Green, left, growing – lessons from the Greens in England and Wales

[My first piece for the Green European Journal]

‘Neither left nor right, but forward’ has been a semi-official motto of many Green Parties across Europe since their inception in the 1960s and ‘70s. But as the Green Party of England & Wales’ (GPEW) Autumn Conference drew to a close this weekend, the party appears to be maintaining or indeed continuing its leftward drive. The implications could be promising both for Britain and for Green Parties elsewhere.

It’s an interesting time for British politics, with less than a year to go before the General Election. But what space does the Green Party hope to fill in the UK?

THE PARTISAN CONTEXT

One answer could be the space vacated by the Liberal Democrats, a party which joined the right-wing Conservative coalition in 2010. Previously seen as a centre-left party, all traces of this perspective seem to have disappeared with the onset of the austerity agenda, and in particular the near-tripling of university tuition fees early on in the government’s term.

At the same time, however, the Labour Party has been equivocal in its opposition to these policies. Despite the election of Ed Miliband to the leadership in 2010,a man previously thought of as on the centre-left of the party, they have pledged to maintain the government’s harsh spending plans for at least the first year of office, arguing “the next Labour government will have less money to spend.” This is despite the wealth of the richest 1000 Brits soaring by 15% over the past year alone to $874bn. He has also pledged to cut welfare benefits for the most vulnerable, with a cap on social security spending.

This means there is a large ‘gap’ to the left of the Labour Party for those who disagree with austerity, alongside the still significant proportion of people who agree there is an urgent need to tackle climate change. This was the defining message at Autumn Conference – the Greens positioning themselves as the ‘true left’, and ‘taking the fight to Labour’.

Yet there is another interesting – and worrying – dynamic currently at play. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) threatens to pull British politics even further to the right, feeding on (and equally, fuelling) an atmosphere of euroscepticism, welfare-bashing and anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s an atmosphere manifesting itself in an internal Conservative Party split, but, despite the non-proportional First Past the Post electoral system, it is a split that will still damage all those who value social justice and ecology as UKIP appear set to win their first Parliamentary seat next month.

Moreover, as the Conservative Party internalises UKIP policies, from an EU referendum to even harsher attacks on migrants, UKIP’s appeal does not decline. Why? Because it stems from a hostility to the ‘establishment’ and ‘the political class’, however mislaid it may be. In this context, a privately-educated, wealthy, white and male former stockbroker can pose as anti-politics if he speaks convincingly enough. This is how, with the help of extensive media coverage and generous funding, Nigel Farage has come to exert such a powerful and noxious influence on the British political makeup over the past three years. All this while the UK battles to discover what its true identity and place is both within itself – via the Scottish independence referendum – and the world, through the EU.

RADICAL GREEN SOLUTIONS

What should the Greens’ response be to this? As with the rise of the populist right in the rest of Europe, it cannot be to mimic reactionary policies. Instead – based both on principle and pragmatism – Greens can reassert how our message is different to all the parties.

Green Party members appear to have in part reflected this view last week, electing an ecosocialist as a deputy leader in Amelia Womack, alongside Shahrar Ali, a key figure in London. Womack came first in the ballot, arguably reflecting a desire for the party to adopt a radical response to the current political context. Incumbent left-winger Will Duckworth also came within a few dozen votes of winning the second deputy post.

At the same time, the party is promoting its key policies for the General Election which include a wealth tax on assets over £3m and the renationalisation of the railways, water and energy networks. Last weekend’s conference also saw the launch of a demand for a £10 (~13 EUR) minimum wage by 2020. Such ideas are backed by a vast majority of the public – yet are ignored by politicians.

Pushing these policies has been at the core of (now-re-elected) leader Natalie Bennett’s strategy over the past two years, as well as standing up for workers’ rights. The latter – as well as being morally right – has been at the core of attempts to win the backing of trade unions in the UK. Trade unionists now regularly speak at Green Party conferences and events (with several leaders and activists speaking at the most recent conference). Similarly, both Bennett and Lucas have spoken at a number of trade union conferences, including the still-powerful National Union of Teachers, and Trade Union Congress (TUC) fringes.

Though in the medium term it’s unlikely that the largely Labour-supporting unions will switch allegiances, support from the six million grassroots members and local branches will be vital in the coming years; indeed on a local level, unions such as the rail workers’ union RMT have donated to and campaigned for Green candidates. Meanwhile the Green Party’s welfare spokesperson and Trade Union Liaison Officer (a recently formed post) is also co-chair of Britain’s anti-austerity movement, the People’s Assembly. It’s an important symbolisation of the space that the Labour Party has vacated, and how the Greens see the terms ‘green’ and ‘left’ as symbiotic.

There are countless more examples like this – the fact that the party now asks for information on trade union membership on its joining forms, the Young Greens launching a campaign to get members unionised in their workplaces (‘Get Organised!’), a Philosophical Basis which states ‘inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet,’ and a recent core policy on employees being granted the right to take over their companies as co-operatives.

All these factors generate a view that GPEW is a real, progressive alternative to neoliberalism, contributing in part to public support for the party increasing dramatically over the past four years.

STRENGTH TO STRENGTH

Despite a lower overall vote share, the Greens secured a third MEP in May through the South West Molly Scott-Cato, a green economist in a rapidly growing region for the party. Membership has approximately doubled since the election of Caroline Lucas to Parliament, from around 9,000 to over 18,000 today, and there are now nearly 170 Green councillors; successes exemplified in the highest poll ratings for the party since 1989, with the Greens increasingly equalling the Liberal Democrats in public support, at around 7%.

The growth of the Young Greens is also astonishing – a 70% rise in members since March to over 3,000, perhaps dialectically spurred on by the rise of UKIP.

REJECTING THE RIGHT

These statistics are than mere numbers but reflect a new vibrancy in a party keen to re-elect Lucas and potentially secure one or two more MPs next year. Being a ‘UKIP of the left’ – a fighting force that shakes up the political structure of the UK – could, ironically perhaps, be part of that. Meanwhile the politics of fear is pushing many towards the Greens’ ranks out of the need to challenge a rising threat.

Is the UK a unique case in these discussions? Certainly, few other countries (except perhaps Spain) are facing the kinds of constitutional and political destabilisation currently taking place in the UK because of the Scottish independence referendum. But the rise of the far-right is something that Greens are uniquely equipped to tackle, proudly able to say, for example, that unlike many social democratic parties, they genuinely oppose both the language and actions of intolerance that are spreading across the continent. Moreover, the scale of disillusionment with mainstream politics is not unique to the UK – distaste for the political establishment is widespread across Europe and must be drawn upon lest other more reactionary forces do so.

Crucially, we can also show that these parties pose no answer to the questions of devastating climate change, environmental destruction, or the politics of austerity that are blighting the lives of ordinary people.

With a discredited far-left, and a social democratic ‘movement’ that has capitulated to failed economic and ecological strategies, Greens in the UK – and perhaps in the rest of Europe too – are able to show that that when brave enough with our ideas and outspoken enough to present them, we can inspire those who have been left behind.

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