Britain: Understanding the Green Party

November 2, 2010 -- New Left Project -- Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and writer. He has been a member of the Green Party since 1980 and was Green Party principal speaker from 2006 to 2007. He is a founder of the Ecosocialist International and Green Left [an organised ecosocialist group within the Green Party] and has written widely on green politics. His latest books are The Rise of the Green Left and The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics. In this interview, he and Edward Lewis examine the nature and politics of the Green Party from a left perspective.

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What are the origins of the Green Party? What are the circumstances that brought it about?

The party was formed in the early 1970s, first called "PEOPLE" and later the Ecology Party, it was inspired by reports such as Blueprint for Survival and the Limits to Growth that drew attention to the environmental crisis.

The party focussed on an ecological politics based on the assumption that we were ripping up the life support system of our planet.

It struggled and nearly disappeared during the 1970s. However, it tapped into the enthusiasm for the German Greens in the 1980s (then a radical social movement-based party) and grew modestly. The late 1990s saw the party gain two MEPs [members of the European Parliament] and three members of the Greater London Authority. And the number of councillors has since climbed past a hundred.

How does the party of today compare to how it was at its origins?

It is bigger, more sophisticated and more left. Membership is 12,000-ish at present. In the 1970s it struggled to reach 1000, so we have grown. Over the last decade members have often left the Labour Party disillusioned by its neoliberalism and joined the Greens. It's an established and permanent part of the political landscape and there are green parties right across the globe.

You have, of course, just had your first MP elected. What have been the most notable consequences of this?

We have a toe-hold in parliament, which gives a platform to support many important projects. For example, Caroline Lucas as MP was at the House of Commons meeting to promote the One Million Green Jobs project last week. It also shows that despite an unfair electoral system we can win and elect members of parliament. Having broken through a barrier we are in a stronger position. Caroline does the work of a dozen MPs as far as I can see, and brings a new and radical perspective to parliament.

Please tell us something about the party’s social composition, in terms of gender, ethnicity and class. With respect to the latter category, the Green Party has a reputation for being middle class. Does the party face difficulties reaching out to working-class people and, if so, how do you think it can overcome this?

I think it is fair to say the Green Party isn’t particularly proletarian, but I am not sure that most activists in most left-wing political groups are working class. The Green Party needs to become far more involved in trade union struggles. The Green Party Trade Union group has become more active in recent years. Caroline Lucas and London MEP Jean Lambert are strong supporters of trade unions. We have also been building links with militant trade union activists such as Jerry Hicks, who has spoken at Green Party conference. A number of trade union leaders including Bob Crow have also spoken at our conferences. The anti-cuts campaign will be crucial and trade unions will be at the forefront of this.

We of course have a women leading our party and have a number of LGBT activists. We seem to be moving out of the white ghetto with a more ethnically diverse membership. The decision to stand down our party candidate in Salma Yaqoob’s constituency and Salma’s support for the Greens in the European elections and for Caroline have been very welcome. I have learnt a lot about pluralist and feminist strains of Islam from working with people like Khalid Hussenbux, a former Green Party executive member. A lot more outreach is needed. There are strong links between Green Left and Latin American activists. I was very pleased to be invited to speak on behalf of the Green Party at the Latin American Workers Association AGM last year. Greens, of course, were involved in the Vestas campaign on the Isle of Wight.

The One Million Green Jobs campaign, is an example of how greens and the labour movement can work together. Again, Caroline Lucas has been a strong supporter of this project.

It would be interesting to know more about the internal politics of the Green Party. It has within it the Green Left current, which is explicitly ecosocialist and anti-capitalist. How far removed is the thinking of the Green Left from the dominant views within the party? (After all, Caroline Lucas herself has publicly stated that the party is based upon socialist principles.) And are there any currents within the party with which it conflicts fairly sharply?

Green Left is the only organised "tendency" or group in the party, we are close to Caroline Lucas and she has been supportive of our work in a variety of areas.

For example, she spoke on a platform recently with our Peruvian comrade and Indigenous leader Hugo Blanco in Brighton, she has also, like Green Left, been keen to work with Salma Yaqoob.

The left is strong in the Green Party at present. Many activists are ex-Labour Party members, which has helped, and the work of John Bellamy Foster and Joel Kovel means that ecosocialism has an intellectual basis. The message that capitalism is ecologically unsustainable is increasingly accepted in the party.

We disagree with a minority of members who stress Malthusian concerns with population. There are also some members who would argue that Green politics "is neither left nor right". However the current leader and deputy leader are keen to stress the need to fight the cuts and link environmental concerns to social justice.

However while the left is strong, the lesson of many European Green parties is that political power can drastically reshape green politics in a rightward direction. This is also true for left parties but pointing fingers at Tony Blair and other forms of washed-up social democracy is not an alternative to building an ecosocialist network and fighting for green left policies. Left politics is always under threat in a neoliberal world, where the dominant culture reproduces a market-based common sense. We have built links with the independent Czech Green Left Party and Fis Nua in Ireland, new parties that have left- and right-leaning Green parties in their respective countries.

Political parties often start radical and democratic, and then decay. The iron law of oligarchy may not be a certainty but it is always a possibility, so strong internal democracy and grassroots control is vital to keep any Green party green.

How effective is the party as a campaigning organisation? How do you react to the criticism that it over-prioritises electoral activity?

The constitution of the party stresses the need for non-violent direct action, however the exhausting work involved in electing candidates means that we are to a large extent absorbed by election campaigning.  Electing Caroline Lucas demanded a lot of person hours, canvassing and leafleting. We got stuck in.

