openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Can the resurgent Greens win over the youth vote?

The frontrunners for the leadership in England and Wales speak the language of social justice. It needs to be followed by action

Anita Mureithi
17 September 2021, 12.01am
Words aren't enough for young people who are sceptical of the political system
Julian Guadalupe / Alamy Stock Photo

To be honest, when I arranged to speak to a group of politicians, I wasn’t expecting them to declare their determination to “dismantle power structures that were created 400 years ago”. Or for them to speak approvingly of Black feminist organisers and theorists such as Audre Lorde.

My conversation with Tamsin Omond and Amelia Womack, who are jointly running for co-leadership of the Green Party of England and Wales, came as a surprise. For a long time, I had thought of UK politics as inaccessible, particularly for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. It’s hard to get excited when you rarely see yourself reflected among the MPs elected to represent us, and when the few Black, female MPs who do get elected are discriminated against and receive a disproportionate amount of online abuse. When I thought of politics, I would think of rich, old, white men – and I am none of these things.

But Omond and Womack are speaking a language I understand. “Those power structures and the model of extraction and exploitation that was baked into our white, Western, dominant culture, have to be dismantled,” Omond says. “Not just for social justice to be achieved, not just for healing and reparation to be achieved, but also because we’re in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency.”

Two pairs of candidates are currently favourites in the Greens’ leadership election (the party has a history of appointing ‘co-leaders’, rather than a single person, to the top job), which concludes later this month. All are seasoned campaigners: Womack is currently a deputy leader of the party, while Omond is a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion; their main rivals, Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay, are long-time Green activists and parliamentary candidates. All speak with passion, conviction and empathy, with a shared goal of transforming society for the benefit of all. As Denyer and Ramsay say, we will need “comprehensive radical action to create a greener future and a green recovery from this awful pandemic”.

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The Green Party has tended to be viewed as a space dominated by white, middle-class people, but all four candidates say they want to change that. For Denyer and Ramsay, the key to making politics more inclusive is to create a safe space in the Green Party. “There are some local parties that are really warm, welcoming, inclusive spaces. But we know that unfortunately, that's not currently the case everywhere,” Denyer says. In practical terms, the pair hope to “raise issues that the other parties just aren’t interested in, or don’t have the courage to say out loud”.

Omond and Womack take things a step further. Their recently published liberation manifesto declares that “racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism and other human rights issues will divide us not when we take a stand against them, but when we don’t.”

They propose to transform the Green Party by establishing a “liberation panel”, composed of representatives from marginalised groups, to advise the leadership. It will develop an education programme, to challenge ingrained cultures within the party, and tackle hate speech by strengthening accountability processes.

What is coming next is going to be overwhelming, even for white, cis privileged people

Omond says they draw inspiration from Black feminist organisers and the teachings of Audre Lorde, a revolutionary poet, essayist, and autobiographer known for her passionate writings on lesbian feminism and race. “These are the kinds of ideas that we need at the centre of our national conversation about how we’re going to survive what’s coming next,” says Omond. “Because what is coming next is going to be overwhelming, even for white, cis privileged people. They’re going to need to learn from people who have been living and surviving and even thriving whilst being excluded by the systems of oppression.”

Many young voters are coming into adulthood with a heightened awareness of how factors such as racism, capitalism, transphobia and climate change affect their lives. Once marginal, the Green Party’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in recent years as voters search for alternatives: currently, they are enjoying a resurgence, having won a total of 155 seats, including 99 gains, in the 2021 local elections.

Young people, including those who aren’t old enough to vote yet, are about to inherit the world at a chaotic moment. Even if we are sometimes put off by mainstream politics, we are politically engaged and not afraid to share our views on social and environmental justice.

In one sense, this is nothing new. But the youth of 2021 have had a profoundly different set of experiences from previous generations, and have therefore developed a very different set of political values to match the world they’ve grown up in. If you’re a young person, there’s a good chance that capitalism has failed you, arguably more so than older generations. In many communities, social mobility has declined, housing costs are prohibitive, education has grown increasingly expensive, and the job market is more competitive than ever. On top of this, COVID-19 has shifted the country’s social, economic and political landscape.

When you factor in the extra hurdles created by white supremacy and patriarchy, it becomes clearer that young voters want political leaders that will listen and be attuned to the needs of the people they represent.

Omond and Womack’s liberation manifesto offers voters intersectional, feminist political leadership. Omond is the first openly trans and non-binary person to run for the leadership of a national political party. “Representation creates inspiration,” says Womack – indeed, by having Omond run as co-leader, this team shows us that there is space in political leadership for trans voices where they have been ignored and underrepresented for too long.

Denyer and Ramsay, meanwhile, hope to change the current structure of their under-resourced disciplinary committee, which often puts members in “very uncomfortable positions for a long time”. They say that the Greens “can’t rely on [underrepresented] individuals to do all the heavy lifting themselves”, and recognise that sometimes learning and discussion isn't enough.

In a world where it can feel like you’re screaming into the void about experiences of prejudice while people try to deny its existence, it is encouraging to hear politicians wrestle with complicated questions about privilege, power and how our default assumptions have driven marginalised communities out of important conversations.

Something that both teams share is a desire to make the Green Party a safe and welcoming space for all, especially since the party has recently been rocked by accusations of transphobia. For Denyer and Ramsay, this includes living by the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ and truly listening to the voices of the marginalised. Similarly, for Womack and Omond, the aim is to be “uplifting voices that aren’t represented and trying to bring the solutions that already exist within those communities into the heart of our political debate”.

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Research suggests that young voters around the world are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with political processes, which they feel have ignored their concerns. When asked why people should trust them, Denyer and Ramsay say they hope to earn that trust by following through on the things that they promise. “We’re winning new seats every time, which means that every election, we’re convincing people who’ve never voted Green before, never trusted us before, to switch. Which means we’re having to prove ourselves.” For Omond and Womack, their track record means that you can “look at [our] history and know that [we] are people that you can trust”.

My generation wants genuine leaders who act on their words – leaders who are willing to stand up for marginalised communities with conviction and empathy. As Omond says, “the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist power structure is dying”. The question for Green members is: what role can their party play in building the new world?

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