Rambling thoughts on parties, camps, discipline and organisation

I read Neil Schofield’s recent post on leaving the Green Party with interest and the same downhearted feeling I always get when thinking about the state of local party politics in Brighton & Hove.

I never joined the Green Party, on the basis that I’d rather not get my political heart broken again, having finally got over the realisation that the tiny Trotskyist sect to which I dedicated my teens and early twenties was not in fact the answer to the crisis of leadership in the working class under advanced capitalism. (Here’s a clue, for anyone similarly smitten: if your organisation has less than a thousand members, and most people can’t distinguish it from half a dozen similar outfits, it’s probably not the vanguard party.)

Having recently returned to active politics after a decade and a half in which I was somewhat preoccupied by the important work of raising children, I find that in some ways I miss both the theoretical underpinning and the (often pointless) party discipline that being in an organisation gave me. It’s hard work to figure out what’s the right thing to do, and where best to spend limited time and energy. And there’s an inherent tension in being an independent activist with a primary interest in collective action and collective solutions.

So I’m interested in whether politics can be done differently, and what that might mean.

Neil makes two main points: that the Green Party has not sufficiently thought through the question of power; and that the party’s democratic structures are not sufficiently rigorous to ensure that debate within the party has an impact on the behaviour of councillors and party members as they implement the party’s policies.

Neil frames his second point in terms of “discipline”, which is a shame, as I think he has something important to say, which is not easily expressed in a word with such top-down, hierarchical connotations. I think the issue is more one of accountability and democracy, both of which require a high level of both trust and organisation.

I’ve just returned from an overnight stay at the Balcombe Community Protection Camp, where a growing group of people are living and working together to resist the incursion of fracking into the Sussex countryside. There are inevitable tensions when a group of strangers need to work together in this way, but I was impressed by the speed with which the camp has developed robust democratic structures and efficient basic organisation.

They have a working kitchen, well stocked with food, utensils and volunteers. New spaces for shared activity are created as necessary – there is a tech tent, with solar chargers and car batteries to power laptops and phones; a living room and fire circle, a dining room, a children’s space, an information tent, a marquee in which films can be shown, and several meditation and healing spaces.

They have camp meetings twice a day, at which anyone can raise any issue and decisions are made by consensus. Issues that need longer and more detailed discussion are delegated to smaller focus groups which report back to the main meeting. There are political and practical disagreements, and I think there may be a limit to the length of time the current arrangements can last, and possibly a limit to the number of people that can be incorporated. But for now, it’s working well.

Many of the people at the camp are clearly used to this way of working – they have been involved in numerous other protest camps, and have been part of the decentralised development of this culture. But it seems to me that the key ingredient which makes it work (at least for a while) on each occasion is the immediate and shared aim of the protest. Everybody knows why they are there, and when they are called upon to act, they do so immediately. Each person in the camp trusts the others to keep them physically safe. It’s a strangely intense and emotionally tiring way to live.

Things are clearly more complicated if you are trying to organise a political party. This is another way of getting back to Neil’s power question – what is the Green Party trying to achieve by standing for election in a seriously dysfunctional democratic system? Where does power actually lie in a local authority? Is it possible to do things differently within the constraints of a structure designed by your opponents?

I think Brighton & Hove Green Party underestimated the seriousness of these issues, and didn’t spend enough time considering the awful possibility of actually winning enough seats to become the largest party group on the Council. I think, as is common among parties, they became distracted by the idea of winning elections as an end in itself, and mistook the trappings of office for the reins of power.

I think any party which actually wants to transform politics – and society – needs to accept that winning seats in elections is not the main mechanism by which this can be done. Standing in elections is fine – but going all out to win them could be a mistake, if you haven’t properly considered what being an elected representative means.

It means representing the people who are being done over by the system of political power, not placating them in the name of efficiency. It means challenging all the power structures – the voting system, the funding limits, the hierarchies of bureaucratic management – not accepting that this is how it’s traditionally done. It means remembering what you are there for and being accountable to the people who put you there.

