An ecosocialist perspective for UK Greens

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The political strategy of the Green Party assumes that politics just means fighting elections. This is a doomed approach. We will only win elections by building a movement, and we will never build much of a movement by simply fighting elections.

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by Sean Thompson
Green Left, July 3, 2012

 Sean Thompson is active in Green Left, the ecosocialist, anti-capitalist current within the Green Party of England and Wales.  

Four years ago in the summer of 2008, looking back on my long and fruitless career as a socialist activist, I realised that I had lived through three really significant historical moments.

The first was 1968, with the Tet offensive, the May Events in France and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – all of which had wide and long term ramifications.

The second was the Miners Strike of 1984/5, which turned out to be a strategic defeat for the British labour movement of almost fatal proportions.

The third was the period between 1989 and 91, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, it must be clear to everyone that the period we have been living through since the autumn of 2007 is the most momentous of all.

The existential crisis that capitalism is experiencing is now clearly chronic – particularly in Europe. It isn’t just going to go away of it’s own accord and it is clear that the ruling classes of the European states, trapped as they are within the straightjacket of their own neoliberal ideology, have no real clue how to clear up the mess that they have made. The one thing that they do seem to be sure of is the need for ‘austerity.’ Finding themselves in a hole of vast proportions they are now calling for mass sacrifice so that they can continue digging, but with new improved shovels and the introduction of three shift working.

One can almost feel the fault lines shifting beneath our feet. While we don’t know when or where this crisis will once more become acute, we can be sure that the European banking system’s de facto bankruptcy and the ideological bankruptcy of the Troika and European governments will lead to further attacks on the incomes, organisations and wellbeing of working people throughout the continent.

Yet at the same time, while there are some signs of growing opposition to the mantra that these attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable of us are necessary and inevitable, even in Greece, where the attacks on working people are most intense and the resistance to them strongest, the ruling class still has the ideological edge.

In Britain, despite some huge demonstrations by trade unionists and countless local protests at the closure of essential services, a real mass movement against austerity has still not been mobilised. The increasing popular discontent with the Tory/Lib Dem’s savage programme of cuts has been, so far, successfully contained and diverted into a collapse in electoral support for the Lib Dems and a swing back to Labour.

This continuing crisis makes – or should make – business as usual a nonstarter when considering the direction of the Green Party in the coming period. The announcement by Caroline Lucas that she will not be standing for re-election as party leader in September simply brings that fact into sharper focus.

The political strategy of the Green Party is based on the unspoken and unchallenged assumption that politics is virtually entirely about fighting elections and political success is entirely about winning them. Thus the whole structure of the party, such as it is, is organised as a rough approximation of an election machine in the manner of the three major parties. In those areas where the party is organised enough, its activities are for the most part confined to fighting elections and in between, distributing newsletters/leaflets and canvassing. In other words, fighting elections or preparing for elections.

There are three reasons why this is a doomed approach.

The first is that in practice, the majority in Britain live in areas which are permanently dominated by one of the big parties, and for the rest of us the choice every five years is simply which of them one dislikes least. By and large, the areas in which the Green Party has done well; Brighton, Norwich, Lancaster, and isolated pockets of some of the major cities, have a larger than average percentage of leftish, youngish, well educated middle class inhabitants. While this social grouping is far from insignificant, even if Britain had a fair voting system the ‘Green’ vote would be unlikely to amount to more than the 10% or so gained by the most successful of the other European green parties, the Finns, Germans, Swedes and Danes. The reality is that we will never become a mass party without winning (and that means earning) the active support of the millions of working people whose earnings are at or below the median.

Second, that niche market – the progressive middle class vote – is highly contested and unstable. At the last General Election a good slice of the Greens’ ‘natural’ supporters went to the Lib Dems. Since then, of course, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed and the bulk of those who chose it in 2010 because of New Labour’s shameful record in government have returned to Labour, which has exercised a hegemony over progressive middle class politics for the best part of a century.

Third, the elections which have actually heralded really significant social progress such as 1918,1923 and 1945 have been the result of the growth of a social movement during a period of huge turbulence. The Labour Party which won in 1923 and 1945 was not just a group of middle class progressives with advanced ideas, it was seen by working people as the political expression of the labour movement, which they saw as their movement and by extension Labour as their party – and they were partly right. We will only win elections by building a movement, we will never build much of a movement by simply fighting elections.

Of course, that movement already exists, if in inchoate form. It has at its core the trade unions, round which orbit a huge range of local or single issue groups and organisations, formal and informal. Some are national bodies. Other groupings, like tenant organisations and the multitude of grass roots campaigns set up to defend specific schools, day centres, hospitals or libraries, or to oppose juggernaut developments like HS2 and the third Heathrow runway, are very local. All of them, though, share a common characteristic; they are all, in their different ways movements and organisations naturally arising from the existing social struggle.

If the Green Party is to have any relevance or play any significant role in the struggle to change society, its task is not to act as an ideological vanguard, standing to one side of concrete day to day struggles (or even not noticing them) and merely promoting its own special nostrums and prescriptions. Unfortunately, that is on the whole the approach that the party adopts.

