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From The Socialist newspaper, 12 April 2007

Is the Green Party heading left or right?

The election of socialist Derek Wall as co-leading speaker of the Green Party and the success of several other green-lefts in internal party elections seems to strengthen the claim of the party that it has genuine left-wing credentials. However, at the same time there is a clear pattern of their councillors forming blocks, officially or informally, with ruling mainstream parties at local level, who all carry out New Labour's cuts agenda.
PETE DICKENSON asks: are socialists like Derek Wall just giving a left cover to what remains a pro-establishment capitalist party, in action if not words? Or is a radical shift taking place that could lead to new possibilities for the left in Britain?

The electoral programme of the Greens calls for the scrapping of nuclear weapons and university tuition fees, and increased taxes for the rich. They oppose the war in Iraq, privatisation and support the right of trade unionists to take 'limited' secondary action. The party supports the TUC Freedom Bill and would make trade union recognition easier, as well as banning 'sweetheart' single union deals.

Climate change demo December 2005, photo Paul Mattsson

Climate change demo December 2005, photo Paul Mattsson

This all has a distinctly 'old Labour' flavour, although their programme is not as radical as the Labour Party's was, if only on paper, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Labour then called for a wide-scale extension of public ownership and defended all the trade union rights that were subsequently removed by Thatcher.

Ironically, their policies on the environment now sound little different to those of the main establishment parties, as their previously distinctive (although flawed) policies have been adopted, in words at least, by the Tory and Labour leaders. In some respects they have been outflanked by them. For instance, Tory leader David Cameron now calls for a possible extension of legally enforceable pollution targets, something the Greens are vague about.

The centrepieces of the Greens' environmental programme are extensive eco-taxes and the Kyoto system of permit trading, although they acknowledge that the loopholes in this need to be tightened up.

Like the main parties they say that international agreements are essential for effective action against global warming and propose that the UN should be responsible for enforcing them.

This approach, however, flies in the face of reality, since the impotence of the UN in imposing its will independently of the big powers that dominate its structures, and whose rivalry is causing the problem, is crystal clear. Linked to this, Kyoto is a fiasco, partly due to the lack of agreement at international level.

Eco-taxes on luxury consumption are fully justifiable, but applying them widely to reduce greenhouse gases will hit the poorest hardest, since the poor spend a greater proportion of their income on the fuels that emit these gases.

On broader issues that have traditionally been associated with the green movement, such as the supposed need to cut economic growth and restrict travel to create sustainable conditions, their position is now very cautious.

On economic growth they say, as a final resort, policies should be adopted 'to allow zero or negative economic growth should this be necessary for economic sustainability'. The poor would be protected by a generous system of non-means tested benefits that they call 'citizens' income'.

On travel, their position is even more watered down, presumably for electoral reasons, than on the economy. They merely say that tourism should not be allowed to damage poor countries, with no concrete measures proposed, only exhortations to act responsibly.

The possibility of democratic economic planning providing an alternative route to sustainability, rather than their 'hair-shirt' environmentalism, however watered down, is not explored.

The Greens promote a localist agenda, through opposition to multinational companies and the promotion of worker co-ops as an alternative both to monopoly capitalism and to nationalisation.

They say the multinationals should be penalised through taxation if they fail to invest in their home countries and finance capital should be challenged by the establishment of a network of community banks under democratic control. International institutions such as the World Bank and IMF can be reformed, in their opinion, so that they really serve the interests of the poor.

These policies, some with a radical sound, are not much elaborated, but nevertheless it is hard to see them as anything but totally utopian if applied in the context of a rapacious capitalism.

The Green Party in action

The Greens have about 5,000 members in 179 branches. They have two MEPs, seven MSPs, two GLA members and 92 councillors. They are part of ruling coalitions or hold the balance of power in eight councils, including Leeds, Kirklees, Oxford and Islington.

A pattern is emerging for their councillors to go into coalitions or informal pacts with the establishment parties, for instance with the Tories and Lib-Dems in Leeds and with Labour and the Lib-Dems in Oxford. Their choice of alliance partners is beginning to produce the predictable result of compromising their left-sounding programme.

In the London Borough of Lewisham, as reported in the socialist in March, the Greens voted with Labour for a budget that will result in 800,000 of cuts, threatening community education services. Darren Johnson, the leader of the Green group, and a prominent figure in the party nationally, called those opposing the cuts irresponsible.

In Kirklees, West Yorkshire, the three Green councillors were previously part of a joint Lib-Dem/Green administration and allied themselves with the present Tory ruling group in recently pushing through, along with the Liberals, a budget that could result in the closure of three children's nurseries and an increase in home care charges. In return the Greens got a paltry pledge that cavity wall and loft insulation will be provided for homes in the area.

The gap between the actions of Green councillors and their party's 'left' programme to oppose neo-liberalism, is widening all the time, although they have some way to go to match the opportunism of the German Greens. When they were part of the German government, the German Greens ended up backing a ferocious Thatcherite onslaught on the working class and sending troops for the imperialist intervention in Afghanistan.

The Green Left

The Green Left was formed in June 2006 by, among others, the well-known gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, and Derek Wall, a prominent left green for many years. It was inspired by similar movements in Europe, from whom they took their position statement.

The Green Left in Britain says it stands in the eco-socialist tradition of William Morris and the 19th century Socialist League and correctly sees the need to change the social system if environmental sustainability is to be achieved.

(The Socialist League, incidentally, was not set up as an 'eco-socialist' formation, but as an avowedly Marxist one, created at the instigation of Frederick Engels and Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, to combat the sectarianism of the original 'Marxist' party in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation).

Since its founding, Green Left successes include having its adherents in the positions of the two leading Green Party speakers, the party chair, the campaigns co-ordinator and a number of other executive members, according to their website.

Their policy positions though are extremely vague, with little detail given except for general protestations in favour of a libertarian type of socialism. It is perhaps too soon to expect clear left alternative policies to have emerged, but at the moment the impression is given, by default, that they consider the official policies of the party as sufficient.

The success so far of the Green Left within the Green Party could be due to a growing awareness by rank and file party members that it is capitalism that is destroying the planet.

However, there is clearly a big potential clash in the offing inside the party if the left actively pushes for a clear break with the capitalist market system and formulates policies that echo that position. In particular, if they challenge the electoral positions of pro-cuts councillors and other elected representatives and take them to task for their actions, huge fissures will open up.

The growth of a socialist consciousness in a section of the Greens, albeit not clearly defined, is a welcome development. For socialists, maintaining a dialogue with all left-moving environmentalists is important. However, it looks very unlikely that the Green Party as a whole, in its present form, will provide a platform for a new left politics in Britain that will help break the logjam in the struggle for a new workers' party.

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In The Socialist 12 April 2007:

Fight for a socialist alternative

Coventry - Socialist Party's track record


Environment and socialism

'Climate change will hit poorest of poor hardest'

Nuclear power is not the answer

Is the Green Party heading left or right?

Battling over the world's oil reserves


G8 Summit protests

Join the International Youth Camp


International socialist news and analysis

France: Workers need to build a Left alternative


Socialist Party news and analysis

Workers' lives get tougher under New Labour

Campaign for a New Workers' Party

Why legal aid should be defended

Blair silent on Guantanamo


Socialist Party workplace news

Union leaders out of touch with teachers' discontent

NUJ: Build on the victories

Fury at jobs massacre

UNISON and PCS: Vote for fighting, democratic unions

PCS: All out on 1 May


International socialist news and analysis

Zimbabwe: State thugs crackdown on protests


 

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