed emotions about this by-election. The overwhelmingly positive emotion was relief: Zac Goldsmith had gone, no longer an MP and a career in tatters. He had run a racist campaign for London Mayor, publishing an infamous article in the Evening Standard featuring a picture of the 7/7 London terrorist bombings alongside a story criticising Sadiq Khan. Goldsmith was toxic and his defeat could be rejoiced. But something didn’t sit right.

Taking a look at how many Labour activists also went and voted for Olney, it was clear the Green Party standing aside had had an effect; this seemed a dry-run of how a progressive alliance could work in practice. Voters were willing to tactically vote on a large scale to remove a right-wing, Brexit MP. I doubt Olney would have won without Labour and Green voters backing her. The Green Party’s decision to stand aside had been vindicated, or had it? The Liberal Democrats lukewarm response to the Greens stepping aside has caused angst among Green members. There seemed to be no joined-up approach in Richmond, no true alliance (for example, joint selection of a candidate or joint campaigns). The Green Party standing aside in Richmond had helped the Lib Dems take the seat, but what did the Greens get in return? Little thanks, no strategy for alliance and leaving the Party with a question about our own future – are we relevant to voters if we don’t stand?

My mood was also tempered by the fact the Liberal Democrats stir a concoction of negative emotions for me: disappointment, anger, frustration. I work supporting youth services across London, an area that has been decimated by cuts during the coalition years. Funding fell off a cliff in 2011. Youth services have closed (and are still being closed), violence is rising, homelessness is spreading and the rolling back of local government is pulling apart communities. Youth work acts as a key prevention for so many social problems, building confidence and social skills among young people, giving many people a good start to life. Now a number of areas across London are without any youth work support, relying on groups of volunteers to patch-up where services are crumbling. The state of youth work is a direct result of decisions made by the coalition.

It isn’t just youth services. Of course the decision to treble tuition fees is notorious, and I was there on the marches and the protests. We still haven’t fully seen how that will affect Higher Education demand in the next decade, especially now grants have been abolished for students from low-income families. What the policy has done is burden thousands of young people with 3 times the debt they would have had, shifting debt from the Government to individuals. Look around at the public sector, from pay freezes to failing rail services to rapid demand in mental health services – this isn’t a good legacy. It also isn’t good enough to say ‘it wasn’t our fault – blame the Tories’: gay marriage isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free Card.

So what next? Are the Liberal Democrats changing and can the Green Party work with them? I have serious doubts. Competition and markets seem an important part of the Liberal vision, but they have driven up inequality and that inequality is causing serious social issues. Following the 2008 financial crash and the response by the coalition to cut services, many people across Britain have been pushed into poverty and are worried for the future; they feel let down, an NHS at breaking point and little local opportunities for them and their families. Across the world citizens are telling politicians they want change, voting for Brexit and Trump. An ideology focused on markets won’t solve the widening social gaps and angst.

I believe in the Green Party because I want to see a better world where competition is not the defining character of economics and life. I believe that in a complex, globalised society working together on principles of cooperation can make communities stronger. I want to believe the Liberal Democrats can be a part of that vision and that future. To truly form a progressive alliance we need to make sure that everybody involved are all progressives. My question is, are the Liberal Democrats progressive or can they be?

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  • In my humble opinion all parties appear to have a ‘left’, ‘central’ and ‘right’ wing and polices are arrived at depending on whose voice gets heard and are dependent upon which members are putting forward those motions.

    There are some members who presents as conservative in my view and they justify that position using the liberal label which for me assumes everyone is equal from the outset. Other members appear more socially inclusive and in my view such members are open to looking at how we mitigate the injustices of the past inequalities. And the middle is just that, the middle. This is massively over simplified but in its basic behaviours it is simple. You vote at Conference and either a motion that is socially inclusive passes or fails.

    Then, interestingly you have a change in leadership to a person who presents outwardly as more socially aware of inequalities and is committed to challenging those values just as Geoff has explained. (I believe Nick was surrounded by Orange Bookers which in my view drowned his commitment to social equality which is why the party was as it was in coalition.)

    That a few of our Green policies are more green that the Green’s should be common ground enough to have alliances. But as time passes, I’ve learned more and more about the power base of our party and that the lefts, middles and rights are not equally balances in their powers and generally the conservative members are both financially and socially networked into a greater system that their party and are able to draw further power from there.

    In summary, I’d suggest that unless we Libdems have debates that challenge those with power as they bring forward polices that are more socially conservative, then we will inevitably end of sounding conservative and any suggestions of alliances will have to remain informal and ad-hoc.. But if the socially inclusive members can mitigate the power base of the socially conservatives by joining together and supporting each other – then we can have effective challenges to those conservative policies and a more upon debate about if and how an alliances could work in the interest of both parties.
  • I believe that the Liberal Democrats are becoming more progressive. When Tim Farron won the leadership contest in 2015 it was clear that his strategy was to try and unite the party. There was no clean break from the past as we saw in Labour and there have been occasions when he has had to make controversial decisions that were not to my liking, supporting Trident replacement for example, but probably in line with the party membership.
    However the old guard of the party received no help from Tim when they wanted the party to support benefit sanctions, that proposal was defeated decisively at conference. Not only that, Tim attended an event recently to commemorate “Cathy come home” with Ken Loach – a clear statement of intent and hard to imagine that Nick Clegg would do that. And even in attacking Jeremy Corbyn he has not – so far – called him a Marxist or attacked his unilateralism. Instead he has attacked him for supporting Hard Brexit – a progressive line of attack.
    There is no doubt that the Orange Book wing of the party do not like the idea of a Progressive Alliance, but overwhelmingly from what I have read on social media there is a lot of good will towards the Greens for stepping down in Richmond. It was a big sacrifice, the Greens might have recruited a lot of more members by standing. I think there is also a sense that the Green party is diminished in the political space it occupies now that Corbyn is leader of Labour and it is not clear what the Greens can deliver under our electoral system. As the only party left of the Tories that is gaining support I think we believe we are more likely to win Cambridge, Lewes, Bristol West, St Ives and Norwich South.
    However the good will IS there, and I notice that probably after this article was written that there have been comments by Tim about cooperating with the Greens. From my point of view I would be interested to see what the Greens would like to propose we can do,