SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 185 February 2015

Socialism Today 185 - February 2015Is the Green Party a real alternative?

The Green Party is picking up support consistently in opinion polls. This has been reflected in an increase in the party’s membership. Do the Greens really represent an alternative to the establishment parties? CLAIRE LAKER-MANSFIELD investigates.

"The doors of British politics have been blown off by the Green surge". So claimed Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, as 2014 drew to a close. Hyperbole? With current polling indicating support for the Greens fluctuating around the 6% mark, such a charge could reasonably be levelled. Nevertheless, the Greens clearly hope 2015’s elections will offer their party its most significant breakthrough so far.

The electoral landscape is undoubtedly shifting. The breaking down of the two-party system which has dominated British politics, with historically low combined support for Labour and the Tories, is an undeniable reality. In agreement on the fundamentals, the establishment parties see no alternative to continued austerity. All agree that the bill for this deep crisis of capitalism should be placed at the feet of working-class people.

Despite the government’s enormous unpopularity, Labour is failing to achieve a consistent and convincing lead in the polls, let alone approach the traditional 40-point benchmark for forming a majority government. Its slavish acceptance of the austerity framework – with shadow chancellor Ed Balls promising to match Tory spending targets, albeit within an extra year or so – leaves huge swathes of the population asking ‘what is the point of the Labour Party?’

This political vacuum is the context in which the Greens, who struggled to win more than 1% of votes cast in 2010, have enjoyed growing support. Their aim is to establish themselves as a ‘UKIP of the left’ and to replace the Liberal Democrats as a ‘go-to’ party of protest. Certainly their increased membership and electoral support is evidence of the enormous thirst for an alternative that exists within society, especially among younger people.

Indeed, the phenomenon of crisis for the traditional ruling parties and the emergence of new, insurgent forces (both of the left and the populist right) is one which can be observed internationally. The rise of Syriza – once regarded in Greece as a ‘fringe’ left-wing formation – is an obvious symptom.

In Britain, too, the tectonic plates of electoral politics are shifting. For trade unionists, anti-cuts activists and young people, the question of a political alternative is becoming increasingly pressing. The Socialist Party has consistently pointed out that one of the most important tasks currently facing the labour movement is the development of mass, independent political representation for the working class – a genuine alternative to big-business politics. Without this, workers are left fighting austerity with one hand tied behind their backs, unable to be fully effective on the political plane. But where will such an alternative come from?

A Green surge?

The increased popularity of the Greens means that some are asking if this party can offer an answer, and it’s possible to see why. A superficial glance at some of the party’s headline policies offers potentially encouraging reading. Its website states that it opposes public service cuts, is against the ‘austerity agenda’, would like to abolish tuition fees, and believes the government could do more to tackle the climate crisis. Moreover, Natalie Bennett has argued that her party has ‘shared values’ with the workers’ movement. In a speech delivered at TUC congress in 2012, she asserted that the Greens would aim to ‘strengthen trade unions’. The party has a conference policy committing it to "developing closer cooperation with the unions on matters of shared interest".

The progressive tone of many of the Greens’ policies, combined with an apparently positive attitude towards trade unions, makes a refreshing change from the main parties, including Labour. The Greens have a relatively large profile, with access to national media coverage. They boast a number of elected representatives, including one MP, three MEPs, 160 councillors and control of Brighton council. This affords them a certain degree of credibility as a viable electoral vehicle.

In recent weeks, the Greens have enjoyed unusually large amounts of air-time, with the argument over the make-up of the television leaders’ debates hitting the headlines. Almost 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for the inclusion of Bennett in these. David Cameron has cynically added his voice to this campaign – hoping to see the debates cancelled altogether and aware of the potential threat the Greens could pose to Labour’s vote.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Green surge’ is a phenomenon that the party’s PR department is keen to convince us of. Green Party membership has risen relatively sharply over the last year. Including the Scottish Greens, they now claim to number over 40,000 and to have outflanked the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Younger people make up a significant portion of their membership and voting base. Up to a fifth of 18-24 year-olds have indicated support for the Greens in some polls, with 25% of students estimated to have voted Green in 2014’s European elections. The Young Greens claim 8,000 members.

The party’s base

Given these increasing levels of support, it is perhaps not surprising that some are asking if it might not make sense for anti-cuts campaigners and trade unionists to get behind the Greens. But do they genuinely offer us the desperately needed alternative to the pro-big business parties? What are the class interests represented in their politics?

For Marxists, the crucial question that needs to be asked is, can an alternative party offer a political voice to the working class? Is it able or likely to play a role in developing the self-confidence of workers to fight cuts and win improvements? Does it base itself on socialist policies and fight for an anti-capitalist programme? Such an organisation would need to be based upon workers’ organisations – primarily trade unions – and armed with a socialist programme which represents, in essence, an ideological summation of working-class interests.

