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Greens on trial

The Greens can justifiably claim to be the largest progressive party in the UK, but often meet with suspicion from the left. Are they given a fair hearing? Alex Nunns weighs the evidence
April 2008


There is a party, ostensibly of the left, that has more than 100 councillors (and rising), holds seats in the European Parliament and London Assembly, and might just drop an electoral bombshell by securing its first MP in the next general election. It's called the Green Party. But for reasons either of jealousy or good socialist sense, it is regularly hauled up before the Court of Left Opinion, suspected of being overly electoralist, unduly white, middle class, and Not Sufficiently Left. It doesn't even have factions that hate each other.

Confusingly for the presiding judges of the court, none of this seems to matter too much to the public jury, who are giving favourable verdicts to the Greens in growing numbers. Quietly, unassumingly, the Green Party of England and Wales has been making strides over the past few years, propelled by the ever-increasing urgency of the climate catastrophe.

Nevertheless, Red Pepper proposes a retrial - a trial by media, after a fashion.

A party of the left?

One of the main reasons why the left is suspicious as to whether the Greens _ can be counted among its number is that it contains many people who simply do not associate themselves with the British left and its glorious history of defeat.

One such man is Chris Rose, the party's national election agent, who points out that 'many Green Party members wouldn't like to describe themselves as left. If we positioned ourselves as explicitly left it would be dangerous, with no guarantee of success. We need to keep our reputation on the environment.'

But London Assembly member Darren Johnson, who is not on the left of the party, takes a different view: 'I'm not a socialist but I feel comfortable about being on the progressive left. Not the far left - we never will be. But we're the serious party of the left and a potential power broker working with centre left parties, like the SNP in Scotland and Labour in some areas.'

One thing is beyond doubt. Whether or not they see themselves as left, the Greens have a manifesto as radical as any other, based on sustainability and equality, which if implemented would constitute nothing short of a revolution. Their espousal of an end to economic growth is unique, and has resulted in attacks from parties who believe in either capitalism or the traditional Marxist model of growth leading to a world of plenty. Instead, the Greens promote economic localisation, and say wealth should be measured not in GDP but in overall wellbeing.

And the party's policies stretch far wider than the environment. They would (if they could) make income tax more progressive; replace VAT with eco-taxes; replace benefits with a non-means tested citizens' income for everyone; increase the pension; nationalise the railways; welcome asylum seekers; stop the privatisation of council housing; reverse the privatisation of health and education; scrap PFI; scrap prescription charges; scrap tuition fees; scrap ID cards; scrap nuclear weapons and scrap wars.

Coalitions

So far so good. But other leftists squeal that when it comes down to electoral politics the Greens can be bloody uncooperative, as when they refused to make a pact with Respect before the last general election. Darren Johnson is defiant: 'We often get criticised by left groups for standing against them, but they can't even sustain coalitions with each other! It would have been a disaster if we had had a coalition with Respect - look where they are now.'

But hang on. The Greens do form alliances on councils - and have even been known to work with Tories. Most controversial was a coalition with the Conservatives and Lib Dems on Leeds City Council. The Greens eventually pulled out over plans for a new waste incinerator in 2006, after two years, but in many other places the Greens co-operate informally with other parties, including Tories.

Chris Rose doesn't care: 'We say none of the mainstream parties are worth anything. So, if the situation demands it, it doesn't really matter which one we work with, just what the outcome is. We can't sit on the sidelines forever.' Others on the left of the party, like the party's male principal speaker Derek Wall, are much less keen on such arrangements and are clearly embarrassed by the Leeds example, but in a decentralised party they have had to learn to live with it.

The potential for such unholy alliances goes further than just the council level. In December David Cameron announced that he wanted a 'progressive alliance' with the Lib Dems and the Greens to push for decentralisation. They rejected the offer as a publicity stunt, but it pointed to a new and unexpected problem for the Greens - they're suddenly very popular with the other parties.

For Caroline Lucas, MEP for South-East England and the party's female principal speaker, this is a double-edged sword: 'If the mainstream parties really were going green we'd react with delight, but there are no signs that it's anything more than words. In fact it's dangerous that they are using the rhetoric without taking action - just look at Labour with coal-fired power stations.'

'But on the other hand, look at how our vote has gone up since Cameron started talking green,' she says. 'I think people are savvy, they see through the empty words, but they are alerted to the issues and go looking for the real Greens.'

Darren Johnson believes the existence of the Green Party over the years has contributed to people taking the environment seriously, but that this is not enough. 'We have put pressure on the other parties to green up their act,' he says, 'but we aren't just a pressure group. In terms of making things happen you need Greens elected - not necessarily in government but in a position to really push the agenda.'

Concrete green advances

For Chris Rose, what matters is the outcome - the 'need to make concrete green advances'. He points to Kirklees and London as examples.

