In recent years, Green parties have been part of governing coalitions or been the majority party in local governments in a number of European countries. Green ministers and mayors have taken important action, but it has come at a price. In some cases, their parties have come under great internal pressure – sometimes leading to dissidence or even a real crisis within a party. For Green parties at least, power comes at the price of internal pressure, but certain measures can be put in place to minimise the risks.
Tensions within a party, arising because of participation in government, seem inevitable. Let me briefly describe a few possible flashpoints.
Of course, everyone hopes to be able to quickly implement some key manifesto pledges, but in practice everything is more difficult and takes longer than initially thought. Your coalition partner hits the brakes, important civil society bodies start making noises, and sometimes great ideas get entangled in bureaucratic inertia or budgetary restraints. If you’re familiar with the external restraints and decision-making process in a coalition, you can keep these delays in perspective, but for the party’s foot soldiers it’s often a strange experience. “Where are the changes we were promised? Why does it take so long to get the new climate or mobility plan approved?” This can lead to frustration and tension.
We also have to consider that Green parties have a strong culture of membership involvement and participation in decision-making, which also comes under strain when the party is in government. This is because, for one thing, decisions have to be taken more quickly; for another, difficult government dossiers are only resolved after weeks of behind-the-scenes work. Of course, this can also create internal tensions: members wonder whether the party has betrayed its core value of internal democracy. The first time that the Belgian francophone Green party, Ecolo, took part in the 1999 to 2003 national and regional governments internal party tensions ran high, which was reflected in the press.
Sometimes, too, the party’s role is unclear. Should the leadership only follow the work of ministers, mayors, and alderman with big-name portfolios, or should they also take an interest in smaller portfolios? Must what the leadership communicates always be in line with the statements of elected Green representatives, or should it occasionally direct its focus to other areas? What level of autonomy do Green MPs or councillors have? Can they raise any point they see fit in Parliament or in town halls without consulting with the party, or does everything have to be agreed internally in advance? If there are no clear procedures in place for this, or if MPs and councillors only have limited autonomy, you can be sure people will end up at one another’s throats. The Flemish Green party are very strong in the city of Ghent, and have such a strong impact on policy there that their approach can be considered a model for all Belgian Greens. During a teambuilding day, an important issue arose – the role of councillors. How can they best carry out their mandate? Do they have to be an ambassador for the Green project, or simply antennae insofar as they listen to and learn what is happening in society? Maybe both? In Ghent, they found a solution with broad support – Green councillors are involved in the decision-making process on important issues and can, together with aldermen, play a visible role in the local council – but the same certainly isn’t true everywhere.
Another cause of tension is putting the wrong person in the job. Suppose the party thinks Joe Bloggs would be a good minister or mayor, but they turn out not to be. Mr Bloggs makes mistakes, gets stressed out, doesn’t communicate well, or becomes authoritarian. Nothing is more important – or more difficult! – than political vetting.
From that list alone one can clearly see how becoming a party of government can put pressure on Green parties. This can have considerable consequences: endless difficult committee meetings, internal divisions played out in the press, elected members resigning, or the party pulling out of coalitions (which usually leads to fewer votes at the next election).
In my view, the effects of governing on a party’s internal workings is severely underestimated. There are, of course, other challenges around communication and strategy, for instance. But the stronger and more cohesive the party’s internal organisation is, the greater the likelihood that the party will be able to overcome strategic or other difficulties.
Looking for Answers
Firstly, the party has to be aware of the leap between opposition and government. Parties that have never been part of a government can, for example, invite a Green minister from elsewhere to discuss what it’s like to be in government. Alternatively, the party can visit a local authority area where Greens are a party of government and learn from their experiences. Looking at concrete experiences is the best way to learn. The Belgian Green parties’ summer universities include workshops where Green mayors and aldermen talk to groups in the opposition to give them a better overview of what being part of a ruling coalition is really like.
A second consideration relates to the party’s manifesto. Before joining an administration, it is important to draw a distinction between a manifesto and a negotiation platform. We’re all familiar with the former, but the second is the key text when preparing for coalition negotiations. What important goals do you want to reach that you should be able to achieve? Not everything from your manifesto goes into your negotiation platform, and you can include things in your negotiation platform which are not in your manifesto. Both Belgian Green parties, Groen and Ecolo, use a tool to convert their manifestos into an ‘implementation programme’ – a strategic matrix – applying criteria such as how important a policy is for the Green project, how difficult it is to get a point into a government agreement, options for better communication on and valorisation of achievements, and budgetary considerations. This way they can set out clearly what they really want to achieve before negotiations begin, strengthening their negotiating position and creating a better balance between Green ambitions and limits faced by its representatives thrown up by political and societal facts of life, without giving up their values or their manifesto. Together, they identify what they hope to achieve in this coalition and in this specific (societal, budgetary, and so on) context. The better you do this, the higher the chance that your involvement in government will be a success.
