Ballots for leader and deputy leader of the party in England and Wales close on Friday with the result announced on Monday. The new positions are being seen as ambassadorial roles for a party whose membership decides policy at conference. Members already know they will end up with one female and one male at the top of the party due to the gender balance rules in place to boost the representation of women in the upper echelons.
But with so many women contenders across the two elections the worthwhile aim could backfire, since it effectively bars the possibility of two women being elected. If one of the three female contenders wins the leadership, either Duckworth and Mallender will be declared winner regardless of whether Allen or Phillips received more votes.
Bennett says adjustments may need to be made for the future. “There has been a lot of discussion about going to an ‘at least one woman’ rule rather than a gender balance rule.”
Lucas, the Greens’ high-profile leader and sole MP, decided to stand down from the role in September after two terms. She will continue as an MP. Her deputy, Adrian Ramsay, will also step down.
Contenders for the top job include three women: Romayne Phoenix, an anti-cuts activist and former arts teacher who served a four-year term as a Green councillor in Lewisham until 2010; businesswoman Pippa Bartolotti, who is leader of the Greens in Wales; and Natalie Bennett, a former Guardian journalist who recently stood in the London assembly elections where she was fourth on the party list.
Bennett is seen as a frontrunner alongside Peter Cranie, a further education lecturer in social care who narrowly lost out to British National party leader, Nick Griffin, in the north-west region in the 2009 European parliamentary elections, and who is top of the list for the region for the next EU elections in 2014.
With little sign of division on the party’s direction, which stands to the left of Labour, the challenge for the candidates has been to convince members that they are the best placed to communicate the party as a credible alternative to the mainstream parties, increase the membership base –now 12,400 – and boost its coffers.
Lucas, who was already an MEP when she was first elected leader in 2008, had doubled membership under her watch. She made history when she became the first Green to be returned to Westminster after being elected MP for Brighton Pavilion in the 2010 general election.
“I feel that being leader helped me get elected in Brighton because it gave me that extra bit of profile and the opportunity to put policies across. If someone else can use that in the same way than I think that’s all to the good.”
The leadership race takes place just months after the party celebrated coming third ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the high-profile London mayoral election, courtesy of its candidate, Jenny Jones. But in terms of actual electoral gains, the Greens had little impact after failing to win additional seats on the London assembly elections. The Greens gained five seats in local elections the same day.
The party has two MEPs, two London assembly members, and 135 councillors across England. The Greens also took minority control of their first council, Brighton and Hove. With a thinly spread base of support across the country, the Greens favour elections fought under a proportional representation system, with the next leader looking to make big gains at the European elections in 2014.
The party’s key targets are defending their main assets, in the south-east region of England and London respectively, as well as looking to make gains in the north-west, south-west and the eastern region.
What is clear is that none of the four candidates are indicating any desire to exploit the little sway they would have as leader to shift the policies more to the centre ground. The focus is on how to successfully broadcast the party’s radical programme and shake off the single-issue climate-change tag to persuade disaffected Lib Dem voters that the Greens are a credible alternative.
Bennett points to the Greens’ pledges to scrap nuclear weapons and tuition fees, and to reinstate the educational maintenance allowance, which she believes will appeal to Lib Dems disaffected by the compromises of coalition government. She also believes some Labour voters could be persuaded to switch. Bennett, who was busy canvassing on the doorstep for the London assembly elections, said: “People are not going back to Labour with any enthusiasm or at all happily so while certainly we will pick up votes from some of the lib dems, for whom we are the natural home, the problem is that there are not many Lib Dem voters to start off with … so we have to and we do appeal to lots of those Labour people by doing a much better job of presenting ourselves as a credible alternative.”
Cranie says the choice of leader will set the tone for the party’s strategy. He believes it should “invest to win” by being willing to borrow from members in the runup to elections and from the Co-operative bank as a last resort, and by looking to trade unions as a potential source of support. He has set a target of increasing the party’s MEPs from two to seven.
A former Labour party member who joined the Greens in 1999, he believes the party needs to do more to highlight its longstanding commitment to social justice and equality.
Committed to public services and a more progressive system of taxation, opposed to privatisation and the cuts hitting vulnerable groups, the party has policies that include free social care for elderly people in England and Wales, free dental care and prescriptions and a national minimum wage set at 60% of net national average earnings (£8.10 an hour).
