Widespread electoral disillusionment with the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem establishment parties has opened up a political vaccuum which the far-right populist party Ukip is hoping to fill. However, the Green Party standing on a left leaning programme is also increasingly gaining support and members. Claire Laker-Mansfield questions whether the Greens provide the answer to the lack of working class political representation.
Why are the Greens growing at the present time?
Positive polls, increasing membership as well as a prominent campaign to be included in the television ‘leaders debates’, means the Greens have their largest national profile for many years. But it’s important to put the Greens’ recent growth in its broader context.
The ‘two-party’ system which has dominated the country’s politics is breaking down. Combined support for the Tories and Labour has reached historically low levels. And no wonder. United on the fundamentals, all the main parties are in agreement on the need to place the bill for the economic crisis at the feet of working class people. Austerity is the order of the day, and Labour, who many would look to for protection from the onslaught, are offering nothing substantially different. In fact, they have committed to matching the Tories’ spending cuts targets in the next parliament.
With such little difference between the main parties the question of an alternative is becoming increasingly pressing. It is into this wide political vacuum that previously ‘fringe’ parties – like the Greens but also the right wing populist Ukip – are attempting to step. This is the context in which the Green party is experiencing what its leader, Natalie Bennett, describes as the ‘Green surge’.
In sharp contrast to the mainstream parties of British capitalism, the Greens have an increasing membership. Including their Scottish party, they claim to number over 40,000 and have overtaken UKIP in size. Their electoral support is also on the up. Recent polls have placed the party on an average of around 6%, some polls higher – ahead of the Lib-Dems.
A substantial part of the party’s support is coming from younger voters, who are often among those most disillusioned with the out-of-touch establishment parties.
They say they oppose cuts. What is their record on this?
The Greens have 160 councillors, but it is in Brighton, where the party has a minority administration in control of the local council, that they have had the most opportunity to demonstrate their politics in practice.
Elected on an anti-cuts ticket, many hoped that Britain’s first Green council would offer an alternative to the slash and burn approach of both the Tories and Labour. Like most councils, Brighton was hit with a big cut to funding from central government. But far from acting as a line of defence against the vicious Con-Dems – the Greens have obediently passed on the pain. More than £50 million worth of cuts have been inflicted on the city since the Green council was elected – resulting in its huge unpopularity locally.
The only idea the Green council had for ‘mitigating’ the effects of government cuts was to instead force the cost of the economic crisis onto working people in the form of council tax rises.
Contrast this approach with that of the fighting stance taken by Liverpool city council (led by supporters of the Militant, now the Socialist Party), in the 1980s. Also operating in a time of austerity, this council won over £60 million in extra funding from the Tory government and led a mass campaign of working class people to defend its stance against Thatcher. But unlike the Liverpool council leaders the Greens have neither the confidence nor desire to mobilise the full force of the working-class against the vicious Con-Dems.
On the contrary, the Green council has brought itself into direct confrontation with some of the best organised and militant sections of workers in the city. As part of a so-called equal-pay deal the council attempted to cut the pay of the city’s low-waged bin workers by as much as £4,000, ripping up a union agreement. This provoked wild-cat strike action, followed by a determined month long strike of bin workers.
Could Brighton council be dismissed as a one-off? The evidence suggests not. Even where the Greens have only a handful of councillors and little to lose by at least voting, if not actively campaigning, against cuts, they have failed to do so consistently.
In Bristol they joined a ‘rainbow’ cuts coalition and are largely indistinguishable from the other parties within it. They have failed to propose or support alternative ‘no cuts’ budgets, compared for example to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) councillors in Southampton.
When she was asked how the Greens might act following this year’s elections, the Green party’s leader – Natalie Bennett – felt unable to offer any guarantees that Green MPs would act as a defence against cuts in parliament.
When pressed on what the Greens might do in a potential hung Parliament, Bennett argued that, while the Greens would not favour a coalition with the Tories, or Labour, they would be prepared to vote for Labour party cuts budgets as part of a ‘confidence and supply agreement’. Internationally, Green parties have proved very willing to join pro-cuts coalitions and right-wing governments, in Germany and Ireland for example (see box).
Some see them as a left alternative to the main parties. Do they have socialist policies?
The Green Party describes its political philosophy as one of ‘fairness’, for the benefit of ‘people and planet’. But while these are admirable aims, they do not claim to have a socialist programme.
The Greens’ propose a range of progressive and radical sounding policies which, especially when compared to the cowardice of Labour on so many issues, make for refreshing reading. The party supports renationalisation of the railways and wants to abolish tuition fees, for example. They have also come out in favour of a £10 an hour minimum wage – something socialists are calling for.
But here, as with many of their policies, the devil is in the detail. The Greens claim this policy would only be realisable by 2020, allowing time for big business to ‘adjust’ to the new wage, but also allowing for inflation to diminish its value.
Clearly the Green party feels it has to balance the needs of workers against the interests of big business. Unlike socialists, they don’t place themselves unapologetically and consistently on the side of working-class people against the super-rich 1%.
In their 2010 manifesto’ the party pledged to match the Labour government’s target of halving the deficit by 2013 – a target it argued would be possible without big cuts to services but by instead raising taxes. A close look at their tax policies again reveals the unclear nature of their class loyalties. While they advocated a small increase in corporation tax, they also supported a range of consumer taxes, often dressed up as being environmentally friendly. These would take no account of the consumer’s ability to pay and therefore would hit poorer people hardest.
