I was especially looking forward to Green Party Autumn 2014 conference at Aston university, 5-8 September. This was the party’s opportunity to hear from the newly elected Deputy Leaders, Amelia Womack and myself. We had been voted in just a week before that and an official announcement had been made. The morning of Saturday 6 Sept was our slot.
I was determined to talk about lack of ethnic diversity in the party and how we might collectively improve that. I knew that many had voted for me both as a means to visibly address that in some small way and to delegate me to steer progress on this front. There were electoral reasons why failure to do so would continue to damage our credibilty, but moreover, other reasons to be especially keen to reach out to migrant communities – our policies were practically written for them. All this needed to be explained in a short address. At the same time, I wanted to be able to identify and get my audience to grasp why I perceived this to be a collective enterprise, and essentially so. I knew we could not rely on ethnic faces in the party alone to jump start this initiative — if only because of their smallness in number, and the self-prophesying difficulty of getting them to grow as a result — but had long been convinced that nor should we rely on ethnic faces alone.
The contrary view represented a misunderstanding about the nature of discrimination and where responsibility lay for tackling it. Anti-discrimination was everybody’s business, whether they were personally affected by it, witting or unwitting perpetrators of it, or witnesses. Nobody could afford to be a bystander. The key to my speech was to generalise the judgment about racial discrimination and our co-responsibility for tackling it, to other forms of discrimination – whether gender, age, disability, sexuality, or neglect for future generations, nonhuman animals and the biosphere. I also knew that what it meant to be Green was essentially humanistic in inspiration — whether in the defence of human rights or simply in the determination to help those in need or to support victims of injustice and address the causes. These claims and aspirations were universal. At a fantastically well-attended Green party conference, I managed to get delegates to appreciate that. I think most of them must have known it already (think Plato), but they needed to hear it articulated and affirmed. Call it a timely provocation (which could not have been pulled off at UKIP convention)
In a speech which began by acknowledging the messages of support and good will I’d received from members on hearing of my election, I ended up after the speech even more overwhelmed with people wanting to congratulate and talk to me. A real chord had been struck – members had long known about the ethnic diversity problem that I spoke about, but it was as though it had remained a belief, without the requisite emotional buy-in necessary to motivate change. I also wanted people to have the confidence to carry this agenda forward, as Greens. There was a real debate to be had, I felt, in wider society, too, about the politics of representation. On the one hand, the people most affected by a particular characteristic were often uniquely placed to relate the negative impact it had on their lives, but this did not mean, often for systemic institutional reasons, that they were best placed to tackle it. On the other hand, witnesses equally disturbed by the ubiquity of prejudice could feel as though the victimised group’s permission was required before they could take up the cause. To the contrary, the two were not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive! What is the politics of imagination, if not the ability to adopt a point of view as one’s own, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to get others to recognise their obligations through politics and social change?
I find it deeply Green for our elected to lead on the anti-discrimination front, especially when they may not be directly affected by it themselves – whether Peter Cranie fighting the BNP in the north-west region, Jean Lambert MEP attacking Islamophobia before a predominately Muslim audience, Caroline Lucas MP fighting for the freedom of Palestinians, or Jenny Jones AM attacking the Met for their latest stop-and-search figures. This is what solidarity is all about. I think the electorate applaud this. However, there is something about the promotion of these causes which greater ethnic diversity within would facilitate. Perhaps there is an intransigence amongst some in the affected communities to take us as seriously, simply because they do not immediately recognise us as able to represent them – for sure, a potential failure of imagination. At the same time, our collective experience, imagination, and voice as a party is surely enriched by increased diversity. It would simply give us more means of charting political identification, whether real, perceived or actually better.