How Three Green Parties Went Wrong

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The experience of Greens in Ireland, Czech Republic and Germany shows that you can’t be a progressive force while selling your soul for a seat at the big man’s table.

by Jim Jepps
from The Daily (Maybe), June 5, 2010

There’s nothing particularly left-wing about caring about the environment. I know plenty of Tories who are passionate about tackling climate change for instance. And when I say plenty I mean two, but I’ve no reason to doubt their sincerity. In fact conservationism, the movements to preserve the lesser spotted voles of Dingle Wood and chums, has often been the preserve of the more conservative elements of society.

The Charter of the Global Greens sees Green Party politics as something far wider than simply caring about the environment. The six core strands are “Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Participatory Democracy, Nonviolence, Sustainability, Respect for Diversity” which looks to four movements; “the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the labour movement.”

In other words the politics of the Green Parties around the world are not just about single issue campaigning, there is a specific and integrated political philosophy even if, like all parties, this is often realised in very different ways in different countries.

Internationally each Green Party has a unique history as well as common political ground.

In Holland the franchise is called the Green Left and was formed in 1989 by a merger of the Communist Party of the Netherlands, Pacifist Socialist Party, the Political Party of Radicals and the Evangelical People’s Party. In Denmark the Green sister party is the Socialistisk Folkeparti, or Socialist People’s Party, a party formed decades ago by leading Communist Party members who’d been expelled for opposing the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

These are left parties very comfortably nestled in the international brotherhood of tree huggers.

Ireland: Green suicide

Other parties have a more “deep green” history. The Irish Greens tell us that they were the brainchild, in 1981, of Christopher Fettes (right) who was “[a]ctive in the Vegetarian Society, the Esperanto movement and Friends of the Earth”.

It’s just speculation on my part but it may be that this eclectic collection of nice interests were not a strong enough foundation on which to stand when they were given the opportunity to prop up a discredited right-wing government without gaining any significant policy concessions.

Indeed the fact that they got into bed with Fianna Fáil at all when their leader at the time had gone into the election saying that he would not lead the party into such a coalition (he resigned in order to keep his word) was not just an electoral error of judgment it was, in my view, an unprincipled placing of seats at the table of government before the political purpose of the Green Party.

They placed the interests of the party above fighting for what they believed in. As one ex-member put it; It has been painful, then, to observe the conduct of the Greens since they joined a coalition government with Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s largest party, in 2007. Principles once regarded as sacrosanct have been abandoned, as the Greens have morphed from the party of education and equality into one that accepts cutbacks for schools, bailouts for feckless bankers and “civil partnerships” that deny gays and lesbians the same rights as heterosexuals. That is not to say that the Irish Greens leap on each and every opportunity to steer right, far from it. John Gormley’s Parliamentary speech on the Gaza flotilla this week is powerful stuff, for example, but you can’t ignore the fact that the Irish Greens have embraced the kind of right-wing economic policies of cuts and privatisation that would make any self-respecting socialist’s hair curl.

By separating its own interests from the movements in which it should have been based the Greens in Ireland not only threw away their own political compass they discarded any reason for people to actually vote for them. They were heftily punished in last year’s European and council elections more than halving their vote and seeing their representation slashed. You can’t posture as a progressive force while selling your soul for a seat at the big man’s table.

Czech mates chosen poorly

The Irish Greens are not alone in finding themselves out in the cold after unwise coalitions with the right. Czech Green leader Ondrej Liska, right, must know how they feel.

The Czech Greens had just started to make electoral headway achieving 6.3% in the 2006 elections, winning 6 of 200 Parliamentary seats. However, they used those votes to go into government with two right-wing parties, the Civic Democrats and the Christian Democrats, taking the education and environment ministries.

This year, after three years of association with corruption, mismanagement and instability, the Greens received just over a third of their previous vote and didn’t win a single seat. In a year when all the parties of the establishment were being punished new and radical parties made great headway – the Greens found themselves on the wrong side of that division crashing and burning as a party of the stale elites rather than rising like the new political stars offering a new political direction, sadly further to the right.

For a party that’s meant to be looking to the long term rather than the short termist PR approach of the old politics these are poor decisions. The argument may be that you have to take these opportunities in order to be ‘influential’ but in reality if you want to be an influential political force for the next twenty years going into the first coalition that comes your way and getting completely wiped out isn’t wise.

In fairness to these parties it’s not that they are natural parties of the right but that they weren’t politically astute enough to see the traps and too opportunist to care that they were committing to fatally compromise a radical vision to a conservative ungreen future where a few Ministers wear sandals.

