The Greens and their difficult second album
Every party convention has two distinct audiences. The first is its own activists. The second is the wider public out there in tellyland and beyond.
I am now going to embark on a series of gross simplifications but they are necessary for the argument that I make.
Conventions are always easier to organise when you are in opposition (as long as the party isn’t in a tailspin or there’s a leadership split). The theory is that you can take party unity for granted so you can concentrate on the key message and the optics. The message, in turn, is relatively straightforward. You don’t have to defend anything. So you can combine an attack on the Government with the vision thing.
In Government, it’s different. Especially in a Government that’s taking the kind of battering Waterford did at the hands of Kilkenny last September, and then some.
And that poses huge problems for a Government trying to reassure its own party internally, and also trying to show the wider population that it is in control.
The internal component isn’t such a huge deal for Fianna Fail any more. The party is clannish. Also the is has become ultra centralised (see how it selects its candidates in textbook Soviet style). So dissent isn’t really brooked or appreciated. It’s choregraphed and stage managed. The only way you can truly assess the true mood and atmosphere, is by chatting to delegates or seeing if the applause or yahoos is uncontained or lacklustre.
I’m coming to the obvious point. With the Greens it’s different. As one handler said this morning… “the problem with these fellas is they are principled.”
This weekend’s convention in Wexford is the second in government. And a critical one. Last year’s convention was a success, helped by a walk-out from the Chinese ambassador over Tibet. The party was able to show the first buds of what it had planted in government and also show that it still retained its independence, in areas like equality and human rights.
Gormley’s key phrase from Friday night sums up this year’s mood: ‘grim indeed’. Faced with a disastrous slide into recession, the Greens have shown a lot of adaptability of message. Their longer-term goals on climate change and the environment have been swamped by the short-term economic exigencies
In a sense, the party has cleverly recrafted its message to embrace green and clean tech. It’s not a synthetic or tactical manoeuvre. German, Britain and Obama’s America have already hyped up this area. However, Fianna Fail has not quite jumped on to the bandwagon. Still the Greens have succeeded in bigging up a relatively small sum (€50 million for home insulation grants) into something that they say has the potential – especially when Eamon Ryan is speaking – to save the country. Which of course, it won’t. It’s a start. It will create jobs. But won’t save the world.
The interesting thing with the Greens is that it is the one party that does air its laundry in public (maybe Labour does as well, in fairness). There were two potential stumblers today – a motion calling for debates about continuing the coaliton arrangement and two motions calling for a Government of national unity. Both were batted down, but not before earnest debat and (one) narrow vote.
Given all that has happened in recent months, what has been clear is that the leadership strategy has taken the overwhelming majority of its membership with it. Of course, some of the dissenters have already walked. But there did seem a more upbeat tone today than you would expect from a minoirty party in an unpopular government.
The party is still hanging in there. Still sounding optimistic. And aspirational (sometimes sadly with no hope of action). That veneer though will be sorely tested by the summer elections. If the Greens take a bashing and lose too many of their 30 council seats, my own impression is that cracks will begin to appear.