By Andrew Stone
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Red Light from the Greens

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
The Green Party's resistance to making an electoral arrangement with Respect is unfortunate, but not entirely uncharacteristic, finds Andrew Stone.
Issue 285

The destructive forces of capitalism are driving us headlong into the sixth great species extinction of the earth’s 5 billion year history. The Green Party has done the left a valuable service in highlighting this environmental emergency, and in explaining human-induced climate change as one of its prime motors. It has been disappointing therefore that attempts by the Respect coalition steering committee to cooperate in campaigning for the 10 June elections were so robustly refused by the Green Party leadership. This article explains why.

Moderate progress

Since its breakthrough in the 1989 elections to the European Parliament (when it received 15 percent of the vote), the Green Party has made some moderate electoral progress. It has two members of the European Parliament, seven members of the Scottish Parliament and three members of the London Assembly. The failure to translate these results into greater national success can partly be attributed to the difficulties posed by the parliamentary ‘first past the post’ system, and partly by the fact that all the mainstream parties have realised the benefits of paying lip service to ‘green’ issues.

But the Greens have also been hampered by public recognition of the limitations of single-issue parties. Thus in recent years, and increasingly so in response to the growth of the anti-war movement and latterly Respect: The Unity Coalition, the party has sought to stress its aims of ‘real progress’ and sustainable development, alongside opposition to war, privatisation and top-up fees. Green MEP Caroline Lucas has a very good record on such issues and new member Peter Tatchell has particularly emphasised this social theme in the mainstream press. These policies have much in common with those of Respect, and many of us who have set about building this exciting new project were optimistic that some kind of agreement could be reached between the two groups.

But by February those hopes had been dashed. Green Party executive member Spencer Fitz-Gibbon issued a press release containing a vitriolic attack on Respect. In between repeatedly misrepresenting it as ‘the Galloway/SWP party’, he bemoaned Respect’s lack of prior consultation about the European elections. In fact John Rees (one of the founders of Respect) approached Caroline Lucas even before the first formal meeting to draft its founding statement.

This initial approach was followed by the formal offer of a national agreement to create a joint Green/Respect slate. This was rejected as unconstitutional given the Greens’ federal structure and on the basis that its candidates had already been selected. Respect then suggested an interlocking local agreement in two constituencies. This offer was also declined. Finally Respect offered to back Caroline Lucas to head a joint list in the South East. Even this offer was turned down. As John Rees told Socialist Review, ‘Our aim was to do everything possible to maximise the left of Labour vote on 10 June. The only possible beneficiaries of the stance taken by the Greens are Tony Blair and New Labour.’

The Green Party leadership appear to believe that the left vote is theirs by right. But Respect has emerged from the largest anti-war movement that Britain has ever seen. The origin of the Green Party was very different. Whereas other European Green parties came more directly out of the experience of environmental activism, People, the forerunner of the Green Party, was formed via an advert in the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

There is a tendency within the organisation to see its role as that of an enlightened few presenting policies to ‘the public’ for approval. In the words of Jonathon Porritt, the knighted Green chairman of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, ‘We have no illusions about the fact that our primary function is still an educative one, the spreading of Green politics to as wide an electorate as possible.’ This perspective minimises the role of self emancipation. Of course the level of activity possible for members in any political organisation will be constrained by work-related and personal circumstances. But for the Green Party’s ‘get involved’ section of its website to have an ‘armchair member’ link suggests patronisingly low expectations. This reflects a wider problem within the environmental movement – in which 5 million subscribers to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature are encouraged to fund and prioritise the activities of small groups of heroic individuals to pull up GM crops or occupy oil tankers rather than to build mass mobilisations. Such large-scale protests both have a greater chance of changing society and of changing the attitudes and ideas of the people taking part – as the increased understanding of imperialism and the advocacy of Palestinian liberation within the anti-war movement have shown.

Elitist approach

The essentially elitist approach of the Green Party leadership (which experience suggests is at odds with the views of many of their members and supporters) tends to make them suspicious of any movement that might give voice to competing ideas for their ‘audience’. So it took a year for them to decide that the Stop the War Coalition was sufficiently broad for them to join (and presumably that not to join would be even more politically damaging). And at the last Stop the War conference there was an unfortunately sectarian flavour to a Green Party resolution, rejected by the conference, which aimed to increase the explicitness of the coalition’s commitment to work across party boundaries.

In Canterbury, Green Party members organised a small meeting under the banner of the ‘Independent Peace Alliance’. Keith Woods, a local anti-war activist, told Socialist Review that the local Stop the War Coalition was not invited and was repeatedly criticised from the platform: ‘It seemed like all they were trying to do was sweep up the anti-war vote while attacking the coalition.’ However, Spencer Fitz-Gibbon assured Socialist Review that the Green Party is committed to the coalition and has made no executive decision to encourage competing groups.