On transport, the party has vowed to renationalise the railways to ensure “a better service and lower fares”, which would encourage more people to leave their cars at home. The party also supports new eco-taxes, such as those on packaging and carbon emissions.
Cranie does not believe there is much real appetite for Labour from those on the left, despite the party’s recent council election successes last May. “It is not so much a vote for Labour as much as a vote against the coalition,” says Cranie. “With the EU elections we have a huge opportunity there, because people are not voting with huge enthusiasm.”The party also has hopes for the general election in 2015. Targets for prospective MPs the following year will include Norwich South, where the sitting Lib Dem has a majority of just 310 votes and where Ramsay, outgoing deputy, came fourth. There are also hopes for wins in Lib Dem strongholds in the south-west of England.
Phoenix is convinced that by forging alliances and making common cause with the campaigns of unions and those opposed to cuts and privatisation, the party can convince more people on the left that the Green party is their natural home.
“Environmentalists, trade unionists and socialists should see the Green party as a natural home because all our values and our priorities should appeal to them.”
Bartolotti says one of the key challenges is getting the messages out. “The Green party needs extraordinary leadership,” she says. “You can’t do business as usual. We have absolutely got to be noticed.”
A cursory glance at recent byelection results highlights the scale of the challenge, with the party securing just 1.8% of votes in Feltham and Heston, and 1.5% respectively in Oldham East Saddleworth and Bradford West. Lewis Baston, senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, suggests the Greens have some way to go in turning the protest vote into significant electoral gains, not least because the party’s popularity resides in small pockets of middle-class voters across the country.
He predicts that Lucas, who as a Green MP has broken the “credibility barrier”, will retain her seat at the next general election – even under boundary changes. But he believes that trying to win a second parliamentary seat in 2015 in Norwich South, a seat the Lib Dems wrested from Labour in 2010, will be “pretty challenging”.
Baston also suggests that an additional six or seven seats at the next set of European elections is a little too ambitious, saying the “realistic maximum” would be doubling their tally of seats to four. “I don’t think there will be much of a breakthrough in the elections over the next few years, more incremental progress.”
Members must choose a deputy leader from four candidates: Caroline Allen, a north London vet, and three councillors: Alexandra Phillips, Will Duckworth and Richard Mallender.
Bartolotti became leader of the Welsh Green party in January. A businesswoman and mother of three, the former fashion designer who later became chief executive of Encrypta Electronics, stood for the Newport West seat in 2010.
A passionate human rights campaigner – she was once arrested by Israeli security forces. She also has a lighter side,appearing on Channel Four4’s Come Dine With Me this year. In her own words: “Heightening the profile of the Green party is a continuous and demanding job. Getting our messaging right, applying a Green voice to the economic and political situations … requires tenacity.”
The Australian-born 46-year-old joined the party in 2006. A journalist by profession, Bennett left the Guardian this year after a five-year stint as editor of Guardian Weekly. She is chair of the Camden Green party in north London and recently stood for the London assembly.
She has unsuccessfully stood twice for a council seat and in 2010 fought the Westminster seat of Holborn and St Pancras, held by Labour’s Frank Dobson.
In her own words: “Only the Green party has a clear vision that every political issue is not just economic, social or ideological, but is fundamentally a question of how we find our way to a sustainable future.”
The married father of two identifies his twin passions as equality and social justice. Based in Liverpool, the former Labour activist joined the Greens in 1999 and served as elections co-ordinator on the Green party executive (2004 to 2007). In 2009, he narrowly missed becoming the Greens’ third MEP.
A former social worker, Cranie is a further education lecturer in social care and an active trade unionist.
In his own words: “I believe that our message as a party should be focused on those who are most vulnerable, whether affected by lack of jobs, poor housing or the ravages of climate change.”
A former art teacher and London councillor with three teenage children, she is a member of Unite and is chair of the Coalition of Resistance – a broad movement opposed to government austerity. She served on Lewisham council from 2006-2010 and on the party’s NEC from 2010-2011.
In her own words: “Economy, ecology and equality are the headline issues that the Green party needs to promote to attract supporters, members and voters to work with us so that we can address the austerity and privatisation plans of this government together with their continuing failure to take responsibility for the urgent crisis of climate change.
The deputy leadership contenders are: