Joseph Healy, in a Green Party publicity photo.
I joined the Green Party ten years ago as I believed that it had something new and radical to say in British politics. I was also a founder member of Green Left, which was formed in 2006, and I helped draft the Headcorn Declaration, the group’s mission statement. One of my aims in doing so was to ensure that there was a radical left faction in the party constantly pushing it in a progressive direction – and providing a counterbalance to those in the party for whom pragmatism and ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ were the driving forces.
As an Irish person with strong links with some of the founding members of the Irish Green Party, I watched in horror as pragmatism and party centralisation led to both the entry of that party into a right wing coalition government and the resignation of many of those radical members in disgust. I wrote a critical article about this in 2009 entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Irish Greens’, which also predicted their eventual drubbing at the hands of the Irish people in the general election of 2011.
Many in the Green Party of England & Wales (GPEW) watched the story of the Irish Greens with horror, but were also convinced that it would never happen here, because the GPEW was one of the most left wing Green parties in Europe.
But there was always a strong group at the centre of the Green Party, and supported by many of its councillors, who regarded Green Left as too left wing and whose vision was to replace the Lib Dems as the main centre party. The entry of the Lib Dems into government in 2010 strengthened the hand of this group.
The battle lines became obvious over the issue of local government budgets and cuts at the GPEW conference in spring 2011. At that point the Greens had not yet taken control of Brighton, but it was clearly on the mind of the party leadership.
An amendment was put to an anti-cuts policy motion by Green Left and some of the Young Greens. It called for local Green councils to fight the cuts and to defy the government by setting an illegal ‘needs budget’. Councillors were dragooned by the leadership to speak against it and finally it was defeated by just 3 votes.
For many of us this was the writing on the wall and a sign that should the Greens take Brighton, they would implement the cuts. It led to a real fall in morale among many of us on the left of the party.
In May 2011, only three months after the conference, the Greens took Brighton. Almost immediately the debate about the cuts budget began. Green Left organised many internal discussions on the issue and agreed to send a delegation to Brighton to argue the point with the Brighton Green councillors – this was only a few weeks before the budget deadline.
For me it was too little and too late – although I supported the initiative. I was pessimistic about the outcome and was proved right. I drew parallels with the story of the Irish Greens and referred to this in a speech I gave at a meeting of the London regional party in January. I quoted the comments of the new Irish Green Party chair, Roderic O’Gorman, following the defeat of the party in 2011 and the loss of all its parliamentary seats: ‘We became part of the political consensus. Our voters did not want us to be part of that consensus.’
Painfully aware of the impact of any cuts budget in Brighton on the national party’s reputation and on its relationship with the wider anti-cuts movement, as well as the new political movements such as Occupy, I supported a motion calling for a last minute debate with a Green councillor from Brighton on the budget there. The motion fell and the majority abstained, prepared to accept any decision reached by the Brighton councillors.
It was now clear to me that the iceberg was fast approaching the SS Green Brighton, with its consequent impact on the reputation of the Green Party nationally. The collision happened when the cuts budget was passed at the end of February. However, the budget passed was even worse than predicted and was the Labour-Tory version, which the Greens swallowed whole in order to remain in office.
A few days later at the party’s national conference, despite vigorous objections from Green Left, the party voted to support the Brighton decision. Pragmatism had defeated principle, realpolitik triumphed over radicalism.
I resigned on the same day. I saw no indication that those of us opposed to the decision would be able to remain radical opponents of the cuts agenda while our own elected members had sold the pass. I was always determined not to end up as a member of a small internal opposition in a political party which had moved away from its core principles, as happened in the Labour Party post-Blair. Some Green Left members have remained in the party, while others have joined Socialist Resistance or Respect. I have remained as an independent anti-cuts and anti-war activist.
It is certainly true that it was not only the cuts agenda in Brighton which led to my resignation, although that was the major issue. I also found a lack of honesty and consistency in the way that those leading the party were treating both its employees and its activists. This came to a head in the autumn of last year at the party conference in Sheffield. A highly respected and hard working party member, who held the post of head of media relations, was treated appallingly by the party leadership.
This included disciplinary action taken against him while he was ill, no proper consultation with staff and members, and a complete ignoring the of the party’s radical policies on workers rights and trade union support – using the services of a human resources consultant to undermine his position. As a trade unionist and campaigner for workers rights and social justice, I found it intolerable. Myself and other members, many from the Green Party Trade Union Group and Green Left, put a motion to the conference condemning the actions of the executive. Every effort was made by the party leadership to force the motion off the agenda. But despite their efforts, the motion was passed by a significant majority and the executive censured.
This did not go down well with the party’s leadership. Comments were made about the party’s activists and we were referred to in pretty damning terms. The conference decision was also pretty much ignored and the staff member in question was made redundant and forced to sign an agreement (which I was advised was probably illegal) that he could not stand for any office in the party for one year, so worried was the leadership about his popularity and the possibility of him upsetting the apple cart. All of this indicated a worrying hubris at the head of the party and a willingness to ignore the concerns of activists and members.
I believe that the Brighton situation is further evidence of this, with many at the head of the party arguing hysterically at the recent conference for tribalist support for the councillors and condemning criticism as disloyalty.
It does have to be said here that Caroline Lucas did not support the Brighton budgetary decision and said so openly at a fringe meeting at the party conference. I am certain that this indicates her concern at the apparent contradiction between her support for Occupy and calls for a radical anti-cuts politics, and the decision of the council in her own backyard.
When I resigned from the party, one prominent Green told me that I had too many principles. The disconnect in modern British and European politics is rather that there are too few principles. The real battle now underway is whether we can give politics new life and new meaning and to reconnect the millions in this country who no longer vote, and have given up on electoral politics completely, with the political process.
The Greens presented themselves as a party to the left of Labour (not too difficult one would have thought). Their policies are radical and many are worth supporting. But as with the situation in Ireland, consistency and veracity are called for. It is not enough to parrot truisms about being unable to challenge the status quo, no matter how urgent it is to do so. How can the Greens seriously challenge the corporate sector, the global corporations, climate change in the Arctic and the prospect of resource wars and famines, if they fall down at the first puff of wind from Eric Pickles and the Department for Communities and Local Government?
Vision requires courage, and courage requires mounting a challenge. On both, the Greens have been found sadly wanting.
This article is partly a response to a debate on the decisions of the Green-led council in Brighton, published in the latest issue of Red Pepper.