German examples

My last example, for sake of brevity (!) will be from Germany. Die Grünen is one of the largest Green Parties in the world and has its roots in the environmental, anti-nuclear and peace movements. Just to show that Green parties do not always go into coalition with the centre right in 1998 they went into a Red-Green coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Certainly this is not unusual. In France the coalition partners of choice are the Socialist Party, in Italy the Greens were an ultra-left part of the Prodi cabinet and when the coalition fell apart they joined forces with the hard left to contest the next elections, just as in Portugal the Greens there are all but merged with ex-Communist Party types.

That does not mean all went well, as before the ink was dry on the coalition deal we saw the launch of the Kosovan war courtesy of Mr Blair and Mr Clinton. The German government, including its bright and shiny Green Ministers supported the bombing. Understandably many previous supporters were disgusted and left the party. However whilst their vote dipped temporarily in the long term they were able to balance pragmatism with gaining electoral support.

The Greens also found the coalition difficult terrain to negotiate and many critics feel they were too ready to concede to the pro-business agenda of the SPD and could have, or should have, pushed for the dismantling of nuclear power stations more vigorously – it’s difficult to know what was possible within the confines of the alliance but what is clear is that the experience has left the German Greens with burned fingers and on a local level some areas have begun to consider center-right coalition partners.

This is a process that’s still in motion and hotly contested within the German party. Just as the leftist Die Linke has its different wings, the Greens have not become entirely consumed by either the respectability of government nor the logic of compromise that define the Irish and Czech experience, which may account for their record breaking representation in the Bundestag (right), but these tendencies exist and have real influence.

Green shoots and roots

The three very different examples I’ve given of Green Parties that leaned to the right share a number of factors.

First, they were all in a strong enough position to become national players.

Second, that they took the right fork in the road in a way that the Greens in Finland, Italy and Australia, for example, have not in similar situations.

Third, these coalitions tend to be marriages of convenience rather than love.

Fourth, that in each case it threw the party in question into a turmoil that only the Germans were able to survive meaningfully.

This could be because Green voters will forgive coalitions with Labour but not the Tories. Whatever the views of specific Green politicians the voting demographic of the Green Party is overwhelming to the left, pro-immigration, anti-war, and anti-privatisation.

While I’m not against coalitions in principle I do think there are two questions that should be considered. Are you strong enough to win concessions and do your partners share enough political ground with you. If the answer to either of these questions are no then you’re better off fighting to build political support for your ideas outside the cabinet than trying to win ground inside of it.

I think it’s a reasonable conclusion to say that in none of these cases were the Greens parties of the right, but the choices that they made in order to win government power made them indistinguishable from the parties of the right. It’s also reasonable to say that all Green Parties have the same tendencies and currents within them that could pull them to the left or right.

That means that in Leeds when the Green councillors were in a position to forge alliances they have got into bed with the Tories and are now sleeping with Labour, the trollops. In other areas, like Lewisham, when offered a coalition with Labour in 2006 they refused in order to maintain political independence.

My tentative conclusions

In each of these cases I believe the fatal flaw was an inadequate relationship to the movements on which Green politics is supposed to be based which allowed party bigwigs to see their political decisions as boardroom maneuvers rather than a battle for a sustainable future. In other words they took a managerial approach to politics and this naturally pulled them to the right.

It’s not an inevitable condition of government, but it is an ever present force. The Scottish Greens, for example, were right to keep an arms length approach to the SNP while refusing to pull the government down. Taking the decision to support or oppose on a case by case basis may not always reap rewards but over time the ability to take an independent line at least allows for the possibility of growth regardless of the fortunes of the ruling party.

In short all parties are affected by both the specific circumstances of the country they are based in and the repercussions of the decisions that they take. There is no such thing as an abstract political philosophy immune from the trials and tribulations of the world. The best we can do is arm ourselves with the facts and ensure we learn from them.


  • I certainly agree with your conclusions but just to add a slight correction on the Greens in Australia. In Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT),and almost in Western Australia, the Greens went into coalition with the Liberal Party (conservatives to the core) and helped bring in the usual austerity measures of neo-liberals. The Australian Greens(Federal) are a fair bit more left wing and are making huge gains in the lead up to the federal election later this year (here’s looking forward to a hung parliament!).

  • I’m not sure how the Greens in Finland haven’t sided with the right in exactly the same way. They’re part of a bourgeoisie coalition government that has, for an example, approved a record number of nuclear power plants – a complete capitalist betrayal of any green or sustainable values. And refuse to leave the government no matter what, now that they’ve gained a seat at the big table. Indeed, “choices that they made in order to win government power made them indistinguishable from the parties of the right.”

  • off to Dublin on June 26th to help launch new Irish green left political network….can’t say Green Party of England and Wales is always perfect but the left are strong, ecosocialist need to set up green networks and organise like Green Left have done in the GPEW