Thursday, April 3, 2008


ALEX NUNN RED PEPPER There is a party, ostensibly of the left, that has more than 100 councilors (and rising), holds seats in the European Parliament and London Assembly, and might just drop an electoral bombshell by securing its first MP in the next general election. It's called the Green Party. But for reasons either of jealousy or good socialist sense, it is regularly hauled up before the Court of Left Opinion, suspected of being overly electoralist, unduly white, middle class, and Not Sufficiently Left. It doesn't even have factions that hate each other.

Confusingly for the presiding judges of the court, none of this seems to matter too much to the public jury, who are giving favorable verdicts to the Greens in growing numbers. Quietly, unassumingly, the Green Party of England and Wales has been making strides over the past few years, propelled by the ever-increasing urgency of the climate catastrophe.

One of the main reasons why the left is suspicious as to whether the Greens can be counted among its number is that it contains many people who simply do not associate themselves with the British left and its glorious history of defeat.

One such man is Chris Rose, the party's national election agent, who points out that 'many Green Party members wouldn't like to describe themselves as left. If we positioned ourselves as explicitly left it would be dangerous, with no guarantee of success. We need to keep our reputation on the environment.'

But London Assembly member Darren Johnson, who is not on the left of the party, takes a different view: 'I'm not a socialist but I feel comfortable about being on the progressive left. Not the far left - we never will be. But we're the serious party of the left and a potential power broker working with centre left parties.'

One thing is beyond doubt. Whether or not they see themselves as left, the Greens have a manifesto as radical as any other, based on sustainability and equality, which if implemented would constitute nothing short of a revolution. Their espousal of an end to economic growth is unique, and has resulted in attacks from parties who believe in either capitalism or the traditional Marxist model of growth leading to a world of plenty. Instead, the Greens promote economic localization, and say wealth should be measured not in GDP but in overall wellbeing.

And the party's policies stretch far wider than the environment. They would (if they could) make income tax more progressive; replace VAT with eco-taxes; replace benefits with a non-means tested citizens' income for everyone; increase the pension; nationalize the railways; welcome asylum seekers; stop the privatization of council housing; reverse the privatization of health and education; . . . scrap prescription charges; scrap tuition fees; scrap ID cards; scrap nuclear weapons and scrap wars.

So far so good. But other leftists squeal that when it comes down to electoral politics the Greens can be bloody uncooperative, as when they refused to make a pact with Respect before the last general election. Darren Johnson is defiant: 'We often get criticized by left groups for standing against them, but they can't even sustain coalitions with each other! It would have been a disaster if we had had a coalition with Respect - look where they are now.'

But hang on. The Greens do form alliances on councils - and have even been known to work with Tories. Most controversial was a coalition with the Conservatives and Lib Dems on Leeds City Council. The Greens eventually pulled out over plans for a new waste incinerator in 2006, after two years, but in many other places the Greens co-operate informally with other parties, including Tories. . .

The potential for such unholy alliances goes further than just the council level. In December David Cameron announced that he wanted a 'progressive alliance' with the Lib Dems and the Greens to push for decentralization. They rejected the offer as a publicity stunt, but it pointed to a new and unexpected problem for the Greens - they're suddenly very popular with the other parties. . .

Darren Johnson believes the existence of the Green Party over the years has contributed to people taking the environment seriously, but that this is not enough. 'We have put pressure on the other parties to green up their act,' he says, 'but we aren't just a pressure group. In terms of making things happen you need Greens elected - not necessarily in government but in a position to really push the agenda.'. . .

One of the reasons why the Greens have so far failed to break through that credibility barrier at the national level is the first-past-the-post voting system. In Germany, and more recently in Ireland and Scotland since devolution (where there is a separate Green Party), the Greens have fared well under proportional representation. Ironically, the experience of these successes suggests that the barriers erected by the electoral rules might be one reason why the English and Welsh Green Party tends to be more left than its European cousins, which have often been sucked into the prevailing system. . .

A cursory glance around the Green Party's conference in Reading in February revealed that delegates were indeed overwhelmingly white and well-spoken; many of them boasted a Dr before their name; and an improbably high proportion of members seemed to have a perfect grasp of the most intricate details of green energy technologies. But this is unfair. Something similar is true of most party conferences. . . and the Greens had a higher proportion of women than is usually seen.

Away from conference, Greens insist they have been picking up support in ethnic minority and working class areas. The best example of this is Lewisham in south-east London where the Greens occupy six of 54 seats on the council. Darren Johnson, who has been a Lewisham councillor since 2002, as well as a London Assembly member, tells how he 'started campaigning in Lewisham in the mid-1990s. By 1998 we got 30 per cent in my ward. That was the Guardian-reading middle classes, but it proved enough of a base to then widen our support. The big difference now is that we're getting votes on the council estates, which make up about a quarter of the ward. You can't get 50 per cent in Lewisham without significant support from ethnic minorities and the working class.'

Meanwhile, Stuart Jeffery thinks the class accusation is outrageous. 'We're not middle class idiots,' he barks (as your intrepid questioner ducks for cover). 'That's quite offensive. I don't mind being called an idiot but don't call me middle class.'


At April 6, 2008 2:17 AM, Blogger GreenCutip said...

Interesting read. Yea the Greens all over the world seem to be open to cooperating with center-right parties (Ireland with Fianna Fail, the Czech Greens with the Civic Party, and very soon the Greens in the town of Hesse with the Christian Democrats)

As a Green myself, I like that we emphasis cooperation and try to find common ground with all non-fascist parties. I think people need to realize that the Green ideology is a unique one in itself and doesn't fit the Left-Right spectrum.

We people call me a Left-winger, I respond, "No, I am a Green!"


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