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Green politics is not ‘top-down’

By Stuart Hertzog
September 6th, 2008

Have Green parties forgotten about grassroots democracy?

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on grassroots democracy in Green political parties. Initially written as a draft discussion paper aimed at revitalising the BC Green party by restructuring it as a coalition of regional groups, it raises issues relevant to all Green parties. This first section is necessarily historical and critical; the second section presents the author’s vision of a decentralised political structure.]


VICTORIA, BC — Although its standing in public opinion polls has improved, here in British Columbia the BC Green party has suffered a steep decline in membership, down to under one thousand from a high of around 3,500. This low membership base has restricted fundraising and lead to a chronic lack of human and administrative resources, as well as core party activist burnout.

The problem is rooted in the party’s democratic structure. Despite the intent to create a more democratic political party based on grassroots decision-making, from its inception the BC Green Party adopted the same hierarchical structure of other Canadian political parties.

After early attempts at consensus decision-making failed, a succession of leadership cliques progressively concentrated decision-making power into a small executive committee of the party’s provincial council. This inner circle of party officers increasingly adopted a secretive stance and consistently failed to communicate internal decision-making to the membership.

Sealed off from the grass roots

Other than standing for election to council at the annual general meeting, there was no encouragement for members to become involved in internal party processes. Many who tried to do so were rebuffed and marginalised. Even official regional representation on the party’s provincial council was drastically reduced by Byzantine rules that prevented many Green Party regions from electing representatives to sit as as full voting members of provincial council.

By design or otherwise, the BC Green Party has progressively and effectively sealed itself off from its own grass roots. Without the discipline and feedback of member oversight, ill-advised and often undocumented spending by the provincial council’s executive committee, especially during 2007, resulted in a substantial financial deficit that still remains hidden from the membership.

A more realistic attitude towards finances and fundraising initiated by current party chair Walter Meyer Zu Erpen and leader Jane Sterk since their election in October, 2007 means that the party’s long-term debt might be repaid on time. But the financial burden of the accumulated historical deficit remains.

British parliamentary democracy

The problem of excessive centralisation is not confined to the BC Green Party. The same ‘politics as usual’ has emerged in other Canadian Green parties, especially now that Canadian support for the Greens has become significant.

British parliamentary democracy was never intended to be inclusive. Although it evolved away from divine rule by an omnipotent monarch, the Magna Carta passed the power of the monarch to only the English upper classes. Other than granting universal suffrage, essentially not much has changed since then.

The Canadian parliamentary system confers on the leader of a ruling political party the right to control every aspect of government. Federal and provincial legislation gives a party leader absolute power within her or his political party, and even more far-reaching power as prime minister or premier on election to government. He or she can govern as autocratically as he or she wants, and most do just that. Public opinion can be easily manipulated by a party in power.

The claim that an MP or MLA ‘represents’ the interests of her or his constituents is nothing more than a myth. Back-bench MPs and MLAs have always been powerless before the power of the Leader and the party Whip. The doctrine of cabinet secrecy further hides the ruling leadership’s political decision-making from public view, and the tradition of parliamentary immunity protects politicians from most legal repercussions while in office and afterwards.

No wonder that people distrust the current crop of political demagogues.

Structure and function

The interconnection between form and function is widely recognised. The two are closely interrelated: function is dictated by form, which in turn should efficiently and elegantly enable function. This is true for all social organisations, and it is especially true for political parties. The formal structure of a political party — its aims, ethics, constitution, rules, processes, and institutions — sets up and delimits its democratic processes. A party’s internal power structure and processes are established by its formal structure, which is in essence its organisational DNA. This axiom is the cornerstone of this analysis.

Because it chose to model itself on the conventional centralised political model enshrined in both the BC and Canadian Elections Acts, and despite its initial grassroots democratic orientation, the BC Green Party has displayed the same inherent tendency as other parties to power inevitably becoming centralised into a closed and secretive inner party leadership clique.

BC Green Party existing structure

The existing structure of the BC Green Party (above) is democratically dysfunctional below the level of its provincial council. Even there, regional representation is spotty and idiosyncratic. All decision-making takes place within the inner circle of the leader, the executive committee, and provincial council. Very little relevant information flows to the regional groups, and even more rarely does anything of substance reach the membership. Receiving little information and encouragement, the party’s grassroots local constituency associations, with a few notable exceptions, barely function between elections.

This structural dysfunction negatively impacts both membership growth and policy formation. It leads to a self-protective and fearful politics that is without vision. It is simply ‘more of the same,’ and negatively impacts party growth.

Insufficient membership

The BC Green Party does not have a large base of committed and highly motivated members. Such core support is vital both as a funding base to maintain the party’s essential administrative apparatus, and also to provide volunteers who can be called upon to organise political and fundraising events, and even more important, to work in election campaigns.

This insufficient member base is a primary problem for the BC Green Party. Not only does it mean that the party virtually has to start afresh in each and every election campaign, it also means that the party can easily be taken over by a determined clique entering from another shade of the political spectrum, with an agenda possibly lacking in essential Green values.

Some claim that this is what has happened to the BC Green Party since the demise of the federal Tories and the end of the federal Liberal Party’s reign of power. However, a political party must accommodate a range of political views, and the Green Party is no exception. But with such a small member base of committed citizen activists, there is the danger that any influx of new members could seriously distort the party’s Green political foundation.

Centralised policy formation

Another aspect of over-centralised decision-making is a reduction in the effectiveness of policy formation. The conventional structure of the BC Green Party means that policy can only be made either by the inner circle of leadership, or by motion at a party convention. Policy made by dictat via the media may be convenient in terms of a quick response to political events, but it totally fails to involve the general membership in policy formation.

The annual convention provides practically the only opportunity for grassroots members to evaluate the performance of the central organisation and influence policy. Even here, the party’s ability to accept criticism and actively involve members in policy-making is limited. Work and family obligations, and travel, registration, and accommodation costs, prevent many members from attending. It is also fairly easy for a party’s inner circle to manipulate its annual convention to suppress unwanted dissent by controlling of the agenda.

While those relatively few members attending the annual convention can directly debate motions, the resulting policies may be more due to the attendees’ idiosyncrasies and their ability to endure long meetings than from a consideration of comprehensive research on the issues. Annual conventions often fail to consider important ecological and social aspects of the few issues discussed, and the resulting policies frequently lack germane political insight.

More of ‘the same’

Although it was originally formed to empower a new approach to politics, because of its conventional political structure the BC Green Party has not become the natural political base for the broad spectrum of grassroots citizen environmental and social justice activists, many of whom have turned away completely from the formal political process.

Lacking this power base and without a vigorous and transparent policy formulation process that involves people in an ongoing way, the BC Green party, with a few notable exceptions, has become isolated from committed citizen activism and lost any relevance it may have had as a progressive, grassroots, democratic movement.

Green parties may offer the hope of future political change. But right now, as shown by the recent acceptance of Liberal MP Blair Wilson as a Green Party member simply to secure a place for leader Elizabeth May in the televised leadership debates, they offers only ‘more of the same’ to a skeptical voting public and disempowered younger generations.

There is a need for a clear statement at this time of a different kind of politics and a way of living that is truly ecologically sustainable. The politics of fear will not provide this clear vision. An empowered civic opposition is urgently needed to balance the unfettered hegemonic power of transnational corporations and protect the global ecosphere.

Canadian Green parties must stop acting as though the British parliamentary system will ever deliver anything but a succession of corporatist political leaders anxious to maintain the rapacious economic growth that is ruining this planet. Pretending to be ‘like them’ so as to become electable, is to act out of fear.

‘More of the same’ simply will not do.


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