Drowning in the majority
Elected Greens have a sense of responsibility. They want to do good. They want to achieve things, forge different paths, make the grade. That takes time and it takes energy, from the party as well as from its elected members. Often, this leads to debates playing out in the press with opponents – and sometimes proponents too – making their voices heard. That’s not a bad thing per se, but it does run the risk of damaging the Green movement through participation in governments and the most well-known party spokespeople being ministers with an emphasis on pragmatic goals rather than a vision like the party leader or co-convenors have. This can create risks in the next election campaign. You don’t win elections based purely on a list of what you’ve achieved – you also need a dream, a vision for the future. After their first term in government the Flemish Greens collapsed entirely at the 2003 election. There were a number of reasons for this; talking too much about their achievements in government during the campaign and a lack of vision or political narrative certainly played a part.
As I’ve said, taking part in government puts a great deal of pressure on internal party organisation. A party which has spent decades on the opposition benches suddenly has to make its internal operations and procedures work in the context of governance. Is the organigram congruent with the new environment we find ourselves working in? Is there an internal strategic fit? Do the various party elements, structure, procedure, vetting, group culture et cetera all chime with each other? By definition, these things are never in perfect harmony which also creates tensions. Since you’re entering government for the first time, you are likely to be overwhelmed by the increase in political tempo and the complexity and level of difficult dossiers and issues at hand. This means you have little time to get to work on making the necessary internal changes, and consequently there is a high risk of increasing internal conflict or of the party or the parliamentary party simply becoming dysfunctional.
A further consideration is aligning the internal organisation to the broader political context, to the extent of how much it is a question of external fit. Green parties often deliberately opt for no-fit. Our (often slow) decision-making procedures which emphasise participation and co-creation do not match up well with the decision-making processes in government which can sometimes be slow, but can also sometimes be conducted at breakneck speed. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we change the Green parties’ democratic DNA to fit to the context – but we do need to keep in mind that there is no “fit” here, and that tension will therefore arise.
It is likely that internal structures and procedures will require adjustment, though it is extremely difficult to tell whether the adjustments made are the right ones. Should party leaders, ministers, and parliamentary group leaders meet weekly or fortnightly? Which issues affect the parliamentary or council group and which don’t? This requires innovation. Simply being party leader or parliamentary group leader doesn’t automatically entail that you have the requisite expertise. It is a question of skills in areas like human resources, system analysis, and your organisation’s social architecture. Having the right people around the table is crucial, as is having them bring innovative proposals to the party leadership and/or executive committee. Among other things, creating new party bodies, decision-making procedures, and better information flows are all required. In 2009 to2014 when the Belgian francophone Green party Ecolo was part of the Wallonia and Brussels federated entities, weekly meetings were held between ministers, the party leadership, and party group leaders. This was their most important meeting of the week, and they discussed all the big issues there.
In the last few years, Green parties have invested heavily in boosting their communication capacities, especially communication on social media. I think this is also required in terms of expertise within the internal party structure. Additionally, a committee should be established regarding the internal structure of a party, similar to the party’s financial committee. This increases the executive’s ability to manage and monitor the party. Finally, new instruments for follow-up and monitoring need to be created to assess whether new measures are effective. There are no one-size-fits-all answers; you need a tailored approach. Ecolo for example has developed its own monitoring method, an ‘audit’ of the party’s internal organisation carried out by someone who is independent enough from the party leadership, executive, and party group, and who is trusted by everyone. This audit isn’t a political assessment, but rather a methodical screening of how effective, efficient, and democratically legitimate the party’s internal organisation, procedures, decision-making, and human resources policy are. The outcomes of this audit allow weak points and risks to be identified so they can be discussed and tackled.
Being a party of government is, first and foremost, a brilliant opportunity to implement (part of) a manifesto and to win more people over to the Greens’ political narrative. It is also a chance to strengthen the party parliamentary group and the party itself in terms of expertise, networking, and skills such as communication and negotiation. Being a successful coalition partner doesn’t only require having skilled ministers and high levels of expertise; as I explained above, there’s more to it than that. In this article, I’ve given an outline of a number of challenges and set out some innovations – such as the ‘strategic matrix’ and the party internal audit – which appear useful for parties transitioning from opposition to government. They are adapted to a culture of learning and ongoing development, both on a personal and organisational level, held together by the concept of balance – balance between the short and long term, between parliament and government, between the pragmatic and the visionary, etc. A party that can get a clear overview of these points of tension and can discuss them at a high level internally – and make adequate solutions as a result – stands a good chance of being successful in government, with positive effects for society and for the party itself.