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After 30 years, the Green Party comes of age

Against the odds the Green Party is 30 years old. For those of us on the inside, getting past 1981 looked doubtful and it was perhaps both a surprise and a relief to reach the 1990s. The British political system has traditionally been unforgiving to new parties. But the party has survived, is growing and is making an electoral impact: it has seven MSPs, two MEPs and numerous councillors. Most important of all, it is now a party of the left.

August 1, 2003
5 min read

Left politics need to be both practical and utopian. On a practical level, our interventions need to work on a day-to-day level and point to a society beyond capitalism. To cynics, the history of the British left may seem to be one of defeats, but on the issues of defending public services, opposing US hegemony and striking blows for justice the arguments have been won not by Blair but by us.

As for utopian politics, capitalism is frankly cancerous. It can only survive by constant blind accumulation. We have a highly sophisticated economic system that essentially puts living things second. Ultimately, it has to go. The Greens – with their critique of conventional economics – are closer perhaps to Marx than many others on the left. Their enthusiasm for a society that really is different is at worst naive, at best a source of real revolutionary energy. And this is an energy that is increasingly infectious.

Thus, the Green Party needs to be taken seriously. As a member, I would argue that the left should support the Green Party – but also criticise it. Criticism is necessary – not because the party is especially flawed, but because the questions of how we intervene in British politics in a practical way and how we move to a qualitatively different society are torturously difficult and open topics that require discussion.

Typically, the whole question of elections and alliances is fraught with dangers. In some contexts the choice is clear. For example, the Greens have two excellent MEPs who work tirelessly to protect asylum rights, to challenge neo-liberal attacks on the labour movement and to campaign against capitalist globalisation. In the South-East England European constituency the inspired Caroline Lucas won in 1999 by a margin of just 100 votes out of several million. It would be criminal not to vote for her in 2004. There are other sets of elections where the Left would also lose by failing to support the Green Party.

On the other hand, it would be crazy for the Green Party to run candidates against the best of the Labour left. Alan Simpson (the man is an Ecologist subscriber, who has even been known to go hunt sabbing) comes to mind in particular.

Alliances need to be forged through dynamic grassroots campaigns. This is where the Greens” long emphasis on direct action is important, because it stresses a politics that can punch its weight even when Westminister is asleep. Poll tax and the roads programme of the 1990s were both defeated by direct action. That action was strongly supported by the party. The Greens are also building links, both formal and informal, with the new wave of left trade unionists such as Bob Crow. The RMT general-secretary addressed a 2002 Green Party conference.

The Green Party will have to become more dynamic. It may have local branches pretty much everywhere, but many of them are sleepy talking shops rather than focused electoral and extra-parliamentary fighting machines. My local party in Berkshire was turned around by ex-Labour members who joined before the local elections and helped us win councillors in such unlikely enclaves as Bracknell and Sandhurst this May. Quite small numbers of activists with organisational ability could have a swift and positive effect on the party.

But incremental election victories don”t neatly translate into hegemony, and Greens often ignore the structural forces that prevent the creation of a socially just and ecological society. At its worst, all of this translates into a rather alarming “wouldn”t it be nice if it was a nice world” sentimentalism. All power to the nice, isn”t the slogan that is going to save the world. The fate of the earth seems far too serious a matter to leave to Greens.

Again a healthy infusion of new members from the left – or even some self-critical debate and joint campaigning with it – would help. The trick, of course, is to avoid introducing the sectarianism of much of the British left. One of the really positive things about the Green Party is its astonishing lack of internal faction fighting; this is a fact that will astonish many socialists who have been in other parties.

We mustn”t forget the ecology. either. There is a danger that the Green Party could become just a vehicle for general anti-Blairism. Environmental threats impact on the poorest – a fact long recognised by eco-socialists from Engels to William Morris and beyond.

A strong Green Party could renew the eco-socialist tradition on a range of issues that concern voters, including transport and GM. Such issues have the potential to point to a society in which the market is rolled back and humanity and the rest of nature are put before economics. As the slogan goes “earth first, profits last”. The critical eco-socialist aspiration to replace capitalism is what makes the Greens different and vital.