Unless you have people prepared to do that, I’m not convinced that a strategy of winning as many seats as possible is worth the damage to the integrity and sense of purpose of the individuals involved or the party as a whole, and I’m not at all convinced that what’s needed is a new political party.

Electoral politics – especially given the limitations on the power of elected councillors – is only one (arguably fairly irrelevant) strand in the overall tapestry of politics and power. For the people delaying the trucks at the Balcombe drill site, the people forced into workfare schemes and those denied disability benefits, the people faced with privatisation of their jobs and the people who can’t afford to stay in their homes, things are considerably more urgent than the next electoral cycle. We need reinforcements in those battles, not party activists focusing on their own prospects in 2015.

We all live downstream

I went to Balcombe today, to join day 1 of the Great Gas Gala.

Thanks to people who got there a lot earlier than me, the first truck delivering drilling equipment to the site was stopped in its tracks.

blockaded truck at Balcombe fracking site

I was there in time to hear the announcement at around 2.30pm that it was to be driven away and no further attempts to bring equipment onto the site would be made for the rest of the day.

It’s always heartening when peaceful, human-scale resistance scores a point against the big, faceless, intangible forces of industrial capitalism. But despite the carnival atmosphere at Balcombe today, everyone was aware of the power of those we were challenging.

The site was guarded by Gurkhas.

Gurkhas guarding the gate

Sign warning: firearms in use

Behind the chatty police liaison officers, there were two police vans parked just down the road. This is not a little local difficulty. The government has taken the extraordinary decision to offer tax breaks to the fracking industry, preparing to sacrifice even the rural Sussex Tory heartland to keep the multinational energy companies happy.

This morning, there was some discussion on my Twitter feed about the way the campaign against fracking in Balcombe has resonated with people in the Hanover neighbourhood in Brighton, where I live. There were at least six Hanover residents supporting the protest in Balcombe this afternoon, and two streets in the neighbourhood have already declared majority support for a frack-free Sussex.

A local Labour Party activist on Twitter expressed irritation at fracking having been mentioned on Green Party literature in the recent local byelection. Labour Party commentators have also recently criticised Caroline Lucas for raising “non local” issues in Parliament.

I find this line of attack very curious. If you want to have a go at environmental campaigners, it’s easy – they are either NIMBYs or they are not concentrating enough on local issues. But that misses the point – and fracking at Balcombe is a very stark example of this – that there are no purely local issues in a world in which we all depend on a single fragile ecosystem, and we all live under a single global economic system.

All of Brighton’s drinking water comes from under the ground, where it has been filtered through the porous chalk of our downland landscape. This is the same ground into which Cuadrilla have a licence to drill for shale oil, over an area of 270 square miles. Where similar rock formations are being exploited in the USA, the density of wells is now reaching four wells per square mile.

Gas and oil wells all over the world have been found to leak, contaminating the surrounding soil and water. Why would we risk the safety of our water and food by allowing this destructive industry to get a foothold here?

The Labour Party’s national position on fracking, apparently, is that more research needs to be done into the safety concerns.

But even if the exploitation process were completely clean and safe, extracting gas and oil from the shale under the ground would still be a phenomenally stupid thing to do. It’s not difficult to understand why. This infographic makes it clear:

There’s no such thing as safe exploitation of additional fossil fuel reserves. Campaigning on environmental issues is not a luxury – in fact we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them for a moment longer. The same politicians, companies and media organisations who have been trying to sell us benefit cuts and the privatisation of the NHS are now trying to sell us fracking for shale gas and oil as a serious proposal for future energy policy. That’s no coincidence. Both policies serve only the interests of the 1%, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There’s no need to pursue extreme energy sources. Putting a stop to this suicidal plan means taking on a global issue, right in our back yard. Like ordinary people in Poland, Australia and the USA, the residents of Balcombe are defending the land they love and depend on. Our government has shown which side they are on. The official opposition have forgotten how to oppose. It’s down to us to do something about this.

crochet flowers at the gate