Britain: What now for the Green Party?
By Peter Shield
August 17, 2010 -- The Green Party of England and Wales has made some major breakthroughs over the couple of years, the election of Caroline Lucas to the British parliament was one of the few bright points on an otherwise dismal election night on May 6, 2010. At a local level the Green Party now has just over 120 councillors and the two members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The problem however is that the election showed up how patchy and locally concentrated its support base actually is. With the Autumn party conference approaching what are challenges facing the Green Party.
In the 2010 general election the Green Party’s percentage score made it into double figures in two constituencies, the wonderful 31.3% that successfully elected Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavillon and very respectable 14.3% for Adrian Ramsay in Norwich South. London Assembly member Darren Johnson managed 6.72%, sadly nearly a 4% drop from his 2005 result. Tony Jupiter pulled out 7.6% in Cambridge, and other notable scores in Brighton Kemptown, Hackney North, Edinburgh East, Witney, Bury St. Edmunds, Leicester South, Huddersfield and Leeds West were around the 4-5% mark; in just about every other constituency the Green Party barely made it into single figures.
The national spread from the general election look very unfavorable compared to the national average of 8.6% it scored in the 2009 European elections, when the party successfully returned two MEPs, one from London and the other from the South East, and were within a stone throw of two more in the North West and the Eastern Regions.
On a local level the Green Party has had some noticeable successes on Brighton & Hove City Council, Lancaster City Council, Norwich, Lewisham, Oxford City Council, Oxfordshire County Council, Kirklees Council and Stroud District Council. The Green Party is the official opposition on Norwich City Council, and forms part of the ruling coalition that controls Lancaster City Council alongside the Liberal Democrats and Labour. It also has two London Assembly members. The Green Party now has a presence on 42 councils.
In Scotland the Greens have dropped back to two members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) after an initial high of seven, in 2007 the Green Party won eight seats on Glasgow and Edinburgh councils. Its number of councillors increased by two when two former Lib-Dems councillors from Aberdeenshire Council signed up.
Membership of the English and Welsh party has grown, from 7553 in 2008 to 9630 in 2009. The Green Party however remains a small party, with extremely limited resources both in terms of finance and people. Not that the members are poor quality or that especially poor financially but as a rule they are also very active in a wide range of other civil society organisations which makes large demands on their time and resources. Needless to say the Green Party does not get large corporate donations.
On a day to day basis this makes running the infrastructure of a national political organisation difficult, and campaigning in elections on a national level near impossible. The 2010 election strategy reflected this, with a heavy concentration on the handful of target seats and token campaigns in many constituencies. This strategy paid off well in Brighton Pavillon but there has been criticism if, for example, you were in striking distance of a target seat you were actively encouraged to go and campaign in that constituency rather than your own and, as a result, it left a number of local parties and individual members and candidates feeling ignored and isolated. To a degree this was inevitable; the party would have been foolish not to pull out all the resources it could to make the all important parliamentary breakthrough. To move to the next stage of development -- that of being a truly national organisation -- it is crucial that an infrastructure is built that spreads the local successes into regional ones.
This is of course no easy task, and in terms of building a traditional party organisation it is certainly swimming against the tide. Political parties of all shades are often mere shadows of their former selves. In 1983 nearly 4% of the British electorate was associated with a political party, by 2005 this had fallen to 1.3%, currently one of the lowest party membership figures in Europe. The deep traditions of party affiliation have gone, as to some extent has class-based voting patterns, although the latter can be exaggerated at times.
On the other hand one of the largest rises in civil society players in the last 20 years have been around social justice, such as Oxfam, and campaigning organsiations of various shades of green, from wildlife trusts, the RSPB, World Wide Fund for Nature, Sustrans, People and Planet, and Friends of the Earth. Equally important direct action and "creative" campaigning structures such as climate camps, Plane Stupid and essentially structureless flash mob mobilisations have been very successful in pulling together activists for highly focused actions. In a similar fashion as the Labour Party grew into a mass party from the trade union and co-operative movements and the different socialist societies at the turn of the 20th century. Can a strong national Green Party emerge out of the wider green and social justice movements in the 21st?
The answer as always is a sort of maybe. The green and social justice movements are a wide school starting with conservationism and moving through to radical green anarchism. There is a wide range of views and opinions and no single underlying ideology looking for a voice, as you could argue that Labour had with socialism. Conservationism can sit perfectly well within the conservative tradition, and the green consumerism and natural capitalism approaches, while tending in parts towards Keynesianism, can find champions across the political spectrum. Nick Griffin, the far-right British National Party's hopeless Great Leader, can take optimal population ideas and warp them into his own immigration theory. Peak oil and building a low-carbon economy is more a question of facing up to reality rather than taking an ideological stance.
