the green party and the left today

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.

27 thoughts on “the green party and the left today

  1. Curiously there are no examples of Green Party ‘radicalism’ here, or any class analysis of their politics or base, or any analysis of what the effects of their policies would be. What we are left with is smokes and mirrors – they are supposedly moving ‘leftwards’ and an alternative to their ‘sell out’ comrades on ‘right wing’ green parties on the continent, but in what way?

    Apparently, Caroline Lucas is ‘anti-capitalist’; yet what does that mean when today even the media savy, corporate backed, trust fund generation behind the likes of Plane Stupid claim to be anti-capitalist.

    Without a proper Marxist analysis this just reads as a puff piece for the Greens.


  2. I have not read any worthwhile “Marxist analysis” of the GP at all that can get past M’s level of argument. Its’ a broken record — but the GP ‘just happens’ to have 10,000 members , and ‘just happens’ to be consistently left of Labor, and ‘just happens’ to be set for a few MPs next election. Now that Respect has turned toward the GP and some have seen the complications looming at the next General election– the GP has been discovered as a party of interest.


  3. What exactly is a broken record? Marxist analysis? Alright then; indeed, what a bore – so much easier just to assert that they are left of labour and leave it like that?


  4. Well, really it says that the party is not anti-capitalist and that it is on the left in a social-democratic/Keynesian kind of way. While praising some of the organising structures of the party (i.e. internal democracy) it highlights the risk (and some-time practice) of it managing government, as in Germany, Ireland, Leeds etc., and how this is linked to its lack of thoroughgoing rejection of capitalism.


  5. “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)”

    I think we should be honest enough to admit that no ‘radical’ politics based around ‘zero-growth’ and pitched as ‘anti-capitalist’ is going to have much appeal beyond chattering class anti-capitalists, and certainly would have scant appeal to working class people.

    What zero growth means is stagnation, the slide towards a rent seeking economy and gradually worsening standards of living – likely accompanied by rising inequality. But isn’t that what we already have today anyway?


  6. Hmmm. I tend to think we need an analysis that is sharper in terms of the class composition and politics of the party, and (because of the relation between the two) clearer on the sort of program that any party with an interest in the working class needs to have about going to the polls.

    The conclusion is somewhat vague. Perhaps the GP will leave British politics and the left rather unaffected. I think in the late eighties someone could have written an article with the same conclusion… and, in retrospect, it would have been largely untrue, the GP hasn’t had a very significant impact.

    But anyway, I think the main thing is that being “radical” or “anti-capitalist”, even democratic, is all for nothing, nothing at all, unless it’s based on a programme of mobilising the working class. And I think that at it’s core the Green Party is not interested in doing that, even in its leftward areas.


  7. There are some very decent socialists in the Greens (ditto Labour and the nationalist parties).

    But actually the Green Party is not consistently left-of-labour, in power, at local government level they act no differently to the mainstream parties carrying out the same cuts and backdoor privatisations in public services and attacks on working people.

    Before the split & subsequent demise of Respect, not a single elected councillor of Respect had voted for a cut in public services or attack on working class people – on principle. This is not the case in the Green Party.

    Even in Kirklees, which might be considered a flagship, where Greens were involved in gaining an impressive programme of house insulation this was achieved via cutting a deal with the mainstream parties that the Greens would support cuts in nursery and other similar provision.

    And in the recent past have either been in coalition with the mainstream parties or had informal deals. For example, infamously in Leeds, the Greens were part of a coalition with the Tories. In Oxford, the LibDems. And so on, and so on.

    In Lewisham, the half dozen Green Party councillors (including Green Left Councillors) refused to support the inspirational Lewisham School Roof Occupation which was opposing a local school being flogged off to a private business charity.

    In London Assembly, Jenny Jones agitated against the sacking of chief of london met police over the public execution of Jean Charles De Menezes and virtually lined up with the Tories in attacking RMT strikers. We could easily find many mainstream Labour politicians to the left of Darren Johnson.