Five per cent of all the solar energy generated in the UK is concentrated in Kirklees, the west Yorkshire borough that includes Huddersfield. The Greens hold four of the 69 seats on the council, which is under no overall control. This position has been sufficient to put some of their ideas into practice. Their latest success is a scheme for 30,000 homes to receive free cavity wall and loft insulation. The policy was voted through on a combined Green, Conservative and Lib Dem motion and means households will receive £400 of insulation measures free of charge. The project is funded jointly by the council and private company Scottish Power - something that might alarm many on the left, but which most Greens seem comfortable with.

In London, the Greens' two Assembly members have found themselves in a pivotal position. Since Labour lost four seats in 2004, mayor Ken Livingstone has had to rely on the Greens to get his budgets through each year, giving Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones great bargaining power. They claim the credit for tripling the cycling budget from £21 million to £62 million and increasing the climate change budget for greener homes from just £100,000 to £12 million in four years.

Electoralist?

So the Defence can present the court with evidence of creditable achievement. But now the Prosecution brings a new charge: electoralism. Chris Rose still doesn't care: 'We need to ensure that in everything we do we make the maximum electoral advantage. I've been on plenty of demos but I'd rather put people in power who don't need to be demonstrated against.'

Even some on the left of the party, like health spokesman Stuart Jeffery, would prefer more electoralism: 'I do a shed-load at grass-roots level in Maidstone, like Keep Our NHS Public and community groups. We're not wholly electoralist. We're probably not electoralist enough. We should be more targeted and systematic.'

Perhaps one of the reasons why many Greens aren't too bothered about being called electoralist is that they're getting pretty good at it. In last year's local elections the party increased its number of councillors by 20 per cent to 110. This year, in May, the party expects a further 10 per cent boost to that number, and is looking to increase its London Assembly representation from two seats to three.

But what the Greens are most excited about is the prospect of their first MP. Their sights are set on Norwich, where they are likely to be the second biggest party on the council after May; Oxford, where uber-activist Peter Tatchell will stand as a Green candidate in the next general election; and most importantly Brighton, where Caroline Lucas stands a real chance of winning.

In the Brighton Pavilion constituency at the last general election, Keith Taylor finished third for the Greens with 22 per cent of the vote, only marginally less than the second-placed Conservatives. Support in the city has been increasing ever since - 27 per cent in the European elections; 30 per cent in the locals; and 41 per cent in the last council by-election before Christmas. Added to that, the incumbent Labour MP is standing down.

'In theory 26 per cent would win it,' says Chris Rose, who really does care about this. 'The big worry is that the Tories will come through. So we need to convince progressive people in Brighton to vote Green not Labour.'

Greens hope the Brighton electorate will be inspired by the significance of the choice before them. On Caroline Lucas's election leaflets the appeal 'Help us make history' is emblazoned across a picture of the Houses of Parliament. 'All the evidence suggests that once you get the first Green elected to a council or authority, you break the credibility barrier and more follow,' Lucas comments. 'Remember Labour's first MP was elected in 1900, and by 1924 they were forming a government.'

First past the post

One of the reasons why the Greens have so far failed to break through that credibility barrier at the national level is the first-past-the-post voting system. In Germany, and more recently in Ireland and Scotland since devolution (where there is a separate Green Party), the Greens have fared well under proportional representation. Ironically, the experience of these successes suggests that the barriers erected by the electoral rules might be one reason why the English and Welsh Green Party tends to be more left than its European cousins, which have often been sucked into the prevailing system.

But ideological purity has limited appeal against success, so in Brighton the Greens are thinking tactics. The obvious response is to throw resources at the city. This will happen, but the Green version of targeting is less severe than that practised by, for example, Respect, which focuses relentlessly on a few core areas. At the last general election the Greens stood candidates in more than 200 constituencies.

Part of the reason is that the Green Party is more decentralised. Its 170 branches all sign up to national policy but retain a high degree of autonomy. But it is also a deliberate decision. Chris Rose explains: 'In the British political system you'll be laughed at if you only stand ten candidates. Unlike Respect we're a proper national party.'

The first-past-the-post system is also forcing the Greens to tailor their political message. 'The threshold is so much higher that we have to think about how we appeal to people who don't see themselves as Greens,' Caroline Lucas says. 'We need to be far more creative in the way we communicate to win in a first-past-the-post election.'

But does this mean a compromise with electoralism, that the programme will be sanitised and weakened in the fashion perfected by New Labour? Lucas claims not: 'Our roots are so strong in the social movements that there is no risk that our policies will be watered down. We offer integrity in our policy package, which is entirely decided at party conference. That's what people buy into when they join the Greens. It's just about how to communicate those policies.'

Leadership

This feeling that the Greens need to communicate better with the public and the media was the main factor behind an upheaval in autumn last year. In a referendum the party decided by 73 to 27 per cent to change its structure and adopt a leader, replacing the strictly non-hierarchical system of two principal speakers.

