An open letter to the members of Green Left

TUC Day of Action


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.

Ken Loach

Ken Loach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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14 Responses to An open letter to the members of Green Left

  1. Peter Allen says:

    Time will tell whether you are right about Left Unity Sean. As for myself I am sticking with the Green Party

  2. I was carrying the red Brent Trades Council banner, a Green Party placard condemning health and education privatisation, and 20 Ecosocialist newspapers under my arm when we encountered the Green badger group – not my happiest moment. I seem to remember foxes at the last Tory Conference Manchester demo…

    As always an honest and clear analysis but I am not as pessimistic as you about the Greens and the wider Labour and working class movement. Our position on railway nationalisation is a sign that we can make links with TUs and the RMT’s support for Caroline Lucas’s re-election campaign give some ground for working on new alliances around concrete demands. If only we could could get our education policy sorted there are big opportunities amongst teachers, parents and students.

    On the ground here in Brent we are working well within the anti-cuts campaign as well as the the Brent Campaign Against Climate Change. We have good ‘critical friend’ relationships with many on the left as well as community activists. Whether this is enough is something that concerns me and a reason I will follow what happens to you and the Left Unity project with great interest.

    Martin Francis

  3. Jake Welsh says:

    This blog post contains lies about the Green Party’s involvement of the march against the Tory Party conference in Manchester in September 2013. There were 700 anti-austerity Green Party placards made for this march and all were handed out. Only 10 anti-badger cull posters were made. The vast majority of Green Party activists were not there to protest against the badger cull, they were there to protest against the austerity measures of the current government. I know this because I was both involved in that badger cull protest and the making of those 700 placards.

    • You’re missing the point Jake.I mentioned the shortcomings of the Green involvement in the Manchester demonstration merely to exemplify the limitations of the Green Party’s politics overall – limitations that you don’t address. The point of what I was saying was to suggest that the choice for ecosocialists now is between working in a small petty bourgeois radical party which doesn’t want to build a mass movement of working people and helping to establish a new party which does want to. Instead of dealing with this substantive issue, you chose to get your knickers in a twist because, in passing, I criticised the anti-culling demo that you took part in as being inappropriate in that context. This demonstrates either an evasion of the main question or a bloody peculiar set of political priorities. As far as lying is concerned, I can only report what I saw. The only visible Green Party involvement in the Manchester march that most participants would have been aware of was (apart from some very bland placards – I’m sorry Jake, but they were piss poor), a small anti badger cull demo that was a textbook example of sectarianism.

      I note that elsewhere you accuse me of speciesism,and of saying that ‘we shouldn’t be involved in animal issues but instead human issues’. Leaving aside the fact that I have nowhere suggested the latter, I think that your accusation of ‘speciesism’ and description of it as a ‘form of discrimination not unlike racism and sexism’ says all that needs to be said about the Green Party’s sentimental moralism.

      • Jake Welsh says:

        Me missing the point? 700 anti-austerity placards (whether they were well designed or not, I have my concerns there as well, is irrelevant – as an aside, the slogans were chosen by no more than 2 people as far as I’m aware) and 10 badger cull posters means the Green Party are not being involved in the labour movement or the anti-cuts movement but are focussing on sectarian issues like caring about badgers? I don’t even understand how that would be sectarian if it was true! Can you explain to me how that was sectarian?

        Maybe around 200 badger activists were at the badger cull protest, and around 10 of them were Green Party members, not a single one of them in fancy dress or wearing a badger mask. Another few hundred badger cull protesters did not stop and carried on with the march (some of them got separated along the way). The badger part of the march was organised by Animal Rights UK, not the Green Party just like the anti-fracking part of the march wasn’t organised by the Green Party. There were lots of people there for reasons other than NHS/anti-austerity, not just badger cull protesters.

        Also, did you see the Bolton Green Party banner? The Manchester Green Party banner? the Norwich Green Party banner? The North West Green Party banner? All those banners were out (and maybe more) and none of them were at the badger part of the march.

        If these aren’t lies, they are mistruths. They are not telling the truth of what happened at that march yet you are presenting these things are true facts. You are claiming the main presence on the march was 30/40 Greens dressed up as badgers doing a “sectarian” protest. This was not true, and furthermore there were maybe a couple of hundred Green Party activists on various other parts of the march, and 700 anti-austerity Green Party placards which a lot of work was put in to produce.

        I became an anti-speciesist long before I joined the Green Party, and many within the Green Party are speciesist. I have considered leaving Green Left due to speciesism. The Green Party is full of people like you, caring about human-centric issues and not giving a damn about animal issues. I care about both issues, and environmental issues equally. I’m involved in the anti-austerity movement as well as the animal rights movement.

      • Oh dear, oh dear Jake, you continue to grasp the wrong end of the stick in a death grip. I’m not calling on ecosocialists to abandon the Green Party because of the quality or number of placards produced for a march, nor because of the number of Green Party banners on it (and as I was marching along inn the middle of the Unite section I could only see a small part of the whole demonstration; as ever, it’s those who stand on the sidelines that have the best viewpoint). And I’m not suggesting that the Green Party is a dead end as far as building a mass movement of working people is concerned just because some Greens (and/or some other greens) staged an anti cull demo – and while we’re on the subject, what exactly gives you the right to announce that I ‘don’t give a damn about animal issues’? Can you see inside my head? Does being a vegan make you not only a morally superior person but give you x-ray vision?.

        What I am saying is that the Green Party is just another sect; much bigger than the far left sects and rather more civilised than most of them, but just as trapped within the walls of its own programmatic purity with which it separates itself from the outside world as the SWP or the Socialist Party. I’m saying that the Green Party clearly does not want to be the sort of organisation we need to build that mass movement, and that therefore socialists should join with others who do want to try to build it, even if the odds are against it. The reference to the Manchester march was merely supposed to illustrate the quote from Hal Draper – that is the heart of what my piece is about, not placards, banners or badgers. I suggest you read what Draper has to say again.

