Is the Green Party a working class party?

Is the Green Party a working class party?

Across Europe tens millions of people are finding ways of expressing their hostility to austerity and the social crisis it has engendered. A significant number are turning towards parties that speak of opposition to austerity and for a better society. Syriza, in Greece, is the most advanced expression of this phenomenon, alongside the rise of Podemos in Spain. In northern Europe the Dutch Socialist Party has made sweeping gains in elections this March and is now the leading party in 30 towns and cities across the country. The Danish Red Green Alliance has seen its vote rise from a pre-austerity 2.3 per cent to around 6.6 per cent, membership doubling in the process from 5,000 to 10,000 (a party of a similar size in Britain would have around 110,000 members).  Others are gravitating towards the right and into the arms of parties such as UKIP and the Front National.

Britain too has witnessed the refraction of the anti-austerity sentiment through a series of parties. There is little sign that the British working class is turning towards any of the small revolutionary groups that claim adherence to, and believe they are the organisational embodiment of, the revolutionary Marxist tradition as codified for many in the 1917 revolution.  The explicitly socialist projects of TUSC and Left Unity will register modest votes as might be expected at this stage in an electoral strategy. Instead, UKIP and the SNP will be the main beneficiaries of anti-austerity sentiment with the radical left anti-austerity vote, that can longer stomach putting an ‘x’ in the Labour box, going in the main to the Green Party in England and Wales.

This is not the first time that the Green Party has experienced an electoral surge. In 1989 in the European Parliamentary elections the party registered 2.3 million votes, or 15 per cent on a 36 per cent turn-out. It rapidly put on members, more than 15,000, to reach the then dizzy heights of 20,000. By 1993, following a battle over policy direction, with the right winning a majority for their Green 2000 strategy aimed at ‘mainstreaming’ the party, membership returned to the 5,000 mark.

This time membership has doubled within a year to around 60,000 by April 2015, on one day in January 2015 the party recruited 2,000 new members, more than Left Unity has been able to accumulate in two years. The Green Party has sought to take the leadership of the anti-austerity movement, much like the Liberal Democrats shifted towards being the anti-war party prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Also in a similar fashion to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens have drawn a large layer of young people to them on this anti-establishment basis. It is now Natalie Bennett that is welcomed on campus rather than Nick Clegg.  A third of the membership is made up of people under the age of 30, unencumbered with a significant political tradition; it is normally surmised to be to the left of the party as whole.

For some, this rapid growth of an ‘anti-austerity’ party poses a dilemma. If the strategic aim is a regroupment around anti-austerity politics to form a broad party of ‘the left’ then it could be argued that the Green Party has done just that – it has taken the space to the left of the Labour Party in England and Wales that is occupied by other forces across the continent – it is the ‘anti-austerity’ broad party of the left.  This explains why some socialists, including some of those in the leadership in Left Unity, have called for a vote for Green party candidates on an anti-austerity basis.

The main advocates of the broad left party formulation, Socialist Resistance, who form the organisational backbone of Left Unity, have recently issued a statement calling for a vote for the Green Party as part of electoral arrangements with it as it is a “progressive’ party that has working class people in it.  It argues that the election of more Green MPs would be ‘a positive development”, meaning, as SR claims to be a socialist and revolutionary organisation, this would be in the interest of the working class. The statement argues that “the Greens are taking a large swathe of support that we hoped would have gone to Left Unity”. Socialist Resistance describes the Green Party as “…an organisation that best approximates to a left social democratic party, similar, for example, to Plaid Cymru, with a strong ecological profile.”

Three implications might be drawn from this. First is that the Green Party has taken a large part the left social democratic space previously occupied by Labour; second, that, as with left social democracy, socialists have to take seriously the question of whether or not to orientate to such a party because of a latent anti-capitalist dynamic that can be surfaced by real life class antagonisms being played out in society. Third, if the Green Party has taken a large swathe of support that was due to Left Unity,  and the electoral growth of the Greens is a progressive development with the numerical growth of the Greens being greatest among layers of radical anti-austerity youth, with the party being made up of proletarians, who, as Socialist Resistance argue “have to sell their labour power”, then surely the next logical step in building a broad party of the left must be to acknowledge these facts and join the party and become part of its growing socialist wing that must now outnumber any other socialist re-composition in Britain of the last thirty years?

The problem with this view is that it makes a very basic category error and mis-understands the central organising principle of Green politics. The party has never had a serious orientation to the labour movement – as Socialist Resistance note, the Green Party will have a presence at the TUC for the first time this year since the party was formed in 1972.  Instead, the roots of the party lie in concerns about over-population held by an ex-Conservative councillor who led formation of ‘The People Party’ in 1972.  So the slogan on Green Party 2015 election placards ‘For the common good’ is not simply a déclassé feel-good phrase thought up by the Green Party’s PR department, but a strong echo of its founding principles and an expression of the essence of Green Party politics.