The debate echoed previous divisions between 'fundis' (fundamentalists) and 'realos' (realists), terms first coined in relation to splits in the German Green Party in the 1980s which have since been used to describe similar conflicts elsewhere. On the 'fundi' side was one principal speaker, Wall, and on the 'realo' side was the other, Lucas. 'The leadership question was simply about how we get the message across,' Lucas says. 'Social change is still also about building on the ground outside parliament, but having a leader, a recognisable figure to articulate our views to the public, is not in any way incompatible with that.'

But others saw the move as substituting 'the "eco" of serious ecological commitment with the dreary "ego" of conventional, shallow, careerist British politics,' as Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones put it in the heat of the leadership battle.

In response Lucas insists that the Greens 'should always be involved in non-violent direct action and consciousness-raising'. This, she says, is not in conflict with her own aspiration to be an MP. 'Having a Green MP would scale up the impact of what the social movements and campaigns do outside parliament. It would be an incredible breakthrough. It would send shockwaves through the political establishment.'

Factions?

In any other left party such a fundamental question as whether to adopt a leader would have been marked by fierce faction fighting. But the Green Party is curiously lacking in this department. It has survived for more than 30 years without splitting up into five different sets of acronyms.

The closest thing to a faction in the Green Party today is a group called the Green Left. Conceived by, amongst others, Derek Wall, Peter Tatchell and Green mayoral candidate Sian Berry in 2006, the group's job is to reach out to the wider left and link up with other socialists, with the added hope of bringing more left activists into the Green Party.

Through its email list the Green Left also loosely coordinates action in the party. It comprises hundreds of eco-socialist activists, but represents nowhere near a majority in a party of 7,500 members. Nevertheless, as Wall points out, he has been elected to the principal speaker position twice on a platform of 'eco-socialism without apology', suggesting that the group does have some organisational strength.

On a practical level Wall believes that Green Left has been 'very successful in bringing through policies and bringing socialists into the party'. He believes passionately in forging links with committed activists of the Labour left, Respect (both versions), the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party, and beyond to what he sees as the eco-socialist movements of Latin America, especially in Venezuela and Bolivia.

The unions are a particular focus. In February, Wall and Green MEPs Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert addressed a trade union conference on climate change. The Green Party supports the TUC's proposed trade union freedom bill, which would roll back Thatcher's anti-union laws. And unions that are not affiliated to Labour, like the FBU and the RMT, have already funded Green Party activities. But Wall aspires to the example of Australia where Green-union links are far more developed, to the extent that construction unions have imposed 'green bans' and refused to work on certain developments on environmental grounds.

White, middle class academics

One obstacle to closer relations is the suspicion in the trade union and labour movements that the Greens are just a bunch of white, middle class academics. A cursory glance around the Green Party's conference in Reading in February revealed that delegates were indeed overwhelmingly white and well-spoken; many of them boasted a Dr before their name; and an improbably high proportion of members seemed to have a perfect grasp of the most intricate details of green energy technologies.

But this is unfair. Something similar is true of most party conferences (with the exception of Respect), and the Greens had a higher proportion of women than is usually seen.

Away from conference, Greens insist they have been picking up support in ethnic minority and working class areas. The best example of this is Lewisham in south-east London where the Greens occupy six of 54 seats on the council. Darren Johnson, who has been a Lewisham councillor since 2002, as well as a London Assembly member, tells how he 'started campaigning in Lewisham in the mid-1990s. By 1998 we got 30 per cent in my ward. That was the Guardian-reading middle classes, but it proved enough of a base to then widen our support. The big difference now is that we're getting votes on the council estates, which make up about a quarter of the ward. You can't get 50 per cent in Lewisham without significant support from ethnic minorities and the working class.'

Meanwhile, Stuart Jeffery thinks the class accusation is outrageous. 'We're not middle class idiots,' he barks (as your intrepid questioner ducks for cover). 'That's quite offensive. I don't mind being called an idiot but don't call me middle class.'

The verdict

Back in the courthouse both sides have finished presenting their arguments. The judge bangs his gavel and addresses the court. 'Members of the jury, it would be difficult for any leftist to read the Greens' last election manifesto (Exhibit A) and not agree with the vast majority of it. At the heart of the party's policies is a desire to stop all exploitation, not only of the planet but of the people too.

'Yet the Greens will clearly never satisfy some on the left. They do have an electoral slant, they do encompass a range of political traditions and they do take a pragmatic attitude that, while refreshing, can lead to alliances with Tories.'

The jury retires. In the public gallery, Derek Wall looks nervous. Chris Rose still doesn't care. In the visitors' section, a fight breaks out between a member of Respect and someone from Respect Renewal.

The jury returns - it has failed to reach a verdict. The judge declares a retrial ... by you, the readers.

Let us know what you think in our forums



About the writer ▾



Alex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns

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