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Can the Greens help provide a left alternative?
The Green Party is standing more than 300 candidates in the general election. It believes it has a chance of getting one of its two MEPs, Caroline Lucas, elected to Westminster in the Brighton Pavilion constituency. It puts forward detailed policies on all areas, not just the environment, including many that socialists would support, such as demands for a 'living wage', a 35 hour week, rail renationalisation and an end to PFI and university tuition fees. However, Sean Figg and Judy Beishon explain why, fundamentally, the Green Party is not offering a way forward for working class people.
There is an old saying - 'talk is cheap'. The Green Party have some left-wing proposals, but the key question is what do they do when they are elected?
So far Greens have a big gap between talking left and acting left. In the European parliament, Greens from other countries have supported the Lisbon treaty that enshrines neoliberalism as a core EU tenet. In Germany they shared power with the German Social Democratic Party for years in a cuts-making government, and have even shared power at state level with the conservative CDU. In Ireland they are part of the Fianna Fail government that is inflicting brutal cuts on the population.
In Lewisham in London, the Green Party has often voted with the establishment parties against proposals of the two Socialist Party councillors. For example they voted against protecting adult social care services from cuts and against giving parents a vote on a school privatisation. In Kirklees council, they spent time in a coalition with the Lib Dems and later voted for a Tory cuts budget.
Green Party activists frequently deny responsibility for the actions of elected Greens elsewhere. Many of these activists tend to see themselves as collections of individuals and so not responsible in any way. The party's councillors are subject to little democratic rank-and-file control.
But it is the Green Party's fundamental ideas that make accommodation with the establishment parties and with capitalist market forces a grave danger when they win positions. The party is a 'broad church' encompassing views ranging from left to right and its programme does not go beyond the confines of the capitalist system. Yet this system is proving completely incapable of tackling the severe environmental problems it has created.
The Green Party wants to promote 'good', environmentally conscious capitalists against 'bad' polluting ones. But capitalists the world over are more and more adopting a green veneer, and it doesn't alter the fact that their friends and representatives in governments do their bidding by placing profits before a sustainable environment. None of the governments of the main industrial countries are taking the measures needed to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As long as we live in a system that has profit-making as its driving force, the needs of both people and the environment will be swept aside in the interests of wealth accumulation for the small minority at the top of society.
The Green Party is not an anti-capitalist party and doesn't pretend to be one. It does however try to portray itself as anti-big business, favouring localism and also wealth redistribution to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
In many areas it orientates towards small business people as a base of support. But its policies are extremely weak even in the realm of wealth redistribution and other left 'reforms', for instance its manifesto proposes just a 2% rise in the corporation tax rate for large companies, to 30%. The rate was 52% through most of the 1970s.
Like other pro-capitalist parties it proposes tighter regulation of the banks and goes further than this in wanting certain curbs in other sectors, such as on the major supermarkets. But it doesn't have a programme that could in reality counter the dictates of big business, nor an orientation to mobilising working class people to defend such a programme.
To protect the environment and the living standards of working and middle class people, a programme that challenges capitalist interests is necessary, and also that bases itself on workers' struggles. When the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight was earmarked for closure last year, Green MEP Caroline Lucas wouldn't even call for nationalisation to save the plant, as the Socialist Party did. Instead she just called for government assistance to Vestas, a company that was already making big profits.
As well as not challenging capitalism, the Green Party programme is unattractive to workers in a number of other ways. For instance it says that "modest efficiency savings may be possible". Its proposed ecotaxes on goods such as fuel, alcohol and new homes only alienate many working class people because they would hit them proportionately much harder than the rich.
Regarding trade unions, the party's manifesto wants to end "the corrupting effects of big private and trade union donations to political parties, and bring in a fair system of state funding". This indicates that they want trade unions to be non-political, which would greatly hinder the working class from developing a political voice. The Greens cannot, it seems, distinguish between one rich individual using £1 million of private wealth to influence politics in his or her own interests, and one million workers putting £1 in each to get their voices heard. It is a reflection of the 'individualism' of the party. One person, one conscience. Collective action - what's that?
Despite its present political weaknesses, parts of the Green Party could in future move to play a role alongside the workers' movement in helping to fill the vacuum on the left, by engaging in the urgently needed process of building workers' political representation. But the examples mentioned above of Greens entering into power-sharing governing bodies and making attacks on workers' living standards are a serious warning; they can also take a rightward path and be completely written off as a potentially progressive force in workers' eyes.
Green before Red?
Left wing members of Green and other environmental parties often argue that it is more important to be green than socialist, as there will be no point to an alternative society if we don't have a planet we can live in. However, underlying this position is the illusion that the acute environmental problems that exist can be solved under the capitalist system.
But such is the degree of damage that has been done to the planet, it is only through the struggle for socialism, including for public ownership of the major industries and for democratically planned economies, that the serious global environmental problems can be tackled.
Socialists are, in reality, the 'greenest' environmentalists of all, as only socialist societies, based on workers' democracy, could deliver the cooperation and will needed to solve problems such as global warming.
As part of the struggle for socialism, the Socialist Party calls for:
- Major research and investment into replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and into ending the problems of early obsolescence and unrecycled waste.
- Public ownership of the energy generating industries. No to nuclear power. No to Trident.
- A democratically planned, low fare, publicly owned transport system, as part of an overall plan against environmental pollution.
Read more about the Socialist Party's ideas in 'Planning Green Growth', a pamphlet by Pete Dickenson, available from www.leftbooks.co.uk
Brighton's Green councillors
The Green Party has an electoral approach. This goes a long way to explaining the significant, but largely ineffectual, group of councillors it has on Brighton and Hove council. By not having built a campaigning activist base, the 13 Green councillors sit in isolation, talking left and doing little.
It is the Socialist Party in Brighton, with others (conspicuously not the Greens) that campaigns on defending the NHS, stopping City Academies, fighting job cuts and defending council housing.
Occasionally a Green Party councillor offers support, but generally adds nothing to a campaign. The Greens played no role in building for the 600 strong trade union demonstration against job cuts in Brighton in March, merely sending along a few members (not their councillors) to carry a banner.
What will they do if they get Caroline Lucas elected to parliament?
When elected representatives, who want to go against the establishment, are not backed up by a movement outside parliament or the council chamber, the danger of being pulled quickly to the right is posed very sharply. This is the experience of Greens in other countries, and reinforces the point that it isn't the intentions or the left rhetoric that matter the most.
Competing for left votes
In some areas of the country, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates will be competing with Green Party candidates for votes. Why? Often, even where the Green candidate is left wing, it is virtually impossible to come to any sort of agreement with the Green Party such as an electoral non-aggression pact.
Worse still, in Lewisham's council elections in 2006 the Greens stood one candidate in each of the multi-candidate Labour wards but when it came to the ward being defended by two Socialist Party councillors - Telegraph Hill - they stood a full slate, splitting the vote and allowing Labour to take the third seat.
In many areas where they are approached the Green Party takes the high-handed attitude that they are the 'progressive left' party of British politics and others should swing in behind them.
In The Socialist 27 April 2010:
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party election analysis
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news