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.