    My local Green Party provides an interesting dynamic. The older leaders have told me that if elected ‘you have to make “tough choices” and operate within a council budget’ and orientate towards small business, but some of the newer younger people seem more radical, a mixture of the current NGO politics that seem to have unfortunately filled a vacuum & also being pulled towards a different trajectory through participating in campaigns alongside revolutionary socialists. For example, playing a very valiant role in the student occupation that took place at the local university. I’m sure this tension is reflected as a whole in the party between the real-politick of Green Party politicians and one section of the membership who are part of the anti-globalisation milieu. But even that milieu has limitations, George Monbiot, for example, never made it down to the Isle of Wight or threw himself into the Vestas and Visteon occupation solidarity, despite both being examples of workers who had consciously taken an environmental stance (in the latter, a lucas plan style initiative from workers put forward a workers plan for transfer to green produciton at the car plant)

    Green Party councillors have rarely been ‘community shop stewards’ (to borrow a phrase from Preston socialist councillor, Michael Lavalette) and do not in practise live out the maxim coined by the Rebel Labour Councillors of Poplar in the 20s that it is ‘better to break the law than break the poor’

    This is a tradition that was continued by Clay Cross Councillors in the 70s who were stripped and disqualified from office for refusing to implement government attacks on council tenants, the Liverpool Militant of the 80s and socialist councillors of today. Compare Left Wing Labour Councillors of the 80s with the Green Party today and there is no comparison in the record of standing up for working class people.


  8. I think that M has hit the nail on the head on the “zero growth” stuff. Zero growth means penury, and is absolutely incompatible with left wing politics. Marx’s criticism of capitalism was that it put barriers in the way of growth, not that it grew too much.

    I think it is beyond coincidental that industry is seen as bad in deindustrialising western economies, and that zero growth is seen as good precisely when capitalism cannot sustain growth any longer.


  9. Rob – Conceivably you could have a communist society that supersedes an advanced capitalist one in which growth was not a central tenet. You could, for instance, have constant improvement in quality and efficiency that would not amount to growth – since growth itself is a measure of capital accumulation.

    However, I fully agree with you that ‘zero-growth’ politics *within* capitalism is a recipe for disaster and incompatible with working class politics – no wonder so much of the working class has deserted the left, and see them as aloof metropolitan liberals totally detached from their wants and desires.

    I, for example, would very much not like to have to pay so much rent to live in a tiny little, badly maintained flat in a building built a hundred years. If zero-growth Greens came along guaranteeing no/slow building and pitching it as ‘anti-capitalist’, or a rampant capitalist mogul offering a massive building project, I would go for the latter thank you!

    I also think you are right to correlate the flatlining and increasingly rent driven Western economies with middle class ideologies of zero-growth. I.e. they turn the status quo into an aspirational ideal. And for the house owning classes who are profiting well from the deep freeze in development it is indeed a status quo that very much benefits them.


  10. We should bare in mind that parties have stood in elections on a much harder reformist programme than the Green Party, for example, Labour under the leadership of Callaghan. In opposition, Dennis Healey spoke of ‘taxing the rich till the pips squeak’, there were policies of subsidies on food essentials, abolition of prescription charges, talk of facilitating an irreversible shift of wealth and power from the top of society to the bottom. Once in power they were blown of course. What happened? Big business staged an investment strike (which unlike workers strikes wasn’t broken up using troops!), the Labour Party panicked and began cutting tax to the rich and big business like crazy, squeezing the poor and cutting public services and waging a class war from above on those from above, clearing the ground for the thatcherite onslaught. The lesson is that those who advocate radical reforms in opposition, end up implementing radical cuts in power. The only exception is that they have some politics based on mass mobilisation of the working class or the ruling class is in disarray for one reason or another.

    On zero growth, while it is evident that there are ‘limits to growth’, ie finite natural resources etc. (K Marx himself wrote extensively on soil degredation in an excellent book, Das Kapital), the problem is not so much ‘growth’ abstractly, but capitalist growth dictated by the drive for profit and competition. The standard environmental riff is idealist not materialist, locating the problem in some abstract principle rather than concrete power relations. As Murray Bookchin put it, all ecological problems are at bottom about the exploitation and domination of human beings by human beings.

    Cuba according to the World Wildlife Fund is considered to be the only country on the planet to have achieved ‘sustainable development’, that is to say, meeting the needs of the present without jepoardising the needs of the future. Cuba has economic growth. The problem is not development, but a certain model of development and growth.

    I don’t idealise Cuba as some kinda socialist or environmental paradise (indeed before the collapse of the Soviet Union they pursued the standard state capitalist rap of one party state + heavy industrialisation to complete with the West), but the Cuban experience provides many lessons for socialists. After the collapse of the USSR, they faced a massive shortage of food and fuel and had to re-orientate there entire economy and society around solving this ecological crisis.