To reach a conclusion on whether the energies of fighting workers and socialists could be well spent in offering support to, or even joining and participating in, the Green Party, it is necessary to carry out an assessment of its character. This means examining the programme of the organisation, as well as its composition and structure. The Greens’ record when they have been tested in elected positions flows naturally from these, and provides us with concrete evidence of the party’s current and potential future role.

At present, the Green Party’s primary base of support is among professional and more middle-class layers in society. According to YouGov, an estimated 63% of its voters are from ABC1 so-called ‘social grades’. While the party has ambitions to win support from a broader section of workers, and does of course have some support from other layers, it is clear that it has not as yet been able to make any serious inroads into the working class.

The social make-up of the Greens’ support base is contrasted to that of the hard-right populist UKIP, a majority of whose support is from lower-paid and manual workers, as well as from pensioners and the unemployed. The vacuum created by the failure of Labour to offer a credible alternative has allowed UKIP to encroach upon territory considered to be working-class heartlands. This was dramatically demonstrated in the Heywood and Middleton by-election which UKIP came within 600 votes of winning from Labour. In contrast, the Greens’ target seats for the 2015 general election are primarily in areas with high student populations. Nevertheless, should the party have the right kind of programme and structure, it would certainly be possible to envisage it developing a base of support among workers in the future.

When examining the party’s programme, it is perhaps worth noting, at the outset, that the origins of the party lay firmly outside the workers’ movement. Indeed, initially named PEOPLE, it was certainly not conceived as a party of the left. One of its founding members and election candidates was Edward Goldsmith – son of the Tory MP Frank Goldsmith and uncle of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith. His politics was mainly based around romantic notions of ‘getting back to nature’, ideas which he combined with extreme social conservatism and even some fascist sympathies. So the Greens’ left-wing image is a more recent phenomenon.

Socialism Today 185 - February 2015

Ambiguous nature

Nonetheless, it is the party’s programme in the here and now that needs to be analysed. And a cursory glance at the prominent policies supported by the Greens could leave many socialists feeling that there is a lot we agree on. Their website states that their philosophy is one of ‘fairness’ and that they stand for politics which benefits people and the planet.

Recently, they prominently declared support for a £10 an hour minimum wage – a demand initially raised by the Socialist Party and the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union. But the small print they attach to the policy is evidence of their broader approach to politics. They argue that £10 an hour would only be possible by 2020, ostensibly to allow businesses time to adjust, and by which time inflation would have reduced the value of the wage. Clearly, the party feels that it has to balance the needs of workers against the interests of big business. While it may feel it appropriate to tip the scales slightly further towards workers, it does not see itself as having ‘picked a side’.

A detailed read of the Greens’ 2010 manifesto is also very revealing. In this, they pledged to match the then Labour government’s target of halving the deficit by 2013. They argued that this would be achievable without substantial cuts in services but by carrying out increases in taxation instead. A close look at the tax policies again reveals the unclear nature of their class loyalties. While they advocated an increase in corporation tax (if only by a measly 2%) they also supported a range of regressive taxes. These included several taxes on consumption, often dressed up as environmentally friendly, which would take no account of the consumer’s ability to pay. These included a reintroduction of the fuel duty escalator and increased VAT on flights.

Underlying the seemingly ambiguous nature of the class interests distilled in the policies promoted by the Greens is the fact that, on the most fundamental level, they lack a clear ideological anchor. Politics is indeed concentrated economics. Socialist ideas represent, in a concentrated form, the economic interests of working-class people.

Despite the presence of a number of individual self-professed socialists within the Green Party, these ideas are in no way foundational to the organisation. Without this foundation, the Greens are forced basically to accept the economic framework laid out for them by capitalism. This puts the party in a straitjacket and, in the absence of structural mechanisms allowing workers’ organisations to bring their weight to bear within it, means it ultimately comes down on the side of the ruling class and the established order.

The Greens’ organisational structure is far from being of passing interest. It is a clear indicator of the potential (or lack thereof) that exists for the working class to exert its influence within the party. At present, the democracy of the Greens is based purely on individual membership. There is no facility for trade unions to affiliate as collective bodies and to be afforded democratic rights within the party. Indeed, while the Greens may wish to court the unions, the party wrote in its 2010 manifesto that it wished to "end the corrupting effects of both big private and trade union donations to political parties, and bring in a system of fair state funding". Here, it equates democratic organisations which represent a collective voice for millions of workers with unaccountable individual members of the super-rich elite!

The trade unions represent the workers not just as individuals but as conscious members of a class. While the Greens may well be happy to accept large donations from the trade union movement, they are not, and do not want to be, a party over which workers’ organisations can have ownership and control.

The Green Party may promote a range of progressive policies – for example, abolishing tuition fees – but it has no mechanisms built into its structure that would allow workers and young people to prevent its leaders from acting in a similar way to, for example, the Liberal Democrats when they were tested on the issue in 2010.

