Sunday, 19 June 2016
The Green Party's Future: Ecologist, Lib Dems on Bikes or Labour Lite?
Unfortunately the decision by Caroline Lucas to announce her joint candidature with Jonathan Bartley before any other candidates had announced theirs risks creating a done deal, a fait accompli. Caroline is an MP and former leader who has a huge personal appeal and so other candidates will be reluctant to stand against her. This risks denying the party the internal debate which it needs as well as creating a situation where Jonathan Bartley could be elected joint leader not on his own merits but on the coat tails of someone else. This is not undemocratic but it does seem like a manipulation of the rules.
The Green Party stands at a crossroads and there are three main possible directions of travel. In my view only one of them is genuinely green and the dangers lie in the following two directions being taken:
1) Lib Dems on Bikes.
The danger of putting too much emphasis on a 'professional' media image and talking from a script approach is that the party ends up with a vaguely left of centre liberal ethos which amounts to little more than wishy washy rhetoric about 'fairness' and 'internationalism' and a policy approach similar to the Lib Dems when led by Charles Kennedy. There is of course also a danger that a kind of Green Blairism takes hold with a slick, centrist careerism and a centre-right approach however I believe that the former scenario is more likely. There is an element within the party who are very Lib Demmy in their approach: vaguely interested in social justice, very pro-EU, liberal on social issues and refugees but hostile to the idea of serious redistribution of wealth, trade unions and the Labour left as personified by Jeremy Corbyn.
While I accept that many of this grouping have genuine environmental concerns, this seems to be confined to a light green approach of wishing to promote cycling, cleaner air, growing your own food, eco-friendly consumerism and so on. There is no sense of any desire for a serious and radical change in the direction of the UK or the world or for seriously challenging the assumptions behind endless economic growth and the destruction of the countryside. Many seem to believe that the planet can be saved if individuals just make the right choices in the marketplace and buy Ecover washing up liquid instead of Fairy Liquid.
I also accept that this is coupled with genuine concerns about social justice however this is seldom coupled with any radical critique of the neo-liberal economic system which creates inequality and erodes working-class living standards. It seems more about a rather namby pamby sense of niceness involving doing a lot for charity and worthy causes but remaining averse to paying more taxes or supporting trade unions when they stand up for the pay and conditions of their members.
2) Labour Lite
On the other hand there is also the danger that the Green Party could ends up as little more than a left-wing offshoot of the Labour Party which attempts to 'out-Corbyn ' Corbyn. Much of the Green surge of 2015 was due to younger people looking for a left-wing alternative to New Labour and a feeling that so-called 'Red Ed' was both uninspiring and not very red at all. This approach, which can be found on the Bright Green website and is personified by members such as Adam Ramsay, tends to combine a thinly-veiled contempt for ecological Greens with a radical left-wing social agenda involving redistribution of wealth, equality for 'Liberation Groups', anti-austerity and an obsession with bureaucracy and taking over the party structures.
However this is a new left devoid of the sort of class-war rhetoric or support for trade unionism found within the SWP or old Labour . It is Socialism-lite for the Facebook generation which shuns anything rooted in the history of the labour movement, Marxism, syndicalism or anything that smells of the organised working class. It has more in common with the new-left of the late 1960s and early 1970s although lacking that era's utopian visions, radical edge or cultural backdrop.
The Green Party is a broad church and there is room for people who share both of the above approaches . The dangers lie in either of the two above groupings gaining ground and becoming the dominant force within it. That is because the end result could well be a Green Party in name only.
The 'Lib Dems on Bikes' approach may well win us a few more seats however it would alienate many people who joined the Green Party for a radical alternative to the grey parties. The left of the party would clearly be alienated but also this approach would replace a genuine ecologist or green ethos with something barely distinguishable from the Lib Dems. Any centrist politician can be vaguely pro-green so why would anyone bother supporting a Green Party that has no radical ecologist agenda when this is no different from other parties? I didn't join the Green Party because I want people to see me as 'nice', I joined the Green Party because it is the only political party which has ecological concerns at the core of its origins and ethos as well as a radical approach to social justice.
The 'Labour-lite' approach would narrow our appeal, prevent us winning seats and change the party into a left-wing talking shop. There are many areas of policy where the ecologists and much of the Labour left disagree such as their commitment to economic growth and their desire to build, build build over our countryside. Even a basic knowledge of socialist history in Europe shows that while there are those on the left that have been strong on green issues, there are many more who have not. The Soviet Union was an ecological disaster.
Clearly it is possible to be an eco-socialist and to fight for a radical green agenda and socialism at the same time. However the Green Party can never win elections just by poaching voters from the Labour Party. It will never be able to take enough as many Labour voters will still stay with Labour, no matter how right-wing it goes, as they did under Blair. To win, the Green Party needs to be broad enough in its appeal and rhetoric to take voters from all the other parties, including even the Conservatives and UKIP. An overly leftist image might perform well in a university campus context but not in wider society.
THE FUTURE MUST BE ECOLOGISM
The Green Party cannot just be a single issue party and where I do agree with the Bright Green grouping is that we can't just talk about the environment and nothing else. We have to have a range of policies including those that promote equality and stand up for public services and the socially disadvantaged and excluded. Also this should mean something in real terms and in our policies, rather than just being a vague, namby pamby, bleeding-heart, Lib Dem sense of civic niceness which doesn't amount to much in reality.
However if we downplay our commitment to environmental issues we will lose our soul and lose our purpose. We need to re-assert our ecologism.
The Green Party was founded in 1973 as PEOPLE (later renamed The Ecology Party in 1975) with ecological concerns at its heart. Its founders were inspired by The Limits to Growth, a 1972 book about the computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies. Ecologism is not a centrist approach, rather it challenges all of the assumptions of neo-liberal politics; the need for economic growth, centralised decision making, increasing consumption and global inequality.
Green issues can win us support from across the political spectrum. Many voters are worried about the countryside being concreted over with huge housing estates. They are fed up with seeing their towns grow without a corresponding investment in infrastructure. Issues such as climate change, world population and pollution are concerns for everyone regardless of political background.
We need to end the watering-down of the Green Party's ecologism and to re-assert The Limits to Growth in our party's philosophy.
THE NEXT GREEN PARTY LEADER
Whoever is elected as the new Green Party leader or leaders needs to be rooted in ecologism. Yes the party is a broad church and can have within it watermelons, centrists, people here for the social events and so on. However the leader should be someone rooted in the core ethos of the movement, someone to take us in the right direction. Yes they also need to be media savvy but not to the extent of being someone who is presentable precisely because they don't believe in the party's values like Tony Blair was in relation to Labour.
It would also be a mistake to elect a watermelon leader whose aim is to slowly peel off their outer skin until all that remains is the red.
The next leader needs to be Green rather than Lib Dem or Corbyn lite. Otherwise the Green Party could well be on the road to nowhere.