    We need to shift the environmental debate away from middle class moralising that we all have to make sacrifices (how ironic that the environmental movement has been using the same rap for eco-crunch as the ruling class has over credit crunch – we all have to pay, we’re in this together) towards radical social solutions such as free public transport, massive programmes of housing insulation and so on. Showing how permaculture can be a weapon in the hands of the poor. We can take some lessons from the early chartist co-ops which were used to back-up working class trade union struggle


  11. Well you see, there is a lot of complexity involved here that is broader than the question of how one party impresses.

    Cuba: The permaculture program in Cuba was kick started in the early 1990s in part through brigades that visted the island from Australia. Members of the Australian Socialist Alliance were among them. In way of follow up, last year we toured Roberto Perez  (a leading permaculturalist in Cuba) in partnership with the local permaculture community. He toured Britain  this year in part under Derek Wall’s and the GP’s sponsorship. Did many from the far left, aside from Socialist Resistance,  attend?

    One of the most succesful events we often hold in  suburban communities are screenings of the documentary The Power of Community- How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

    Turning green: In conjunction with the Perez tour, Green Left Weekly here organised the Climate Change Social Change Conference which bought together main strands of the green movement  including the green reds as well as overseas specialists like John Bellamy Foster whose Marx’s Ecology is a seminal work. In fact a major area of SA campaign activity is the environment movement and our memberhsip collectively created the Climate Change Charter which as well as being a policy document, has bought the debate sharply up against the Greens preference for change within  parliament.

    Experiences of Green Parties: Standardly we have left green members of the Australian Greens address our national conferences, (and my   SA branch has members who are both SA and Greens members)  as we work closely with them in campaign work. In fact, several branches of the Greens ( the Australian Green Party) were formed by socialists but the party’s national formation imposed a proscription clause which drove out the radical left. The partnership between green left and left greens, however is long standing and goes back 25 years, since the Nuclear Disarmament Party.


  12. it would be really important for socialists, communists, etc. in the GP to study the failure of the left wings of some green parties on the continent (e.g. Germany, Austria, Italy) where they were not able to have a lasting influence on the parties and generally also failed to create a political project after leaving the Greens


  13. M, you can’t just blithely assert that “history shows” that! That’s nonsense… we need to develop a culture of backing up contentious claims like that…

    I don’t go around calling myself an “ecosocialist” (and wouldn’t do), but we do need to find a way to integrate the reality of the “ecological question”, if you will, into our politics.


  14. Well, I suppose that is the case; but then again, the term “ecosocialist” is also bandied about without any justification most of the time. Generally, I think we should be critical of all offbeat prefixes, like, for example, Islamo-Marxism. Generally it seems the case that the prefix is where the interest really lies, and tacking on ‘socialist’ or Marxist’ after it is just an attempt to universalise it, or legitimate within a certain discourse interests that lie elsewhere.

    As for history showing that to be the case, see the history of Green Parties in coalition and the actions of ‘ecosocialists’ whilst in government. Ecosocialists, also, whilst supporting the Vestas occupation (on purely opportunistic grounds) were demanding the closure of ‘dirty industries’ and showed a total lack of solidarity with the working class cause. Preferring, instead, to elevate their overwrought concern with supposed CMMGW above anything else.


  15. Ignorance is bliss.

    Take a look at Green Left Weekly or take a look at Joel Kovel’s work or even have a glance at International Viewpoint or the Green Party Trade Union Group site.

    Ecology matter, I beleive and socialism helps when it comes to ecology.


  16. Ecosocialists, also, whilst supporting the Vestas occupation (on purely opportunistic grounds) were demanding the closure of ‘dirty industries’ and showed a total lack of solidarity with the working class cause.

    But inconveniently for your position, the occupation was more or less initiated by activists from Workers’ Climate Action who, although they don’t use the term “ecosocialist”, are organised on the basis of socialist, ecological politics? So merely to identify those with a green perspective as opportunistic seems a bit much…

    Also, do you have a reference for “ecosocialists” demanding the closure of dirty industries?


  17. The comments of M seem off-beam.

    First, we shouldn’t get too hung up on labels. Whether people want to use the phrase eco-socialist or not, is not the big issue, the key issue is a recognition of the over-arching centrality of ecological crisis in the current situation and a socialism that orientates towards the totality of social relations including those to the environment, local communities and nature etc. The idea is that ecology and environment is not just one struggle among many, but that it underpins and is related to all the different struggles that we are involved in as marxists and revolutionaries.

