An event in Manchester last month served to demonstrate to me the limitations of the politics of the Green Party. It was on the TUC demonstration in support of the NHS; a huge, cheerful and largely working class march, the biggest in Manchester in living memory, according to the local police. There were two or three Green Party banners in evidence and a scattering of people carrying Green Party placards, apparently produced specially for the march, with a variety of limp slogans along the lines of ‘Halt Austerity – we have the answer’. However, the only really significant Green Party presence that would have been noticed by most marchers was to be found on the pavement at the point were the march passed closest to the Tory conference venue. There assembled was a group of thirty or forty Greens, some in fancy dress, staging a demonstration against the culling of badgers.
Now, despite what the idiot who has taken upon himself the hand crocheted mantle of the Green Party’s Senator McCarthy may say, we ecosocialists have nothing against badgers, indeed, some of my best friends are badgers. We would all agree that the current badger cull is a bad thing, that it flies in the face of scientific evidence, that it’s likely to actually make matters worse etc, etc. However, on that day, in that place, to stage a ‘save the badger’ demo was an act of naive sectarianism.
It was sectarian in that rather than try to demonstrate the integration of the Green Party within the wider movement, so clearly represented by the huge crowd that day, the Greens in their badger masks actually sought to differentiate themselves from that movement. The demonstration was for them, at least in part, an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the broad movement against cuts to the Health Service and preach to it about badgers, and no doubt about ‘speciesism’.
As the great American socialist Hal Draper put it; ‘What characterises the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves.’
It was naive because, clearly, the Greens demonstrating on behalf of the badgers as the largest labour movement march in the living memory of Manchester went by just didn’t understand the significance of what was happening. They were watching a tiny flicker of resistance by the one force capable of really challenging the Tories and their bag carriers, the only force with the potential for implementing the fundamental changes to society that all of us – including the badgers no doubt – believe are vital. They were watching the giant of organised labour starting – perhaps – to stir from its long sleep.
But they didn’t get it – and the Green Party corporately doesn’t get it. For most Greens, the political landscape is timeless and largely unchanging. It is inhabited by two and a half ‘major’ political parties who compete to gain or keep political office through marketing campaigns aimed at what they see as key sections of a passive and largely apathetic electorate. The dominating urge of most Greens is to join in that competition, but with a different set of paper policies to sell. The idea that the political consciousness of ordinary people is not fixed and that they can become active participants in changing society in fundamental ways just doesn’t seem to occur to most Green would-be politicians, nor the idea that real political change will only come about through the self activity of working people organised in a mass movement.
Eighteen months or so ago, in a paper on the future of Green Left, I argued that we had to make the membership of the Green Party realise that its future had to be as ‘merely one part of a much larger, though inchoate, movement of working people who share our fundamental goal of a just and equal society.’ I suggested that Greens could play a crucial role in helping to mobilise and focus that movement and bring to it valuable insights into the ecological aspects of the crisis humanity faces, but that ‘we cannot substitute ourselves for it.’ While many members of Green Left have attempted to play such a role, their influence on the direction of the Green Party as a whole has proved to be minimal.
This Spring, in a paper for the Green Left AGM, I argued that the vacillation and programmatic zig zagging displayed by the Green Party was entirely predictable, given the sharpening political situation, the Party’s narrow social composition and the skewed and shallow nature of its radicalism. Since then, the ground has shifted even more. The Party has, in my view, begun to move to the right, with a series of significant defeats for the left at the recent party conference, the election or co-option of a number of right wingers to the Executive and the appointment of a number of wanna-be careerists as party spokespeople. At the same time, the need for a conscious and systematic attempt to work within working class communities to assist them in the concrete daily struggles that they face, with the aim of building a popular base that can begin to challenge Labour’s slowly crumbling hegemony, has never been more urgent.
If there was no alternative to fighting what I suspect many members of Green Left know in their heart of hearts is an unwinnable battle to lever the Green party out of its comfortable niche of liberal radicalism, then a case could, I suppose, be made for continuing with it – although there are many useful single issue campaigns, along with trade union activity, that would probably be more useful. However, the world has moved on since the Spring and there is now an alternative, or at least there may be one in the next few weeks.
The remarkable phenomenon of the Left Unity initiative is potentially a game changer that ecosocialists would be ill advised to ignore or dismiss. The response to Ken Loach’s appearance on Question Time on 28 February, in which he said that we need a broad movement of the left to fight against the sell-off of the NHS and privatisation – ‘a UKIP of the Left’ – was extraordinary. His appeal for people ‘to discuss the formation of a new political party of the Left to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity’ was put up on Andrew Burgin’s Left Unity website a few days later and within hours hundreds of people were signing up to it. As of now, over 10,000 have signed up to Ken’s appeal and around 1,000 of those have already committed to being ‘founder members’ of the new party that will be launched at the end of November. There are 83 local groups are at various stages of formation, with perhaps half of them already active.
The key point about this initiative is that it is explicitly NOT yet another pre-doomed attempt to regroup the existing grouplets of the far left – rearranging the deck-chairs on the Potemkin, as it were. It is, rather, an attempt to build a base among the hundreds of thousands of former Labour Party members or supporters who now feel – rightly – that they have been disenfranchised. In other words, the Left Unity initiative wants to see the development of exactly the sort of broad based party of the left that Green Left has, sort of, argued the Green Party should aspire to become and it is gaining its support from exactly the constituency that we have argued that the Green Party should focus on.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this initiative will get off the ground. There is already some division between those who want the new party to follow the route described above and those who want it to be a rather more sharply drawn party which is, in effect more a regroupment of the existing organised far left (a sort of Socialist Alliance Mark II), which may or may not be resolved at the founding conference.
In my view, it’s a long shot. The odds are probably against this attempt to build a ‘party of a new sort’ succeeding. Nonetheless, it is a genuine attempt to build a mass, democratic, socialists party that is green, feminist and anti-capitalist but which is rooted in the day to day realities of the lives of ordinary people rather than concerned with telling them what they jolly well should be concerned with. That, it seems to me, has to be the highest priority of any socialist in Britain today and it is, I believe, the key priority for most members of Green Left. The decision we have to make is how best we can build such a party.
We shouldn’t continue to deceive ourselves that there is any chance that the Green Party, despite its environmental concerns and programmatic radicalism, can be transformed into such a party – indeed, the vast majority of Greens absolutely don’t want their party even to aim to be an organic part of a wider labour movement. It is a middle class radical/liberal party which, if it is not marginalised by a revival of Labour and the Lib Dems and succeeds in growing its niche audience, will be forced inexorably to the right, as all other green parties in similar circumstances have been. The Left Unity initiative may be a long shot, but unlike the Green Party it does want to build the sort of movement that most of us believe to be vital. To me, a choice between a slim chance and no chance at all is a no brainer. I will be joining the new party when it is established on 30 November and I urge all my friends and comrades in Green Left to do the same.