What Now for the Green Party?

By David  Taylor, formerly Sedgemoor Green Party co-ordinator and Chair of West Somerset Green Party

The Green Party seems to be taking increasingly desperate measures to justify its existence. Yet climate change is now recognised, almost universally as the most serious issue facing humanity – so why the anomaly? As usual, to quote Harold Macmillan, it’s “events, dear boy”: in this case the events put in train by Corbyn`s rise and Brexit. Both are compounded, by the origins and social composition of the Green Party itself.

During the Blair years the party started to break out of the old Ecology Party niche, with its emphasis on lifestyle choices, and opposed not only the Iraq war but New Labour`s economic policies. After the 2008 financial crash and the election of Caroline Lucas as the first Green Party MP, this process accelerated and attracted many who had been politically homeless in the face of the New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem consensus for globalisation, privatisation and austerity. Many were former Labour Party activists and by 2015 the party had its best ever general election result – fought on a social justice and anti-austerity agenda and membership peaked at 68,000.

Some say that the success of this Green Surge helped to open the door for Corbyn. Most of the Green’s  policies of 2015 were in Labour`s 2017 manifesto and most of the activists who joined the Green Party from Labour returned to work for a radical Corbyn-led government. The notion that such a government was now a real possibility focused the minds of many other Green Party members. Was supporting Labour now a more realistic vehicle for radical social change than just voting Green ? Obviously Labour had the potential to be more effective, but only if the left won the battle in the party and its green policies were extended, prioritised and implemented.

In spite of these caveats many did decide to join Labour (some saying they did so with a heavy heart). Nearly 40,000 left the Green Party during 2017/18 including many experienced activists and people who had held key positions on leading bodies. The current membership of around 36,000 reflects a more recent influx – mostly people attracted by the People’s Vote on Brexit stance of the Green Party leadership.

In 2013 the Green Party conference decided to define the party “as a party of environmental and social justice, the two elements being inseparable”. The loss of many on the left of the party since 2016 led to calls to “go back to our core roots” and scrap the social justice dimension. The days when Natalie Bennett could tell conference “ask not what the trade unions can do for us, Ask what we can do for the trade unions !” were over. The leadership were in a bind, unsure of how to position the party and it was clear that a difficult period lay ahead This was amply confirmed at the 2017 general election when the Greens lost 700,000 votes, mostly to Labour. But in 2016, with Caroline Lucas back again as leader, the party concentrated its efforts on a “Yes to the EU” campaign for the Brexit referendum. This was a shift from the historical position of favouring localism “think global, act local” to ceding control to centralised, unaccountable blocs. In fact, the party was largely eurosceptic from its foundation – until 2016!

The Leave result in the EU referendum was entirely predictable; the government having handed voters a cudgel, millions took the opportunity to bash them with it – for reasons often unconnected with Europe. This is where the class nature of the Green Party comes in. The party has a far higher proportion of academics, professionals and middle and upper class members than any other party – the very people who were horrified by the result. Some could hardly believe it, saying their lives were shattered whilst others thought about leaving the country. So no big surprise that the party piled onto the “People’s Vote” bandwagon with enthusiasm, making it a top policy priority, This call for a second referendum confirmed the widely held view that the establishment wanted endless votes until the people “voted the right way” – as had happened with EU votes in several countries in the past.

“A series of missteps and strategic errors”

Countless people have been inspired by Caroline Lucas who never seemed to put a foot wrong in her approach, her media appearances or her analysis. She still has wide public respect and will probably become a “national treasure” but the shock of Brexit resulted in a series of missteps and strategic errors. The Green Party seemed locked into a period of panic reactions to events – backing the divisive “People’s Vote” campaign;  and moving heaven and earth to make sure the Urgent Holistic Review (HR) proposals to change the Green Party structure took effect. The 2018 Autumn conference spent more time wrangling over internal party organisation than debating the political challenges facing the party. The membership at large had little or no interest in the HR rigmarole or the referendum to agree the changes. Party staff and resources had to be fully mobilised to harvest enough votes for a 16% turnout and avoid an “egg on face” outcome.

The Green Party has some of the trappings of an NGO including a well paid CEO and a culture tending to favour outsourcing of tasks to “professional” companies and fundraisers rather than using the skills and expertise which many members have offered voluntarily. These same members are bombarded with financial appeals to support a head office bureaucracy whose internal workings are pretty hit and miss with constant changes in staff and systems. A review to make the party more efficient and member friendly would be a good idea but the HR is almost the exact opposite.

Decisions on political activities will be centralised in an 11 member Political Executive (PEX) and the Board of Directors of a limited company will deal with staff, finance and day to day functions. A 45 member Council will take on all the work done by committees currently dealing with policy development, conferences, publications and campaigning and international affairs.

Only a dozen of these 61 posts will be directly elected. This adds up to centralisation of control by the party leadership and bureaucracy. Members have described the abolition of the International Committee as “Our Very Own Brexit” as the changes do not accord with the rules of the European Green Party.

