Across Europe the past year has seen a mini Green surge. In Austria, Ireland, Germany, France and elsewhere they have jumped up in support, joining coalitions with pro-capitalist establishment parties in many cases, either at a regional or national level. This follows the explosion of protests across the globe in recent years, sparked by anger at the destruction of the environment and calling for system change. Could Green parties – whose defining feature is environmentalism – provide an alternative that is capable of living up to the desires of those wanting real change?
In June the Green Party in Ireland entered government with Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), the two traditional parties of the capitalist class. The Greens increased their vote in both the 2019 council elections and the general election in February, quadrupling their members of parliament from three to 12.
Many of those voting for the Greens did so expressing dissatisfaction with FG and FF, responsible for a decade of austerity (assisted by the Greens in government during the first years after the 2008 crash). A grand coalition supported by the Greens would not have been what many of those who lent them their vote or even those who joined the Greens expected.
Green Party members decided whether to endorse the ‘Programme for Government’, the agreement negotiated by representatives of the three parties. In exchange for propping up a firmly pro-capitalist government the headline concession to the Greens was a pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 7% on average a year over the next decade.
This agreement is weak on many fronts. The question of who will pay for the necessary investment and restructuring to achieve the emission reductions is left open. The capitalists and their politicians will fight for the burden to be placed on the working class – through carbon taxes, job losses and other measures. Already the previous Fine Gael-led government included a carbon tax in its last budget, a measure which under the unplanned capitalist system will hit the working class or sections of it the hardest.
The commitment is also for an average reduction over a decade. Just like a driver thinking they can fool an average speed check while speeding by slowing down for the last part of the journey, it will be easy for FF/FG to justify kicking the can down the road on environmental measures to respond to the Covid-triggered economic crisis.
Seventy-six percent of Green Party members (1,435) voted in favour of entering government, with 457 against. In this plebiscite the pressure to accept the leadership’s proposal had the backing of the capitalist class in the media and in various hustings and events, even going as far as getting Mark Ruffalo, famous for playing green superhero ‘the Hulk’, to appeal to members to compromise. The new government is less than a month old but has already shown its character with votes attacking employment and housing rights. The Green Party leader Eamon Ryan had to be woken up to vote against protections for low paid workers having been asleep during a parliamentary session.
A common feature of Green parties is their ease in going into coalitions with capitalist parties of all stripes. Currently in Germany the Greens are in the administrations of eleven of the 16 state governments including with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Those who support this approach may say that by joining with capitalist politicians they can shift them to the left and get some protections for the environment in the long run in exchange for signing up to anti-working class measures in the short term. In reality the opposite is the case. At best Green parties can provide ‘progressive’ cover for reactionary governments.
In Austria the Greens replaced the far-right Freedom Party as the junior partner to the right-wing People’s Party (ÖVP). The ÖVP has continued its attacks on migrants and racist scapegoating of Muslims, but now supported by the Greens. In the run up to the government being formed, der Standerd newspaper described their approach as getting any environmental concessions they could and “with everything else, damage limitation will have to do”.
Far from changing the approach of the ÖVP the coalition has allowed capitalism to pose as the sole defender of the environment. Writing in Time magazine in an article entitled ‘We don’t need to destroy the economy to save the earth’, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attacks the “far left” who only aim to “break the system”, saying that only “liberal democracy” ie capitalism is capable of protecting the environment.
The Green Party in England and Wales, although for a period pushed to the side due to the Corbyn phenomenon, have still shown this desire to prop up right-wing governments, even when their electoral strength would seem to discount it. In August last year, the Greens’ only MP Caroline Lucas proposed an emergency all-women cabinet from all the political parties – although with no Corbyn supporter – to prevent a no deal Brexit. In the general election of 2019 the Greens entered into a ‘Remain Alliance’ with Plaid Cymru – and the Liberal Democrats, former coalition partners to the Tories who backed their brutal austerity measures.
The Greens are in the administration of 18 councils in England and Wales, mainly in coalitions with Labour and the Lib Dems. This position gives them a potentially significant platform to launch a serious fighting campaign against the cuts to local government. But to do so would mean refusing to implement the cuts, setting needs budgets, and linking up with local trade unions and community campaigns to build a movement to demand the money needed from parliament. This sadly has not been the approach of the 359 Green councillors.
The Green Party regained control of Brighton and Hove in July after three Labour councillors resigned or were suspended after alleged claims of antisemitism. In power between 2011 and 2015 they implemented more than £50 million worth of cuts. In their statement on taking power this time they say they “will work with all parties [including the Conservatives] to achieve their goals”. But their stated goals are not to fight all cuts but to get enough money to keep the council going through the coronavirus crisis and to start a programme of insulating homes.
Only partial measures have been proposed in response to the crisis. In the national party’s Whatever It Takes policy document reference is made to “transforming the economy” but the detail is far short of that, focussing on immediate relief for people hit by the lockdown and unemployment. But a programme for the fundamental change necessary is lacking. One example is housing. The Greens call for amongst other things an end to no fault evictions and an increase of housing benefit to at least average levels of rents. But a mass council house building programme that would be capable of giving people security is absent.
As the gulf between the politics of those who have looked towards the Greens and the actions of their leaders becomes ever clearer, conclusions need to be drawn about what sort of party and what programme is necessary to protect the environment. A focus on individual actions to save the environment can be interpreted by some as using less plastic or cycling more. But if you lead a political party it can also mean making compromises to get into power in the hope that small concessions can be bargained out of the capitalist class.
At root this approach comes from illusions in capitalism and capitalist politicians being able to stop the climate catastrophe. The reality of capitalism, with international competition and the anarchic rush for profit, is that it can offer no guarantees to safeguard the environment. By joining with the capitalists it ties the Greens to attacks on the working class to maximise profit.
In Ireland the anger at the Greens entering government has led to resignations. A conclusion needs to be drawn from this experience. An independent, working class force organised to fight for a socialist democratically planned economy is the only alternative. We need to take the economic power out of the hands of the capitalist class by nationalising under democratic workers’ control the big companies. We could then plan society for what we need across the world and rapidly shift to environmentally sustainable production of goods and services. It is through the socialist transformation of society, not deals and appealing for concessions from capitalist politicians, that we can reverse climate change, protect the environment and guarantee a good standard of living for all.