an anonymous contributor explores the inner workings and direction of the Greens
Over the last decade, the Green Party has both grown in size and influence, and moved leftwards. It has a membership of nearly 10,000, and realistic chances of winning Parliamentary representation in Brighton and Norwich at the next election (with Lewisham building its chances most likely for the election after next). Outside of these generalities, however, non-Green Party activists seem to be largely in the dark as to the internal politics and ideology of an organisation which boasts hundreds, if not thousands, of activist members. It is the aim of this piece, briefly, to attempt a remedy for this situation.
Firstly, structure. After many years of operating with a compromise arrangement which included a Male and a Female Principal Speaker (brought about during the fierce disputes of the early 90s, which culminated in the departure of centre-right figures such as Jonathan Porritt and Sara Parkin), the Green Party shifted in 2008 to a gender-balanced system of Leader and Deputy Leader. After many years of complex and often bitter internal wrangling over structure, the election itself was almost uncontested, with Caroline Lucas MEP elected as Leader with a massive majority, and Cllr Adrian Ramsay elected unopposed as Deputy Leader.
Despite the change to a Leader system, which has brought about some shifts of emphasis, the structure of the Green Party remains extremely decentralised, as do its cultural assumptions and strategic planning. The Party is governed in the gaps betweens Conferences not by one body, but by a directly elected Executive (made up of fourteen posts) which shares its powers with a Regional Council, made up of two representatives from each English and Welsh region. The ideal of ‘subsidiarity’ is a real practice within the Party, with local parties being left to take even very important decisions, such as whether to stand against Respect’s Salma Yaqoob for Parliament in Birmingham. Party Conference remains the sovereign power, and any four ordinary members can use this twice-yearly opportunity to challenge or change essentially any Party policy.
The Green Party remains, then, a resolutely grassroots, decentralised and democratic force. This has been attractive to leftists for many years, especially those moving away from rigidly controlled and bureaucratic Leninist models. It is possible for any person, whether from the left or right, to join the Party and make an argument for policy change. As long as the policy does not run counter to the Party’s Philosophical Basis (racists, for example, are automatically disbarred and so on), the democratic space exists for debate.
Increasingly, over the last few years, that debate has been shifting to the left. The large bulk of the Party is now situated in a generally ‘socially democratic’ ideological position, with tinges of radicalism which originate from the imperatives of environmental sustainability (for example, the emphasis on ‘zero growth’, which clearly necessitates a radical stand against current economic thinking). The commonly identified ‘right’ of the party is, in fact, still well to the left of all but the most left-wing Labour politicians, and the ‘true’ Green right – focused on population control and opposed to equitable collective solutions – is now almost non-existent within the Party, and is more likely to be found within the Conservatives, UKIP or the BNP. Meanwhile, the explicitly ecosocialist forces within the Party are more organised than they have been for some time, largely under the umbrella of Green Left. There are also a number of ecosocialists who prefer to organise outside of Green Left, but who nevertheless identify themselves as explicitly anti-capitalist.
Despite this welcome general orientation towards the left, two serious issues loom for ecosocialists within the Green Party. The first is a widespread reluctance within the mainstream of the Party to ‘name the system’, and an even wider failure to come up with truly radical alternatives to it. The Green New Deal, for example, a centrepiece of the Party’s Westminster campaign, is a fine piece of Keynesian crisis management – and few on the left would disagree that its immediate measures are necessary. Unfortunately, it is neither ultimately anti-capitalist nor concerned with economic democracy. When the chips are down, the Green Party often reconciles itself to the existing system, rather than following its radical instincts towards a new, sustainable form of economics. Prominent members are reluctant to grapple with the real meaning of ‘anti-capitalism’. For example, this from Caroline Lucas MEP in the Guardian, earlier this year: “Yes, I’m an anti-capitalist. But I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful label, and I wouldn’t go out and say that that is the positioning the party wants to take. This whole left/right, socialist/capitalist dichotomy is getting so out of date; the label I’d prefer is we are progressive, and care about social and environmental justice.”
It is this ambivalence about the meaning of anti-capitalism in terms of policy and activity which leads to the second major issue – the spectre of Ireland, Germany and other ‘sell out’ Green Parties. Despite the rightwards turn of Die Grunen (opposed within the European Green Party by Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert, England’s Green MEPs), and the suicidal sell-out coalition of Comhontas Glas with Fianna Fail, no serious analysis or criticism of these occurrences seems to have gone on within the Green Party of England and Wales. There appears to be little understanding or appreciation of the danger of simple cooperation with the existing system (‘a solar panel here, a solar panel there, and all will be well’), despite embarrassing recent incidents such as the coalition of Leeds Greens with the Conservatives, now thankfully ended. Without an honest and open appraisal of such issues, there is no particular reason why the Green Party in England could not drift further into pragmatic, ‘realistic’ green politics as it continues to grow.
The Green Party then – decentralised, democratic, sometimes radical, and sometimes accepting of the status quo. The direction it choses over the next decade will certainly not leave the British left – nor British politics as a whole – unaffected.