    As Derek alludes to, this an idea whose time has come. We need a socialist environmental movement that has the energy and creativity of the direct action movement with the backbone of the battering ram of organised labour. There is a very good article on the International Viewpoint website about Green Bans and the militant ecology of the builders and labourers union in Australia in the 70s that blazes a trail for today.

    We should bear in mind that the working class movement was ecological at its birth, forged in a struggle against enclosures, in defense of the commons, and in defence of a more sustainable and grassroots relationship to land and so on & concerned with problems of the new cities and so forth. In the 19th century writers as diverse as Marx & Engels, William Morris and Petr Kropotkin were far more aware of ecology than some of their successors.

    Secondly, earlier this year I spoke as a representative of an environmental campaign at a meeting alongside a Vesta worker (at which a speaker from the National Union of Miners was also scheduled to speak, but unfortunately couldn’t make it), after stating that we should defend Green Jobs, I controversially put the case why as an environmentalist I also believed in defending ungreen jobs.

    For example, for environmentalists to support the smashing of the mining industry and consequent massacre of working class communities where coal was replaced with heroin and jobs with despair would be to cut environmentalists off from the very constituency – the broad working class – that is needed to resolve the climate crisis.

    To think if bosses got away with sacking oil refinery workers and then re-employing them on worse pay and conditions would somehow facilitate a transition to renewable energy would be naive.

    To think that the closure of a car plant making hundreds of workers redundant would somehow mark a government shift away from private motoring & road building towards public transport would be equally stupid.

    But in a sense, the Visteon workers pointed the way, when car workers put forward as part of the occupation a ‘workers plan’ for a transition towards green production.

    They were following in the footsteps of workers at Lucas Aerospace (now BAE Systems) who argued that they did not feel very

    It is clear that workers in ungreen industries are not dopes and have an understanding of the issues, and that workers power can bring about a transition to green production that relying on bosses and the rule of profit cannot.

    The work of organisations such as the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group attempting to build an environmental current within organised labour is something that needs to be built upon.

    It is clear that there is a problem, there are people who work in industries – arms, fossil fuels, airports etc. – that cannot play a part in a sustainable future – however, building a working class environmental movement makes it more likely that we can have a transition towards green production without thousands of people being thrown onto the scrapheap. Indeed, such a movement, is the precondition for such a transition.


  18. Re. Dave Riley’s comments. From afar (I live on another continent to you, so difficult to judge), the way the Oz Socialist Alliance has campaigned around the environment appears to be extremely impressive. I recall remarking to a comrade locally that the left here was so dinosaur here that most comrades wouldn’t even have heard of permaculture let alone agitate for a permaculture city. One of the strong points of the ‘Power of Community’ film on Cuba is how it shifts the debate towards mass solutions rather than little projects here and there. Would be interested to hear more about your campaigning and agitation.

    Re. Roberto Perez, I had the very good fortune to meet him and have a conversation over a cup of coffee which was an intensive and inspirational consciousness raising experience for me, before taking him to the Welsh Assembly. It was ashame that he did not have more time to hang out and meet local trade unionists, socialists and grassroots activists as he was a very visionary and practical man & a fantastic educator and pedagogue.

    One of the things he remarked upon was seeing very fantastic permaculture projects on a small scale tucked away in rural areas staffed by middle class, he passionately argued that permaculture was for the poor and workers and should be in urban estates helping people not an escapist idyll and talked about growing food as part of a process of building working class self-respect and self-determination and emphasised the collective and communal nature of community gardens and allotments where people grow food together.

    Certainly hope Roberto returns to Britain sometime!


  19. “One of the things he remarked upon was seeing very fantastic permaculture projects on a small scale tucked away in rural areas staffed by middle class, he passionately argued that permaculture was for the poor and workers and should be in urban estates helping people not an escapist idyll and talked about growing food as part of a process of building working class self-respect and self-determination and emphasised the collective and communal nature of community gardens and allotments where people grow food together”

    This sounds like a New Labour policy proposal. Grow food in the community? – no thanks mate, I have life to live and appreciate the benefits of mass production and automation!


  20. enjoy your pot noodles then, permaculture saved lives when the cheap oil ceased to flow in Cuba.

    while I am here is good if you leer Spanish, its published by my good friend Hugo Blanco.

    and catch up with Green Left Weekly


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