What Green growth means for the left

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The Greens' advance in the polls is welcome because it shows the clear mood for radical change in the UK. But, as Mark L Thomas argues, there are limits to the project the party presents.

One of the most interesting and optimistic developments in British politics is the sudden growth in popularity of the Green Party. Last month the Greens announced that the combined membership of the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens, at just under 45,000, had surpassed both the Lib Dems and Ukip. In the 2010 general election the Greens got an average of around 1.8 percent; last year they began to move towards 5 percent in opinion polls. In some recent polls they have hit double figures. That suggests that up to 2 million people are considering voting Green.

Anyone who wants to understand why the Greens’ popularity has suddenly shot up could do worse than watch the video of party leader Natalie Bennett’s recent talk to a 600-strong audience at Exeter University. Bennett’s argument is that we face three interlinked crises in society: a neoliberal economic model that benefits only the rich; a social crisis in which poverty afflicts not just those on benefits but one in five of those in work; and an environmental crisis wider than the question of climate change. Bennett calls for an end to the privatisation of public services, a wealth tax of 1 to 2 percent on those worth more than £3 million, the abolition of tuition fees, a basic guaranteed income for all, and for tax-dodging multinationals such as Amazon to pay more taxes and better wages.

Bennett also points to a crisis of politics, where the main parties offer near-identical policies, breeding deep disillusion with the political system. The solution is a “peaceful political revolution” to create a society based on “the common good”, not the interests of the rich few.

Two things immediately stand out. Firstly, except for the environmental reference, this is the kind of speech a social democrat could have made a generation ago, but which Labour has long abandoned. Secondly, for a speech from the leader of the Green Party the environment gets a remarkably brief mention. Central to the Greens’ success has been a much more overt linking of the environmental crisis to wider questions of economic and political power.

When millions of people looked to Labour at the 1997 general election to offer some kind of challenge to the Tories’ pro-market policies, the Greens were marginalised. They polled just 0.3 percent. New Labour’s betrayals and the failure of the initial hopes that Ed Miliband would reverse this course, combined with the discovery that the Lib Dems’ claims to provide an alternative were entirely bogus, have provided the Greens with the space to grow.

The combination of the Greens’ opposition to austerity, war and racism — instead of Labour’s slavish support for US-led wars and pandering to Ukip’s anti-immigrant racism (the Greens’ slogan in the Rochester and Strood by-election was “Say no to racism”) — has got an echo. That the Greens stood on the right side of the Scottish referendum and identified clearly with the vibrant, left-leaning Yes campaign also boosted their credibility.

The fact that such arguments are proving hugely popular is a sign that British politics is not fated to move to the right, dancing to Ukip’s tune. It is a direct challenge to the tired old arguments of much of the current Labour leadership that more left wing policies can’t attract votes. A large swathe of society is well to the left of Miliband, and with a fragmented socialist left so far unable to create a serious pole of attraction, the Greens have captured some of that mood and given it an organisational form.

The Green Party has always had two souls. It has contained both people who stood for a radical and progressive reorganisation of society and “eco-liberals” who placed an emphasis on individual change. Such individualism is not incompatible with support for using the market to deal with environmental crises or appealing to big business to “go green”. The former Green Party leader, Jonathan Porritt, exemplified this trend.

After the Greens made a major breakthrough in the 1989 European elections with 15 percent of the vote, Porritt pushed for the party to become more “professional” and moderate in order to break into parliament and even government. That project collapsed when the party made no impact at the 1992 general election. Porritt then moved closer to Tony Blair, who appointed him an adviser on sustainable development. Porritt also became an advocate of market mechanisms to protect the environment and ended up as a board member of Wessex Water and Willmott Dixon, a major property developer, as well as a confidant of Prince Charles.

Under Porritt the Greens seemed to identify the problem in society as excessive consumerism — which could very easily be perceived as suggesting the solution was for working class people to make sacrifices in their living standards. While such arguments haven’t completely disappeared, the Greens today put forward a very different argument, routinely attacking the government’s austerity measures and Labour’s failure to challenge them. They are now more likely to be seen as defending workers’ living standards.

Green Party supporter Adam Ramsay argues that the “Greens have always been on the left. But they haven’t always been very good at sounding like it...there’s long been a sense that Greens are a single-issue environmental party... With Caroline [Lucas] and then Natalie out in front, and with the (left leaning and very influential) Young Greens and groups like Green Left organising among the activists, the image presented in recent years has been much more consistently left. Gone are the days of ‘not left or right but forwards’. The party is now clearly an electoral expression of the emerging new left.”

Ramsay points to some tensions that this left turn has produced. A minority of “old fashioned ecologist liberals” have set up a group to challenge the “watermelons” (green on the outside, red in the middle) around the party leadership and launched a newsletter at the Green Party conference called “The Kiwi and the Lime” (green all the way through), though without much apparent success. The real debate with those people looking to the Greens as an alternative is simple: how are we going to get the kind of far-reaching change that Greens talk about?

Bennett’s call for a “peaceful political revolution” is, in reality, the old social democratic argument — vote for change through electing MPs. But there is no more a green parliamentary road to be discovered than the elusive red one. Of course, more radical arguments being put in the media, in election campaigns, in parliament and so on are very useful and far from insignificant. But this is not at all the same as having the actual power to drive through radical social change.

Big business and the state will fiercely resist even the mildest challenge to profitability, such as imposing a living wage, let alone attempts to democratise and even break up large-scale corporations, as Green policies call for. Indeed Greens sometimes argue that big business has an interest in the creation of a more equal and environmentally sustainable society. Yet the drive to endless blind accumulation and exploitation is not a subjective choice but is driven by competition between rival capitals, and the cost of any slackening is corporate death either through take-over or bankruptcy.

The gap between the vision of a society that puts people before profit and the commitment to doing this through the rules of parliamentary politics and negotiated consensus with multinational capital also explains why some of the Greens’ policies are not quite as radical as they at first seem. So they are for a £10 an hour minimum wage, but only by 2020. They challenge anti-migrant racism but the emphasis is mainly on admitting more refugees from conflicts and a more humane, non-discriminatory, immigration system. And they are much less clear on whether they would remove all immigration controls (which are, by definition, discriminatory and inhumane). The Greens oppose war but look to the United Nations — designed to ensure the dominance of the big imperialist powers through the Security Council — to help foster peace.

This electoralism is also the reason why the experience of Greens in office is so often little different from that of the Labour-type parties they criticise. The German Greens in government backed Nato’s war in Kosovo. The Irish Greens in coalition with Fianna Fail bailed out the Irish banks and imposed austerity. And the one UK local authority run by the Greens, Brighton council, has pushed through cuts and attacked its workforce in a way little different from Labour councils.

So how should the left respond to the Green surge? Firstly, it is another welcome sign that there is a mood for a radical challenge to the mainstream and Labour’s acceptance of austerity. Secondly, the Greens are ultimately not the alternative we need. We need more radical answers that focus on the irreconcilability of the class divide in society and how mass struggle will be necessary to address this, especially through finding ways to mobilise workers’ potential collective power at the point of production. Thirdly, at every opportunity socialists should seek to draw in and work alongside Greens in campaigns to broaden the breadth of mobilisations, but also engaging in patient, fraternal debate about how neoliberalism, war and racism can be not just opposed but defeated. Are the Greens as radical as the people joining them? In some cases, possibly; in many cases, the answer may be no.

Finally, the rise of the Greens further underlines the need for the creation of a bigger, more united left challenge to Labour.