Power or principle: a false dichotomy?

“If you are genuine about democracy and equality, you must learn to put your ego aside.” Cllr Alison Teal discusses overarching attitudes to political power within the Green Party.

Cllr Alison Teal
Alison Teal

In 2016, Sheffield had an ‘all out’ election, which meant each of the three seats in the ward were contested simultaneously. The ward that I was asked to stand in, along with two excellent Green colleagues, had never been Green before. The result was Labour won first and second place, and missed out on the third place by just four votes. It demanded a recount and then lost by eight votes as the Green Party doubled our tiny majority and won the seat.

I think the reason I was elected, and the biggest advantage I had, was that I had been active in the Sheffield Trees campaign before I became a candidate. I was also determinedly non-partisan. Some campaigners who were particularly aware of party politics seemed unable to restrain themselves, and on occasion there were accusations of attempts to capture the campaign and claim party political ownership of it. 

I navigated these waters with care and consideration. To win the campaign as a community, we could not afford the divisiveness of party politics. We needed to put party loyalties aside. I think that fellow campaigners recognised that I made no attempt to garner political capital.

Fast forward two years to the 2018 local election when I, as the third-place winner in 2016, was faced with a re-election campaign. Throughout my first two years as a councillor I maintained a heavy involvement in the tree campaign and continued my non-party political stance within it, working alongside many Greens, Labour and Lib Dem members harmoniously. 

I had been arrested and was subsequently one of the named campaigners in an injunction granted to Sheffield City Council seeking to prevent NVDA to protect healthy mature street trees. On 2 May, the Green candidate – I – was re-elected with a majority of 1,393 votes ahead of the Labour candidate.

What lessons might we learn from this single case study? I think it illustrates a paradox. I have observed Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem politicians and their campaign literature making claims about achievements that are disingenuous and worse, and I realise they do this believing it will earn them kudos and votes. However, if we are genuine, and I think Greens are authentic in their grassroots community participation, we accrue political capital by actually being active when and where it matters, and voters notice.

It is already known that power is dangerously seductive and authors like Tolkien well understood it is best avoided. In the Lord of the Rings, we witness the effect of power on the great and the good, and Tolkien illustrates beautifully how power can only be entrusted to people who do not want it and who feel its burden. 

In my own attempt to manage the temptations of power (albeit very small), I decided I will not stand unless I am asked. I think the lure of power is important to resist. I believe we need to build an eco-social movement that avoids hierarchies. If you are genuine about democracy and equality, you must learn to put your ego aside. If you think that only you can achieve something, step away.

Recently I have observed growing tensions between some Green Party members around issues concerning how we as a party ought to position ourselves in the political landscape. A recurring word is concerned with how “serious” we are as a political party. There is apparently some disquiet about public perceptions. A fear we are not taken seriously, that the public sees us as a bunch of tree-hugging, sandal-wearing hippies. Some members are pushing for an increased “professionalisation” to be sure we fit in with the well established parties.

This insecurity among some members strikes me at the core of my greenness and I cry out (figuratively): “Why oh why, would we wish to be perceived as one of those parties?” The establishment parties (and they really are part of the establishment) have long ago sold their souls to the corporate capitalist project. There is nothing radical about Labour, and arguably there never actually was.

This attitude goes way beyond wearing a suit and shiny shoes. Some members would have us focus on reforming capitalism, make concessions and compromise to gain political capital and respectability to be perceived as “serious”. Dear members of this ilk, how does this scheme fit with the ecological and climate crisis? Might you be suffering from a hefty bout of cognitive dissonance?

There’s only one game in town to win right now and for the foreseeable future and that is protecting the planet. You can play your part, or you can be complicit and keep your blinkers on while corporate capitalism keeps its foot to the floor and launches us over the precipice and into the abyss. If you think that’s dramatic, listen to the Swedish school girl, Greta Thunberg. She tells it like it is.

Campaigning and NVDA are central to our Green ethos. Please do not be swayed by those who say we should not be spending 13 weeks in a tree like the marvellous Green councillor Steve Masters just did trying to protect Jones Hill Wood near Aylesbury, or the formidable campaigner Tina Rothery who spent years on the roadside at Preston New Road resisting fracking. 

Yes, it is important to stand for elections and increase our representation of as many communities as possible, however, the Parliamentary road to power is lost. I’m sorry. I wish for my children and all children that this was not true because it is no longer an inconvenient truth – it’s a terrifying truth, and it is real. A Green Parliamentary majority requires proportional representation and many election cycles to achieve. The goals of the Paris Agreement will expire long before we are anywhere near power.

My experience shows that taking a principled radical stand wins votes. If I had not been willing to get arrested and stand alongside campaigners in the years of the Sheffield Tree Campaign, the Green Party would not have gained a great majority in the ward, and in the following year, would not have won a second environmental campaigning councillor with another big majority.

We need to organise and utilise our profile and campaigning skills and play our part in rescuing the ecology and biodiversity we depend on. Stand for elections, but put your energy into your local communities, help them form a resistance to environmental destruction by caring for their local environment. 

Acting authentically by taking a principled approach on the most fundamental issues we face and our very own party’s raison d’être is both the key to electoral success and the only chance we have to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

 Alison Teal is a Green Councillor for Nether Edge and Sharrow