The first fruits of the HR decision-making process were not long in coming. In early 2019 a “WinterFest” was held to review policy and discuss possible conference motions. More of these forums are in the pipeline with the distinct possibility that Spring conference will be ended or downgraded. This is all too reminiscent of New Labour under Blair when policy forums, attended by a minority of councillors, wonks and spin doctors made policy, and conference became little more than a rally. Labour have now scrapped the forums in favour of more democracy and a much more democratic conference. A new Green Party Political Strategy document says “research on the 2017 general election has shown that the party does not ‘own’ an important and popular policy in the eyes of the electorate. We will undertake further research to help us identify which of our policies might fi ll this gap.” If only we had George Orwell to comment on these immortal lines!

A Green Objectives section defines the key objectives as environmentalism and “social liberalism” – a slippery term to replace “social justice”. Then we have the Strategic Objectives which include overtaking the Lib Dems to become the third most popular party; increasing councillors to 300 (out of 14,000!); retain the Green MP; poll 1,000,000 at the next general election and reach 80,000 members by 2022. This wish list puts the party only slightly ahead of where it was in 2015, yet by 2022, on worst case scenarios, we will be only eight years away from unstoppable climate breakdown.

Many people though that the Urgent Holistic Review would be confined to organisational tinkering but it has become clear that such a root and branch reorganisation reflects a political reorientation. The main activity of the Green Party has always been electoral and, with no prospect of more MPs in the near future, the party is now focused on competing with the Lib Dems – in mainly Tory-held local council seats. If the motley crew of Blairites, Tories and Labour rejects of the “Independent Group” manage to contest local elections, they will also be competing for the same ground. All Green Party members have had an appeal from HQ assuring them that they would have to do nothing more than sign their name to become a “paper candidate”. The hope must be to contest enough seats to keep up the appearance of still ranking as a player.

More generally the party is concentrating on “green thinking” people, those who are really concerned quite narrowly with environmental questions. Taken together with the “People’s Vote” axis, this denotes a distinct middle class orientation which inevitably moves the party in a rightward direction. No longer a social democratic anti-austerity party, but “eco-libdem” with councillors morphing into a band of Lib Dem lookalikes with a green streak.

In a global context all this may seem like a sideshow at a far corner of the fair. It is, in fact, part of a pattern. The 2008 financial crash ended three decades of unstable equilibrium for the world economy and we entered a new era of uncertainty which has been described as a “post-modern” variant of the 1930s. In Europe opposition to austerity and the rise of populism has led to the near collapse of opposition parties identified with the Establishment. This includes Green parties in France, Italy, Greece and elsewhere. The Irish Greens are only starting to recover from their wipe-out after entering Coalition with austerity parties. In the 2018 Swedish general election the Green party lost 10 seats (down to 15) whilst the Left party gained 7 seats (up to 28). Where the Greens and the Left are united, substantial gains have been made. In the Netherlands local elections, the Green Left topped the poll in several cities and came second in Amsterdam.

In the European parliament the UK`s three Green MEPs are in the Nordic Green Left bloc and know better than most that the “Another Europe is Possible” campaign most closely resembled official Green Party policy. Yet in the Brexit debate the party seemed joined at the hip with the official Remain campaign. Even worse, the party leadership later made common cause with, and appeared on platforms with, leading Lib Dem, Tory and Blairite Labour MPs, calling for another referendum – identifying the Green Party as part of the Establishment. Personally, I voted Remain, mainly in disgust at the xenophobia whipped up by the Leave campaign and sections of the media. There is another side of the story though. An old friend lives on a large ex-council estate where austerity has inflicted an almost Dickensian level of poverty, where people are literally starving and where little kids rummage in bins for food before they go to school. He told me that he had never seen such solidarity and community spirit on the estate, as the residents turned out to vote Leave. After being ignored for years, with nothing left to lose, here was a chance to “stick it to the man”. A pretty well-heeled crowd of people, draped in EU flags, later told them they were wrong, illustrating both the divisive nature of Brexit and the distraction it has been from the real issues.

The Green Party is not alone in facing an uncertain future, the other parties being equally at the mercy of unknowable events. Nevertheless we can be certain that concern about climate change will mushroom as people move from being aware to being scared and there will be a wider and more receptive audience for the Greens. Unfortunately, the Green Party has been particularly prone to attract those who regard membership as another item to add to their green portfolio, and after a bit of box ticking, they play no further part in party deliberations or activities. Caroline Lucas has described the Green Party as “necessary but not sufficient”, stressing the need to engage with co-thinkers in Parliament and campaigners outside. This is truer than ever.

The climate crisis can be only be tackled at government level and with countries working together on a global scale and, if humanity is to have a future, an end to the capitalist model of never-ending exploitation of resources to maintain constant growth. Bearing in mind the timescale this seems a tall order but we can only do what we can. For now this must include supporting the election of a Corbyn-led progressive government while working with those such as Red Green Labour who are raising the profile of climate change and economic growth issues within the Labour Party, and demand that a future Labour-led government will lead the move towards green policies.