This has recently been perfectly demonstrated in a recent message to London Green Party members by its two GLA members. In listing practical things which members should be doing now, they correctly urge them to get involved in local campaigns – but give as illustrations the sort of campaigns that the party has long felt comfortable with and sees as its own;

Get involved in local campaigns. We need Green Party members to fly the flag within their communities and take on the issues that affect their neighbourhoods. Many campaigns, whether opposing an incinerator, supporting a local market or campaigning for more renewable energy, are in desperate need of more activists, and it’s vital that Greens show their willingness to get involved, get their hands dirty and provide support, as well as helping to join the dots, connecting local campaigns with London-wide issues.

In fact, members should be being urged to move out of their environmentalist comfort zones and get involved in the often undramatic actual day-to-day struggles in their neighbourhoods and workplaces, with the primary aim, not of just fighting elections, but of being the most stalwart and reliable allies of working people and of contributing to building, or rebuilding, their movement.

In concrete terms then, what should the priority areas of activity for the Green Party be?

First, at the very heart of its activity and as its first priority, should be working with and in the trade union movement. Despite their bureaucracy, conservatism and narrowness of vision, the unions are still the core of our movement and at six and a half million strong, are still its big battalions. Organised labour still remains the only force that has the potential to turn the world upside down. All Green Party members should be urged to join and be active in a relevant trade union.

Those party members who are not in work, whether they are students, unemployed, disabled, carers, or pensioners, should consider joining Unite through its Community Membership scheme. The creation of this new class of membership by Unite last year is a very interesting and potentially significant development which could lead the development of stronger organic links between ‘traditional’ trade union workplace based activity and fragmented but widespread community based campaigns and organisations. The latest edition of Unite’s magazine describes the initiative thus;

‘Community membership is a new and different way of doing trade unionism. It’s not focused around agenda-driven meetings, or big demonstrations called by the TUC… it cannot be defined by shop stewards, conferences or the executive. This one is owned by ordinary people up and down the country, and what it looks like is up to them.’

Second, there are a number of national campaigns and organisations which are focussed on the concrete attacks that are effecting working people everywhere in Britain. A non exclusive roll call of such organisations includes the Coalition of Resistance, Defend Council Housing, Keep Our NHS Public, the pensioners’ movement, organised through the National Pensioners’ Convention, and Disabled People Against Cuts. Wherever these organisations exist, local parties should be active within them, and where they are not, Greens should be helping to establish them – not to promote the Green Party but to strengthen the local group.

Third, there are a myriad of local organisations and campaigns; supporters of the local library, community centre, nursery or day centre trying to defend them against cuts or closure, local campaigns against the imposition of destructive ‘development’ such as yet another supermarket (or in my own area, the destruction of hundreds of council flats to make way for HS2). Local parties should be at the forefront of all such local campaigns.

Lastly, the Party should be looking for every opportunity to develop a culture of active direct democracy. Where local tenant organisations, parent teacher associations and such like exist, Greens should be active within them, where there aren’t, Greens should be working to establish them.

An interesting feature of the recent Localism Act is the development of representative Neighbourhood Forums, which will have a certain amount of actual power. While they are supposed to be largely about planning issues – they will have the power to steer decisions on traditional planning applications and can prepare their own Neighbourhood Development Plan – their remit is to be concerned with ‘the economic, environmental and social well being’ of the local community, which can be interpreted much more widely than simply planning issues. Thus they may well be institutions that can be used to advance local grass roots democracy.

Of course it is true that when Greens get involved with concrete struggles in the real world they find that the consciousness and ideology of the masses is not all it should be. It is clear, for example, that the lies that working people have been fed about the need to balance the books, the inevitability of cuts and the huge problem that immigration poses, have been effective to a significant degree.

And for the vast majority of working people, the threat posed by global warming, the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plight of indigenous peoples are non-issues floating in the celestial clouds above the reality of low pay, unemployment, a chronic housing shortage and the most expensive childcare in Europe.

But this should not come as a surprise, and certainly not as an excuse to write off working class self activity as the crucial factor in social struggle. As Marx and Engels said in The German Ideology, the ‘ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production.’

The only way for us to challenge that ideological hegemony in a time of growing crisis is to be alongside working people in their workplaces and homes and neighbourhoods with the aim, not of ‘building the Party’ but of raising the general level of consciousness and contributing in concrete ways towards building the movement.

Without in any way trimming or concealing our own politics, our first priority should be aiming to be the most reliable and robust allies of every group under attack rather than merely proselytisers of our own programme.

The key task of the Green Party in the coming period (and if not the Green Party, then that of socialists within it) will not be to continue to ape the forms and practices of the old parties of the status quo. In the coming period, working people will need trade unions more than ever – either those available or others yet to be built – and the Green Party should be attempting to prove that it is the best ally of trade unionists.

They will also need, as they have always done, a movement that speaks a language they can understand, that is not self-indulgent and sectarian, that is comfortable to live in and that will grow with its members. All of this will take time and patience and forbearance, but when you think how long we have gone getting nowhere without these qualities, it seems reasonable to give it a chance.

We have to realise that the Green Party is not that movement that has to be built, but that it can and should aspire to play a crucial role in its creation.We have to educate, agitate and organise, applying those things to ourselves as well as others. There are no guarantees of success, but the one enduring certainty is that the future will not be won by attempting to recreate the past.