The Greens’ structure can be contrasted to other emerging formations on the left – most notably in Britain the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC includes the RMT transport union as well as the Socialist Party, many leading trade unionists and other socialist organisations. Within the coalition structure the trade union components have the power to veto decisions, including those made on candidates and the political platform, allowing for genuine accountability to the workers’ movement. Similarly, the Labour Party was originally established at the beginning of the 20th century as ‘a party of the unions’ and other working-class organisations, including co-operatives and the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Green cuts

The actual record of the Green Party is in many ways the logical consequence of its political and structural foundations. Nowhere have these consequences been made more starkly clear than in Brighton, where the Green Party has a minority administration which controls the council. Elected on an anti-cuts ticket, many were expecting that Britain’s first Green council would offer a refreshing alternative to the slash-and-burn approach of both the Tories and New Labour. The reality has been nothing of the sort. Like most councils, Brighton was hit with an enormous cut to funding from central government. But far from mounting a serious fight-back – acting as a line of defence against the vicious Con-Dems – the Greens obediently passed on the pain.

More than £50 million-worth of cuts have been inflicted on the city since the Green council was elected – resulting in its huge unpopularity locally. Over the last month, when attacked (hypocritically) by Labour’s chief whip in the Lords for delivering 50% cuts despite being elected on a no cuts, no privatisation ticket, one Green councillor responded in the New Statesman by arguing that the electorate should have paid more attention to the small print. According to him, the Greens only ever pledged to resist service cuts imposed on local councils "to the greatest possible extent". Evidently, in the minds of Green councillors, the greatest possible extent was not at all.

Indeed, the only idea the Green council has had for ‘mitigating’ the effects of government cuts was to force the cost of the economic crisis onto working people in Brighton in another form: council tax rises. Before its first cuts budget, it offered residents the opportunity to ‘cut your own services’ in a consultation exercise. Residents who used the web-based ‘budget calculator’ could experiment with increasing and decreasing funding in different areas. Those who opted for a standstill budget were informed that this would result in a 16% council tax increase. Meanwhile a 5% increase in funding for services would result in a 32% tax rise. Some choice!

This record can be contrasted with the fighting approach of Liverpool city council in the 1980s which, also in a time of austerity, won over £60 million in extra funding from the Tory government and led a mass campaign of working-class people to defend its stance against Thatcher. Unlike the Liverpool council leaders (supporters of the Militant, now the Socialist Party), the Greens have neither the confidence nor inclination to mobilise the full force of the working class against the vicious Con-Dems.

On the contrary, the Green council has brought itself into direct confrontation with some of the best organised and militant sections of workers in the city. As part of a so-called equal-pay deal, the council attempted to cut the pay of the city’s low-waged bin workers by as much as £4,000, ripping up a union agreement. It even attempted to wash its hands of responsibility for the decision by appointing non-elected officers to handle the issue. This provoked wild-cat strike action, followed by a determined and successful month-long strike of bin workers.

The national level

Damningly, the Greens’ acceptance of the austerity framework means they have failed spectacularly to make improvements on environmental issues. Brighton council is ranked 302nd out of 336 local authorities for recycling. It is no surprise, then, that the Greens’ one MP, Caroline Lucas, has been forced to distance herself from the actions of her council. But can we rely upon the Greens to act differently at national level? Could Brighton council perhaps be dismissed as an aberration?

In fact, even where the Greens have only a handful of councillors and little to lose by at least voting against cuts, if not actively campaigning against them, they have failed to do so consistently. In Bristol they joined a ‘rainbow’ cuts coalition and are largely indistinguishable from the other parties within it. Even before the fully-fledged austerity onslaught we are currently facing, Green votes in Lewisham council propped up a minority Labour administration making millions of pounds in ‘savings’ on several occasions.

Moreover, when pressed on the question of how the Greens might act following this year’s elections, Natalie Bennett felt unable to offer any guarantees that Green MPs would act as a defence against cuts in parliament. When interviewed about the possibility of a hung parliament, Bennett argued that, while the Greens would not favour a coalition with the Tories, or even Labour, they would be prepared to vote for potential Labour Party cuts budgets as part of a ‘confidence and supply agreement’.

Internationally, Green parties have proved very willing to join pro-cuts coalitions and right-wing governments. In Ireland the Greens have been practically wiped out by their participation in an austerity coalition in 2007 with Fianna Fáil (the main capitalist party). Based on a serious assessment of the record, programme and structure of the Green Party here in Britain, you would have to conclude that this is not an organisation of a fundamentally different character to its sister party across the Irish Sea.

While it is not ruled out that individual Greens could play a role in the future, including in aiding the development of a new workers’ party, the Green Party does not represent the independent interests of the working class. Politically constrained by the logic of capitalism, neither is it capable of offering an escape from the terrible environmental crisis the planet faces.

Should the trade unions take the bold step of setting up their own political party, building on the work already done by formations like TUSC, many of the young people and workers currently looking towards the Greens will readily be won to this new banner. But the Green Party itself will not be capable of meeting the aspirations of those workers and young people who have placed their hopes in it. The urgent task presented to socialists now, and to the workers’ movement generally, is to build the kind of mass working-class party which can.

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