      • Mary Foster says:

        Uh oh. I had every sympathy with your original premise: that badger culling might be a divisive issue among people who need to form a coalition of people across a broad demographic spectrum to fight neoliberal policy. However, your enmity toward the environmental movement overall is more than evident in this ensuing comment. The argument then becomes symptomatic of a power struggle rather than honest critique.

      • I obviously didn’t express myself clearly. I’m very much in favour of a campaign against badger culling. I don’t think that such a campaign is necessarily divisive within the context of the ‘broad demographic spectrum to fight neoliberal policy’ that you mention. And I don’t have any enmity towards the environmental movement – I have been ‘green’ since the early seventies, long before the ‘green movement’ started and, as an early member of SERA, I was an ecosocialist thirty years before I the term was invented. My central point was simply about the limitations of the politics of the Green Party, which make it incapable of building – or, sadly, even of playing a part in building, it seems – the broad based movement of working people for equality and social justice that is a sine que non for meeting the environmental crises that face humanity.

      • Jake Welsh says:

        That Might be so, but you are still spreading lies about what happened on that march. I believe there are two different things happening in the Green Party – those who do want to be a part of the movement that you want to be a part of, and those that want to appeal to the masses (let’s face it, the labour movement in the UK is extremely tiny). On that day a good number of Green Party people who want to be a part of the same labour movement that you want to be a part of put a lot of effort to get 700 anti-austerity placards (badly designed or not) handed out and ran several stalls and had several banners out. Just because you were at a section of the march where you didn’t see many of these placards doesn’t mean they didn’t have a big presence. There’s also lies about 30 or 40 Greens protesting the badger cull, there were no more than 10 Green Party badger cull protesters. No wonder the people who put in effort to organise within the Green Party to be a part of this movement feel like giving up when this is the thanks they get!

  4. Peter Allen says:

    Sean. When you enquired as to the origins of the Green Party placards on the march, with the demand to “reverse the cuts” rather than simply stop them I thought it was with a view to commending the slogan rather than labelling it “piss poor” I find it hard to reconcile your portrayal of the Green Party ‘s contribution to the march, which I thought was substantial and significant, with the reality. An unfortunate way to end our comradeship in the Green Party …… All the best anyway!

  5. james? says:

    what i find odd is that the author of the post has made a tactical decision to go with left unity so now has to intensify critisisms of the green party. even if left unity is a better fit for him and even if it has some success it is still possible that left unity may want to work with the greens say for example on the campaign against pfi or fracking or the war. if left unity had a member of parliament for example (yes i know that is unlikely) it would have to work with caroline lucas and probably plaid cymru on that work. i think elsewhere i have seen the writer of this blog argue that left unity will have to work with greens and others. my problem with left unity is that they are argueing already about what they want to be and the left platform sounds like a green party mark two and that the socialist platform sounds like a tusc mark two. finally the fact is that its not just the green party that has been pushed to the right in power but all left wing parties apart from those who adopted authoritarian methods. the central question of how to avoid this has still not been solved we will not find pure organisations left unity will either be unsuccessful or have to grapple with these questions just as syrizia and die linke are doing.

    • The thing is, my criticism of the Green Party as a sect which will lead nowhere unless it breaks out of its obsession with abstract programmatic correctness and orientates towards being merely a small part (a useful and enriching part) of a much wider movement of working people, is one which I have made – at length – repeatedly over the last few years. There is nothing in my piece that I haven’t written previously in papers for Green Left – to the general approval of its members at the time. What has changed in the past few months is that the attacks on working people have grown more vicious, the Green Party has, inevitably, begun an unsteady and hesitant move to the right and a new initiative has emerged, which shows some promise in trying to do the concrete down to earth work in local communities that needs to be done to build a party of, as well as for, working people.

      Of course the new party should work with the Greens on all sorts of issues and of course it will work closely with the splendid Caroline Lucas – and, I hope, Plaid. I have already argued within the fledgling organisation that not only should it not stand in the Euro elections but that it should, at least in a number of key regions, actively support the Green lists. As far as the 2015 election is concerned there seems to be general agreement within LU that decent existing left MPS should be supported – and that of course would include Caroline Lucas as well as the members of the Campaign Group. When it comes to local elections I believe that there is within LU a pragmatic approach to trying to establish electoral non aggression pacts wherever possible, not only with TUSC (which has pretty well shot its bolt, I think) but with the Greens and others. My concern is that the Greens in many areas are likely not to be at all welcoming to such overtures.

  6. Malcolm Bailey says:

    Sean, it’s sad that your parting shot is a gross misrepresentation of the Green Party, and Green Left.

    • Malcolm, I’m not aware that I have written anything about the Green Party in this piece that I haven’t repeatedly said and written for the past six years or so. I have repeatedly argued that it is a sect, a well behaved, pleasant middle class sect, but a sect nonetheless. And I have repeatedly argued that unless it broke out from the walls of programmatic purity it had built round itself and identify itself as a valuable constituent part of the wider labour movement, it would, over time, move to the right. Well, Malcolm, that’s beginning to happen isn’t it? As far as misrepresenting Green Left is concerned, I’m at a loss – I haven’t said anything at all about Green Left in my piece. I’m very fond of the members of Green left (well, most of them) and only regret that although most of them share my critique of the Green Party, most of them have not made the same tactical choice as me. And it’s not my parting shot Malcolm, I’m not retiring just yet – I’m just not going to waste time in the Green Party, no matter how agreeable that may be, when there is important stuff to do in the real world outside.

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