So where is the unique space for the Green Party in all of this? What is its brand values and identity to use the talk of the marketing world?
If there is a unique voice for the Green Party is seems to hit the public imagination around combining environmental and social justice issues. Too often environmental campaigners concentrate on single-issue subjects without considering the fact that their solutions can be seen as elitist and exclusive; the Green Party so far has been able to step beyond that, but it still has not completely removed its protest naysaying image.
Take transport for example, yes electric cars fuelled from renewable sources is a step towards a low-carbon economy and building a national bank of technology expertise and manufacturing skills. But providing an affordable, efficient public transport system is a longer term solution that benefits not just those who can afford the premium prices of such cars -- and win friends across the increasingly independent transport unions.
Housing is another classic example. One of the reasons people struggle for higher incomes is because of the huge chunk the mortgage takes from our wages. Rebuilding a sustainable low-carbon public housing stock not only reduces the cost of accommodation it also reduces the cost of living in them, and supports a sustainable housing industry with local sourcing of material and labour. The Green Party uniquely has a policy set that addresses these issues and in a time of financial crisis, and a building industry crisis, these policies have real resonance.
An equitable pension system, or life-long citizen’s income, also removes the need to build up wealth through house acquisition, and guarantees a minimum standard of living for those who have raised the present active population. Lower energy and transport bills through free insulation and free travel passes will help as well. These are things that local councils can deliver. Free healthcare would of course be fantastic, but with one MP it may be a bit of a battle convincing people the Green Party could deliver.
An innovative approach to public health, which actually tackles public health as a whole, from decent, affordable locally sourced school meals, to sports, public spaces, availability of allotments, community support for the elderly and tackling air pollution -- all these things make a radical break from dealing with public illness and pushing the provision over to the private sector. (Ditching some of the lyrical waxing on about homeopathy might not be such a bad idea as well.)
The Green Party has a huge space between itself and the other parties that play at sustainable and a low-carbon future, but it needs to move from being seen as an adjunct to what is in effect a protest movement to proposing solutions. Too often when people talk about transforming a party or a movement in this way what they are actually talking about is "going mainstream", but for the Green Party that would be a disaster. Why vote for a green candidate when Liberal Democrats/Labour/soft Tories could say the same thing? The key is transforming radical ideas into graspable, workable proposals.
As Peter McColl argues in Scottish Left Review:
This means Greens must find way to link the issues with which they are associated with Green issues that have a broader appeal. This means that instead of talking about recycling Greens should promote the jobs that can be created by recycling projects. Instead of opposing bridge projects, Greens should support investment in green infrastructure, like the reopening of branch rail lines. It can be clear where the money will come from, but it also associates Greens with a positive and popular measure -- and one that delivers social and environmental benefits too.
In the area of social justice in the age of New Labour, and the Liberal Democrats supporting the Conservative government, the Green Party has a clear field, though the Labour Party is aware that its loftiness and social authoritarianism has done it no favours in this area. By refocusing local services debates around social justice the Green Party can highlight the cutting agenda of the Con-Dems, and by linking both with local control Greens can create a clear alternative to the Labour Party’s paternalism.
The opportunity to attract members, those new to politics coming out of the environmental and social justice movements, those disillusioned with the Labour Party, and with the Liberal Democrats' co-habitation with the Tories, as well as newer political projects like Respect, which seem to have lost momentum despite the sparkling personality of Salma Yaqood, all bode well, although the mix could make quite a heady cocktail.
To capitalise on these opportunities, the Green Party must look at itself calmly and thoughtfully. Why, when there are so many positive developments, does the party find it difficult to find candidates for the executive committee? What is it about the roles as they are presently defined that make them so unattractive? Why in a party of intelligent and opinionated individuals is only one position actually being contested (deputy leader)? Clearly something is broken in terms of internal democracy and decision making, or could it be that the structures of the old Green Party no longer are able to motivate and enthuse a party that has grown so quickly?
If the party has the opportunity to attract new members, what is its strategy for absorbing and building on their energy and ideas?
Only a wet baby likes a change, but maybe now is the time to seriously reflect on whether what has taken the Green Party to where it is today can take it forward, and if not, what can?
It would be constructive to see the one contested position turn into a constructive debate around what sort of Green Party should come out of 2010. Contests need not be shied away from as “unGreen” but welcomed as a necessary part of a flourishing democratic inner-party ecosystem -- just don’t eat the loser.
[Peter Shield is editor of Natural Choices, where this article first appeared. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Shield is an organic farmer based in the High Corbieres, Languedoc, France. He is supporter of the Confédération Paysanne (Peasant Confederation, an anti-globalisation, small farmers' union and Objecteurs de Croissance (Objectors to Growth, radical green group focused on local economy and a member of the Parti Communiste Francais (Communist Party of France). ]