However, given the urgency of the environmental crisis we need to support non-violent direct action. When I was a principalspeaker for the party I put a lot of energy into supporting Climate Camp. Caroline Lucas often speaks at the camp and has taken part in non-violent direct action.

We do need to expand the campaigning role of the party. I think Andy Hewett, who is a Green Left member, helped as national Green Party campaigns co-ordinator last year. The current campaigns co-ordinator Romayne Phoenix will strengthen this role with work on opposing the cuts and working for climate action.

Support for the Coalition of Resistance is something the national Green Party is prioritising.

The dominant economic analysis of those opposing the current public spending cuts is a Keynesian one that states that the deficit can be dealt with by restoring growth, which public spending can support. However, isn’t there a concern from an environmental perspective with this analysis, given the anti-growth position of many greens?

I think the party has been strong in arguing that the cuts are unnecessary, higher taxes for the rich and the end of military interventions such as Afghanistan together with the abandonment of Trident [nuclear-armed submarines] can take the strain.

The Green New Deal and the trade union Million Green Jobs campaigns are Keynesian but also provide for prosperity in a world where growth will prove unsustainable. Unless we have a transition to a low energy future we are going to face a bleak tomorrow as energy prices rise sharply.

We do need to move beyond Keynesianism, however the massive cuts are about entrenching corporate capitalism as welfare is slashed, comprehensive education rolled back and the National Health Service weakened via "reforms". The focus of the Green Party must be fighting the cuts. However a green economy based on common ownership has to be our goal. There are ways of creating prosperity without growth, making goods that last longer, promoting work sharing, extending social sharing.

The present government are using shock doctrine tactics -- manufacturing a crisis -- to roll back the state and create a privatised corporate future. They must be fought. Typically, Greens argue for work sharing. But in the current context we must focus on the fact that government aims to dismantle trade union power, which is already weak in the UK, and force people into casualised, part-time poverty pay.

Growth is unsustainable, but we can have no illusions. The present government is seeking to fundamentally re-engineer the British economy and society in a neoliberal direction. This must be fought. Collective and democratic solutions based on what works ecologically are essential, but must be advanced in the current context of an offensive by the neoliberals. If they win, we have more neoliberalism with more inequality, ecological damage and power for a minority enhanced.

I have developed an ecosocialist account of alternative economics in my two recent books on green and ecosocialist politics.

Some who espouse left and radical politics in the UK are of course involved in parties. But many disparage the party form, seeing it as hierarchical, state-centric and prone to domestication by elites. Overall, reflecting on your time in the Green Party, what are your views about the relevance of party politics for those who are seeking radical change?

I think you need both parties and social movements. In Latin America, despite many contradictions and setbacks, social movements have fought back against neoliberalism with some success. But you need parties to take electoral power and to change structures. Admittedly in a European context this seems far more difficult, but it is necessary. Social change is not simply a matter of winning elections, it involves cultural politics and much else besides. What ever the limits of party politics, it has to be part of the process. Latin American authors like Marta Harnecker provide some pointers.

While political parties are necessary, they can become compromised and controlled by elite interests.There are no easy solutions. It is naive to simply say in the year 2046 there will be a green government and this will solve the fundamental problems. But party politics cannot be ignored either.

What are your thoughts about the future prospects of the Green Party?

The existence of three neoliberal parties means that there is space for the Green Party. Caroline’s victory is a massive boost, however there are also severe challenges. It is difficult to win at the Westminster level without proportional representation. The retreat of the Liberal Democrats on proportional representation makes meaningful electoral reform a distant prospect. Proportional representation has given our sister party in Scotland parliamentary representation, and proportional representation in Europe and London has also given us a foothold. An elected second chamber at Westminster could also open up space.

The climate crisis is here, action is needed now, the situation is extremely worrying, scepticism is rife. The government is aiming to decimate public transport, and globally the current framework is based on carbon trading which so far has enriched bankers and failed to cut emissions.

The current government are going to introduce a further revolution of the right, massively rolling back the state, messing about with voter demography (for example, house benefit changes will push poorer and more left voters out of marginal London constituencies), and giving perhaps more space to the Murdoch media.

We are seeing a much more intense assault than that undertaken by Mrs Thatcher. The Liberal Democrats have delivered a viciously neoliberal and highly strategic Conservative Party a solid working majority. Over five years, this government will do untold damage to Britain and will focus on restructuring British society so that the left are made weaker still.

The Green Party must do all it can to challenge the present government, from working electorally to promoting a campaign of resistance and getting involved with the trade union movement.

At the same time, the severe ecological crisis means we need to give solidarity to Indigenous groups globally fighting to preserve key ecosystems. In this regard I have been highly active supporting Aidesep, who have used non-violence to preserve the Peruvian Amazon, and I work closely with Hugo Blanco the legendary Peruvian revolutionary who publishes Lucha Indigena (Indigenous Struggle).

The tasks are massive, but socialism and ecological politics are vital if we are to have a future. Neoliberalism is both on the offensive and, because of its environmental, social and financial contradictions, unsustainable.

Deregulation triggered the economic crisis. Its deeper cause was the imbalance of the global economy caused by neoliberalism. Yet the economic crisis is being used to justify further neoliberal policies. The Green Party must challenge neoliberalism intellectually, electorally and via non-violent direct action.

It is not merely that another world is possible but also that the present world is impossible.  My politics can be summed up as "ecosocialism without apology".

[This article first appeared at the New Left Project. Visit Derek Wall's blog, Another Green World. Posted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.]