On the streets the commonest view I came across was that "You can't trust any of them." and "I don't know which way to vote because they are all dreadful." Last minute voters reluctantly and through gritted teeth decided that they ought to stick with the Conservatives in case they were right and they really were close to fixing the economy. But it should have been possible to make a lot more progress in convincing people that we need a genuinely stable and sustainable long term economic policy and that the Greens have exactly that.
In Scotland an anti-austerity party won almost every seat. In England the Greens won one seat and less than 4% of the vote. It is no good blaming proportional representation for this and hoping that the big parties will someday be nice and give us our fair share. We have to question what we did right and what we did wrong and understand why so many people in Scotland accepted an argument that so many people in England wrote off as outside the mainstream and untrustworthy.
In my view the Green Party missed a big opportunity. We did so because we were good at speaking to each other and persuading those who were already inclined to agree with us. We were not very good at speaking to people who didn't already agree with us and being prepared to take their issues seriously and explain how we would deal with them.
I stood in Skipton and Ripon constituency. I lost track of the number of people who told me there was no hope in this area because it was solidly Tory and a rural constituency dominated by farmers who were hopelessly right wing. Fortunately a lot of local members refused to buy this argument. We put our case in language which ordinary people understood and won 3,116 votes which was 5.7% of those cast in a constituency where we hadn't put up a candidate for close on 20 years. This was a better result than was achieved by the party nationally and a much better result than Greens achieved in any Conservative voting constituency in the country.
We could have done a lot better if the national campaign had helped instead of hindering. At one of the early hustings I put the case that we needed to invest in creating a sustainable low energy economy and that Britain could be at the forefront of the next wave of the industrial revolution. The argument went down really well. Then I came home turned on the radio and heard my leader trying to explain complex figures about how many houses we were going to build and at what cost. Not surprisingly she was tied up in knots and came across as yet another politician making promises that were so implausible that she couldn't even answer the simplest of questions about them.
No voter I spoke to believed any promise made by any politician. Any journalist with half a brain has an easy time of it when a politician starts to talk about exact numbers they will achieve. All the interviewer needs to do is to keep questioning the detail, keep probing at the realities of delivery and to test out the contradictions between laudable aims and the harsh reality of finances. I listened in horror to two interviews that Natalie gave and realised our vote had just been slashed in half. Unnecessarily. Because we tried to be like the all the others when the whole point is that we are not.
I went back out onto the streets and made the argument that the Greens were different and we didn't coach our leaders through focus groups so we were not ashamed if occasionally our leader lacked professional polish. It was a weak argument but it was the best I could do. I also tried saying that people should look at what our one MP had achieved and ask themselves whether they would like more of the same. That was a strong argument that worked well. But an awful lot of people told me they would vote Green if Caroline was our leader but wouldn't vote for a party led by Natalie.
Back out in the hustings we won hands down in the debates on austerity. The Conservatives argued that there was no money and austerity was necessary. I pointed out that they had let the Bank of England print £375 billion. They gave that huge quantity of money to the bankers to rebuild their balance sheets. So I asked why there was no money for the nurses, no money for teachers, no money to invest in rebalancing the economy onto sustainable businesses but there was lots of money for the bankers who created our problems in the first place. None of the other candidates could even begin to answer the question successfully.
Then I went home and watched our party political broadcast. It did nothing to counter the argument that there was no money. I did nothing to raise awareness about the desperately urgent environmental crisis we face. I did nothing to persuade people that there was a realistic alternative to inflicting austerity. It consisted of a silly song that made a few of our members giggle for a minute at their own joke and convinced absolutely no one.
On the streets not a single person mentioned to me our party political broadcast. When I asked friends and family they were utterly dismissive of it and said that they didn't understand it, didn't like it and the only good thing about it was that it was easy to ignore. For one of our major opportunities in years to put our case on prime time national television to a public that was looking for someone they could trust this was dreadful.
The broadcast came from a mindset which is the real reason why we didn't do as well as we should. We Greens have a dangerous tendency to speak to other Greens and to congratulate ourselves on having the most correct policies. We speak to each other in a language which makes sense to us but not to anyone else. No one on the streets spoke to me about neo-liberalism and very very few of them would have understood what I was talking about if I had.
We also have a dangerous tendency to write off those who disagree with us. I convinced several people who were utterly fed up with all the major parties to switch from UKIP to the Greens. I did so by taking their concerns seriously and arguing out the consequences of leaving Europe and the dangers of blaming immigrants for everything. Not a single one of the potential UKIP voters I spoke to was an out and out racist who was beyond rational argument.
I also convinced a number of conservative voters that the Conservative Party had ceased to believe in conserving things and that what they would get if they voted for them was not one nation conservatism but the Tea Party on steroids. It was, I admit, a whole lot easier to convince disaffected Liberal Democrats that their party didn't deserve their support and they should switch to the Greens. I was also, I admit, relatively easy to persuade long term Labour voters that their party had deserted them and the Greens were now the only radical party. But it is a huge mistake to only talk to their concerns and not to try to find out what is driving others to disagree with us and make sure we change their minds.
Over the next few years there is going to be a major opportunity in this country. We are about to have the most unpopular government there has been in my lifetime. The economy is not fixed. It is in a mess. They won't be able to explain why. The cuts won't stop at £30 billion they will be harder and deeper because of the economic failure. This won't be popular. There are two years until a vote on Europe. The Conservative Party will start to tear itself apart over whether to stay in or get out. This won't be popular.
In this set of circumstances a radical party that makes its arguments in ways that are accessible to everyone can lead the fight-back. Or it can indulge in talking to itself and doing so in language which only its own members understand.
What kind of future do you want the Green Party to have? The leading voice in the fight against endless austerity with a clear alternative of a sustainable economy? Or the place where the representatives of less than 4% of the electorate talk to each other and convince the rest of the population that they have nothing to say to them and could not possibly lead the country? The choice is up to you.