I spent Saturday with Hannah at the Green Conference, and this is a brief summary of what I saw. The first event was a Question and Answer session with Caroline Lucas. This was great: there are very few parties that would have such a relaxed, unmoderated discussion with its leader.
What I found most eye-opening about Caroline Lucas’s talk was her call to modernise Parliament, which wasn’t something I’d thought much about before. She used her experience as an MEP to compare both Parliaments, and finds that the European Parliament looks like a “beacon of efficiency” compared to the House of Commons. It took Lucas six weeks to find an office, but upon arrival to the Commons was immediately shown the pink ribbon on which she could hold her sword.
For instance, if people want to speak in the European Parliament, they will submit a request to speak before the debate. They will then be given an allotted time, and told how long they can speak for. There are desks in the debating chamber, so that representatives can do some work while they are waiting to speak. In contrast, in Britain you have to catch the speaker’s eye by continuously bobbing up and down during the debate, which seems as inefficient a system as it gets. Also, the speaker chooses which proposed amendments to a Bill get debated in the Commons. I hadn’t realised how important a figure the speaker is until her talk.
Another archaic area of the Commons that needs modernisation is voting. In the European Parliament MEPs vote with electronic voting cards, and the process takes a few seconds. With the Commons having to file out and walk under either the “Aye” or “No” chambers, the whole process can take fifteen or twenty minutes.
We haven’t even mentioned the fact that the Commons doesn’t have enough seats: 450 seats for 650 MPs.
I think everyone in the room felt a great deal more enlightened after that talk. Crucially, Lucas seems to be keeping her sense of humour as she battles through the labyrinths of the House of Commons. Hopefully she will still have it in four and a half years time.
I attended both fringe meetings on electoral reform (can you tell I’m a bit obsessed?). Jim Jepps debated with someone from Unlock Democracy on whether the Greens should support AV in the Referendum. I was slightly disappointed by the arguments put forward by the Unlock Democracy representative. All she had to do was show how AV was a better system than FPTP, and then naturally follow from that that the Greens should support a Yes vote. This was never done. Instead, too much felt like a rehashing of old Press Releases saying that we need electoral reform. Someone should have told her that she was speaking to an audience of Greens, who know there’s a need for reform.
Another thing that griped was the constant interrupting of Jim Jepps when he was speaking. I’ve really enjoyed his blog for a while, and it was a pleasure to see him speak him person. His position – that AV would not benefit the Greens and they should therefore remain neutral instead and make the case for PR. It is an admiral, principled approach, and one that should not have been greeted with mild heckling and interrupting.
The second meeting was far more enjoyable. Organised by the Electoral Reform Society, there were three excellent speeches, from Peter Crainey, Jean Lambert and Rupert Green. All thought that the Greens should back AV, despite its imperfections. This attitude reflects the majority of the Green Party, which later voted overwhelmingly to back Yes. I’m very glad about this, as it’s the only real practical option for those in favour of electoral reform. To say that we should remain neutral and campaign for PR instead feels like a passenger on the Titanic refusing a lifeboat because it didn’t have a well-stocked minibar. But I get the impression it’s a topic I’m going to return to.
After a panel on public sector cuts, I met the lovely Jane Watkinson (who’s take on the day you can read here) and her equally lovely boyfriend Darrell, for an unsuccessful quiz and an (eventually) sucessful trip to find food.
All in all, this was a really enjoyable day. I learned a lot, and it was nice to dip my toe in the Green waters. I’m sure I will return.