So rather than being a left social democratic party with “a strong ecological profile”, as Socialist Resistance suggest, the Greens are an ecological party striking a radical pose in the present period in an attempt to take up the space previously inhabited by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour left. This is a similar stance to that taken by the SNP in Scotland – but rather than eschewing class politics for nationalism it is motivated by the over-arching concept of protecting the bio-sphere within which ‘the people’ live.  While a concern for the environment on its own terms is laudable enough, it does not have the essential class chemistry to be an approximation left social democracy – a sort of ersatz Labour left – it is in essence a form of ecological populism that has no class compass.

My own first-hand experience of the Green party was in Hackney in the early 2000s, when the London Borough experienced its own micro-austerity under New Labour. Chit Chong, who was the first Green Councillor to be elected in London, spoke at an anti-cuts demonstration outside the town hall and told the council workers who were facing redundancies and wage cuts to “try and see both points of view” – it was hard to hear what else Chit said as he was drowned out by booing. The absence of class instinct, or indeed, any understanding of class politics, was palpable.

Where Chit trod, others followed. Whenever the party has shared in power, it has attacked working class living standards through budget cuts. The Project readers will be well versed in the spending cuts that the Green have made in both Brighton and Bristol and the fierce debate over the exact meaning of these events. Green Party policy is, however, clear enough; in its most extensive policy statement on local democracy the party states: “To make councils more responsive and effective, it will be necessary to encourage cross-party cooperation, and weaken the hold of dogmatic ideologies and factions”.   Weakening the hold of ‘dogmatic ideologies’ has also led the Ealing Green Party to launch its Election 2015 crowd-funder appeal with the claim “The Green Party aren’t backed by millionaire hedge fund managers or trade union barons”.

Joseph Healy, former Green Party international committee member and party member for ten years, describes in the March issue of Red Pepper how sister Green parties in Ireland, France and the Czech Republic entered into coalitions and kept within the limits set by capital, attacking the working class in the process.  During the present election campaign Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has offered to continue supporting cuts as a part of a confidence and supply arrangement with a future Labour government. So pragmatism rules and Brighton and Bristol are par for the course and are simply implementing the party line. This does not augur well for a party not rooted in the labour movement and operating in a period of deep social crisis.

The Green Party’s fullest policy statement “What we stand for” is a detailed document covering over 35 policy areas; there are also statements of “Core Values” and “Philosophical Basis”.  The party states “This site is a record of our policies built up over the last 40 years of the Party’s existence”.  It has been meticulously drawn up and amended by the membership over time and care has been taken to ensure that areas interlock. Like any programme that is the product of sustained ideological thinking, key words, phrases and clauses are utilised that are based upon the deep lying theoretical positions not usually expressed or referenced by political parties in more public documents; it is the essential programmatic codification of Green theory.

Reading through the policy statements a world view emerges that does not see capitalism and the free market as a problem (the word capitalism appears only once) – it is just the ‘bigness’ and ‘anti-localism’ of the national and global corporation that irks the Green – similar to the ‘bigness’ of the ‘trade union baron’. So private banking, as long as it does not grow to greater than 10 per cent of the national or 5 per cent of the global market, is acceptable. By that measure in 2014 global revenue terms, Deutsche Bank is unacceptable at 5.5 per cent and Barclays Bank is acceptable as it is well below the threshold at 4.5 per cent.

This support of moderately sized capitalism is reflected in the Green policies on democracy in the workplace relations which advocates “employee elected directors” and the introduction of “even-handed arbitration mechanisms”.  “Worker participation” is a regular trope of parties that wish to civilise capital but cannot see a way past market forces as a mechanism for distributing goods and services. For the Green Party it is not the exploitation of one human being by another that is the central problem, just the degree of exploitation, the size and structure of the company that is undertaking it and the type of market it which it is allowed to operate. So in its description of the new ‘National Economy’ that the party wants, it advocates for the necessity of the “discipline and flexibility of the private sector”.

In essence the Green Party wishes for a radically democratised and decentralised form of capitalism. It does not even advocate for a Republic – instead in the 2015 election debates calling for a downsized monarchy with a ceremonial role. It is not an ‘anti-capitalist’ party and when in power it operates within the limits prescribed by capital. As such, no matter how much to the left it tacks at present, it is incapable of fighting for the interests of the working class.

While I can feel the pain of the Socialist Resistance at our collective failure to build a credible socialist presence in a period that has witnessed both mass austerity and imperialist war, its recent statement appears to be less a strategic analysis and more a counsel of despair born of the inability of the socialist left in England and Wales to establish a mass presence on either the electoral, industrial or social planes since the emergence of Blairism.  Whatever the difficulties socialist face, calling for support for a party that has values and strategies that are in opposition to the interest of the working class is no solution to the puzzle of socialist re-composition and advance in contemporary Britain.

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