Much as we can find common ground on many issues, the Green Party’s ecological focus comes at the expense of recognising the crucial role of class in society. Statements such as ‘Every person should be entitled to basic material security’ in its philosophical basis – an aspiration we should all concur with – form part of an idealistic critique of economic injustice that fails to understand its underlying causes. Socialists can agree that ‘as human beings we have the potential to live cooperatively and harmoniously with one another’, but point to the historical development of class exploitation as the reason that this potential goes unfulfilled. The failure to see this central cleavage in society – between the exploited majority and the exploiting minority – leads the Greens to place changes in individual values and lifestyles on a par with the vague aspiration to reform ‘social, economic and political structures’.

Such ideological differences have real consequences. The Green Party’s worldview encourages the futile attempt to persuade the rich of their need to subordinate their interests to the general good, rather than to challenge their power head on. The monopoly on the use of violence enjoyed by the state in the protection of that system is also neglected. While socialists share the desire for a peaceful world we do not accept that the force used to fight oppression (be it slave revolts, the Iraqi or Palestinian resistance, or a workers’ revolution) is equivalent to the casual brutality of the military-industrial complex. The illusion of many prominent Greens, such as Peter Tatchell, in the benign role that UN peacekeepers could apparently play in the occupation of Iraq is a logical conclusion of such politics.

A lack of class analysis also shapes the Greens’ electoral strategy. Despite the left instincts of much of its support (for the sake of which Respect is told it is unnecessary), the Green Party, like the Liberal Democrats, often refuses to locate itself on the left or the right. For instance, in its 1996 strategy papers it argued, ‘The Green Party must preserve [its] own identity. Whilst appealing across the political spectrum our message should not be diluted.’

This perspective can lead to electoral opportunism. As well as making deals with Labour, the Greens have hooked up with the Liberal Democrats. One such coalition in Oxford resulted in them being outflanked on the left by New Labour after the predictable round of compromises made because of budgetary restraints. The Green Party in Cornwall has made an electoral alliance with Mebyon Kernow, a party calling for Cornish self government. Only time will tell if the example of the German Greens – who have cooperated with the Tory Christian Democrats on a local level and backed war and nuclear power while in government with the SPD – will be repeated in Britain.

For there is a strain of the reactionary conservationism associated with Prince Charles within environmental politics. The desire of the landed gentry to preserve their pastures can go hand in hand with the desire to preserve their feudal privileges. The harking back to a preindustrial land of milk and honey is the form this usually takes, sometimes buttressed by romantic mysticism about nature. While this is not the dominant trend within the Greens, there is a Green Party peer in the House of Lords (Lord Beaumont of Whitley).

This sits uneasily with the radical environmentalism that so many trade unionists and socialists have found common cause with in the anti-capitalist movement. But then the Greens are a party attempting to resolve some major differences of perspective. For instance, are their politics to be ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ green? The former, often associated with the ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the party, attracts many activists for its opposition to the electoral opportunism of the ‘realists’, and for its recognition of the radical transformation needed of society. But it is steeped in a quasi-religious take on Gaia theory (the essentially correct view of the earth as an integrated, self regulating organism) in which there is a moral equivalence between all forms of life – and thus that swatting a fly is tantamount to murder.

‘Shallow’ green politics does at least recognise that enlightened human self interest lies in the maintenance of biodiversity and the protection of the planet. But it is rightly often criticised for justifying incremental strategies that fail to tackle the inherent destructiveness of capitalism and the urgent changes necessitated by global warming.

These tensions – represented at different strengths on a local level due to the Greens’ federal structure – help to explain the resistance to cooperation with Respect, unfortunately typified in Wales when negotiations with Forward Wales were predicated on the exclusion of Respect from any agreement. ‘It would have been to everyone’s benefit for the left to come to an agreement,’ Huw Williams, a Respect candidate for Wales told Socialist Review, ‘but the Greens here seemed totally opposed.’

None of this should discourage Respect activists from campaigning alongside Green Party members. Just as we would build opposition to the occupation of Iraq, PFI, Sats and much else alongside Labour Party members, so many Green members and supporters will be happy to unite in numerous campaigns and in the process engage in friendly, strategic debates. The destruction of our planet by corporate greed is one of the major perils facing human life – but it is irrevocably bound up with the wider neoliberal project challenged by Respect. The best prospect for reclaiming our environment lies in building a broad, inclusive, activist project such as Respect which unites the opposition to our rulers and gives a platform for the future world we can create.

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