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With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?

Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

August 18, 2017
7 min read

Green Party members campaigning in the general election. Photo: Krystyna Haywood

As the Green Party prepares for its annual conference in early October, the rise and rise of Jeremy Corbyn means that even some party members are questioning whether the Greens still have a role. Certainly, given the dramatic changes in British politics, some hard thinking will be required if the party is to remain relevant.

Despite having just one MP, the ever-inspiring Caroline Lucas, the Green Party can be seen in many senses as a success story. We have helped reshape British politics and re-set the agenda of debate according to our priorities, such as fighting austerity and climate change.

The snap general election was challenging, yet the party contested over 450 constituencies and gained its second highest total vote ever. Caroline Lucas was reelected in her Brighton Pavilion constituency with 53 per cent.

However, in target seats like Bristol West and Sheffield Central the vote fell dramatically. Bristol West is a particularly stark example. In 2015 the Greens came second on 27 per cent of the vote, with Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire winning on just 36 per cent. Hoping to make Bristol the next Brighton, Molly Scott Cato, the Green MEP for the South West, stood this time. Bristol West was a national target, with activists pouring to canvass – yet the Green vote fell by 14 per cent. Labour, despite having a Corbyn-phobic candidate, saw their vote rise to 65 per cent.

In all the Green target seats, except Brighton and the Isle of Wight, the vote fell. There were only nine seats where 5 per cent of the vote or more was gained to save the election deposit. In contrast, 123 deposits were saved in the 2015 contest.

The Labour squeeze

The reason is clear. Jeremy Corbyn attracts just the kind of voters who normally vote Green: those frustrated by New Labour, who want a party that opposes war, inequality and neoliberalism. As a party member since 1980, I have seen many individuals leaving Labour as that party shifted rightward over the decades and joining the Greens.

While first past the post has made it tough for the Green Party, a gap on the left of British politics has helped us grow in terms of membership and influence. The traffic is likely now to be in the opposite direction. For example, Adam Van Coevorden, Green member for 15 years, joined Labour days after being the Green Party candidate in Cheltenham at the election. There have been suggestions that the Green Party should cease to be independent and affiliate to Labour, with a similar arrangement to the Cooperative Party.

I have been taunted by some for suffering from nostalgia, retaining my Green Party membership purely from outdated sectarian identity. Of course, in politics, habit may shape what we do more than strategy. However I still feel the Green Party has a strategic role: it is not time for us to give up, yet to survive and contribute we need to rethink what we do and become more effective.

Politics, especially in Britain, looks like a football match. With a winner-takes-all electoral system, one party wins and another one loses. The Green Party is suffering from a squeeze that affects the whole system: over 80 per cent of voters voted either Labour or Tory, and other parties are under pressure. Yet I would argue that politics is in fact an ecosystem, in which different parties and organisations have an influence.

The surprise Corbyn victories are partly built on the efforts of Greens over the last decade to challenge a right wing consensus

We see this when the Conservatives attack Corbyn, the media amplifies the complaint, and Lib Dem and Labour MPs then join in. Or think of the broad consensus for austerity and free market based economics, which largely captured the political establishment.

To think of a single political identity in one party is misleading. The rise of Corbyn, the success of the SNP in 2015, and the now almost forgotten Green surge of 2014, are only moments in a single event, the creation of a new popular left in the UK.

The surprise Corbyn victories are partly built on the efforts of Greens over the last decade to challenge a right wing consensus. This challenge may have failed to put the Greens into parliament in large numbers, but from opposition to fracking to support for socialism, the Greens have contributed to a successful shift in ideology.

No right turn

We Greens need to maintain our identity so that we can continue to contribute. The contradiction is that we will inevitably find it tougher electorally, while our ideas are likely to get a greater hearing. Packing our bags would be a disloyalty not so much to our members who have toiled over the decades, but to the future of Britain as potentially a democratic, ecological and socialist society.

British politics has its monsters. We know that the mainstream media are largely advocates of war, elite interests and corporate profit. With the left on the march like never before, strategies to keep British politics on the right could include the Greens. A Green Party that vigorously attacked Corbyn and focused on marginal constituencies could play a small part in the increasingly desperate attempts to maintain Conservative hegemony. Conversely, a Green Party advancing new and radical ideas, enthusing new activists and challenging not so much Corbyn but the continuing rightward elements in Labour could play a very positive role in the transformation on British politics.

It’s going to be tough to stand in every constituency at the next general election. Indeed, our sister party in Scotland only contested three constituencies. I do think the party should continue its strategy of targeting a small number of key constituencies, and standing in a large number of seats is vital to getting media access, including the party leader debates. Yet contesting marginal constituencies is surely counterproductive?

We need to continue to be passionate about ecological issues, especially climate change, peace and social justice. While Jeremy has virtue in all these areas, we Greens need to point out the contradictions in Labour. Many Labour MPs and Labour local authorities have dreadful politics. From decimating Sheffield’s trees to demolishing council estates in Lambeth, Labour local authorities need left opposition and the Green Party remains well placed to provide it.

Our politics has never been narrowly electoral. Since the poll tax rebellion in the 1990s we Greens have supported non-violent direct action. Greens in the North West are promoting ‘Green Mondays’, where members use direct action to oppose fracking.

It’s never just a battle for votes – it’s also a battle for ideas. Election campaigns are a good platform for introducing new ideas and shaping culture. Greens should put more effort into political education, debate and argument. Every local Green Party should elect an education officer.

Politics is also increasingly driven by the young. We need to practice a politics that is welcoming to young people, based on social media and participation, and to continuously reinvent our practices so they promote real rather than just formal democracy. While traditionally at Green Party conference we spend much time on policy, we need to spend far more on strategy. Politics is the art of the possible, and changing what is possible must be part of our role.

These are challenging times for the Green Party, but if the challenge is because our ideas are more widely accepted by other political forces, that is very far from being all bad.

Derek Wall is a former principal speaker of the Green Party of England and Wales. He stood against Theresa May in Maidenhead at the 2017 general election.