Without a socialist foundation to their ideas, the Greens are forced to basically accept the economic framework set out for them by capitalism. Socialists fight for a society run to meet the needs of all rather than to provide profit for a few. There is enormous wealth in society – enough to provide decent jobs, services, housing and more for everyone. The problem is that this wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Statistics brought out by Oxfam this week have shown that the richest 1% own almost as much wealth as the bottom 99%.
Socialists say we need to take the wealth off the 1%. We see the working class – who create society’s wealth and provide its services – as the most important force in society. When organised, the working class has the potential power to stop cuts, win improvements, and ultimately to transform and run society. Socialist ideas represent a summary of the economic interests of the working class. These interests are inevitably in conflict with those of big business and the capitalist class, whose profits are generated through the exploitation of workers.
Climate change and environmental destruction threaten the planet; surely this is the first priority to deal with before we discuss how to get rid of capitalism?
Dealing with the environmental crisis the planet faces is urgent. The Green Party is right to point this out. Indeed, the fight to protect and improve the environment is one that has been a part of the workers’ movement throughout its history. But climate change cannot begin to be tackled by governments beholden to the interests of big business. Challenging the environmental crisis requires that you challenge the system itself.
Under capitalism, profit trumps all: the needs of people, the state of the environment – you name it. Even minor tinkering and regulation made with concern for the planet can invoke the wrath of big business, which, wherever possible, will pass any extra costs they face onto ordinary people: For example so-called green taxes. Even the modest ‘green levies’ the government has applied to the energy companies, supposedly with concern for the environment, have simply been passed on to consumers – adding to fuel poverty and failing to dent the companies’ profits.
Nationalising the energy companies would certainly be a good place to start in dealing with the climate crisis – something the Green party does, in words, support. After all, you cannot control what you don’t own. But this principle applies to more than just the energy companies.
Tackling climate change really requires the ability to democratically plan an economy as a whole. Think of the damage that companies like car manufacturers and agricultural giants could continue to do to the environment if left in private hands. Indeed, this planning would need to be carried out not only within the boundaries of a single nation – but as part of an international plan.
Socialists are internationalists – we see the struggle of workers around the globe as intrinsically linked to the fight to change things here. We support and fight for every possible improvement in the lives of working class people – including for reforms that can benefit the environment. But we don’t stop there. We understand that unless reforms are linked to fighting to transform society and change the system, they can be taken back at a later stage. The fight to end climate change is therefore one which must be part of an overall fight to end capitalism – something the Green party is not committed to.
Indeed, the Green party’s acceptance of a capitalist economic framework has already tainted their environmental record. Brighton council – controlled by the Greens – is ranked 302nd out of 336 local authorities for recycling!
Can the Greens offer a working class political voice? Could they be part of creating a new mass working class party?
The Greens are clearly not what you could describe as a party of the working class. While they have some policies that might benefit workers, they do not base themselves on working class organisations – such as trade unions – and nor are they committed to a socialist programme. Their record – both in Brighton and elsewhere – has demonstrated the consequences of this in practice.
The growth that the Greens are currently experiencing is an expression of the deep desire for a real alternative that exists in society – particularly among young people. Really this thirst for an alternative should be met by the workers’ movement. Were the trade unions to take the bold step of setting up their own political party, building on the work already done by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, many of those currently looking towards the Green Party – in spite of its limitations – would find a new home under this banner.
While individual Greens may well play a role in the future development of a new party, the key task for socialists and anti-cuts activists is not to build support for a party like the Greens, but to campaign and fight to build a real, working-class political alternative.
For more detailed analysis see Claire’s article in the new issue of Socialism Today: www.socialismtoday.org
Greens’ record in Ireland
The record of the Green party in the Republic of Ireland can give us an insight into the potential role we could see their sister organisation in Britain play in the future. In government, the Irish Greens consistently put the interests of the market ahead of those of working class people and the environment.
Following the Irish elections in 2007, the six elected Green TDs (MPs) joined a coalition government with Fianna Fail and the ultra-free market Progressive Democrats.
Like the Greens in Britain, much of the Irish party’s support had come from those wishing to protest against big business politics and the destruction of the environment
Before entering government the Irish Greens had prominently supported a campaign fighting against the proposed construction of a natural gas pipeline through Kilcommon, as well as the construction of a refinery at Bellanaboy.
On joining the coalition, the Green TD Eamon Ryan was appointed as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. He went on to oversee the construction of this pipeline and refinery in government.
In 2008, the financial crash plunged the Irish economy into recession, with the government bailing out Irish financial firms.
In April 2009 an emergency budget – supported by the Greens – began a brutal programme of austerity – with the cost of the bank bail-outs billed to the Irish working class.
In November 2010, Ireland accepted a bailout from the Troika (International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank), and agreed to a huge €15 billion austerity package in return. However, in December 2010 the Irish government announced a further €6 billion in cuts. This was described as the ‘most draconian budget in the history of the state’. It was not until January, with scandal erupting around the cosy links between the taoiseach (prime minister) and the chairman of the bailed out Anglo-Irish bank that the Greens finally decided to leave the government, triggering an election.
In the elections that took place in March of that year, voters punished the Greens for their betrayals. The party experienced a wipe-out and lost all six of its TDs.
The fortunes of the Irish Greens can be contrasted with those of principled anti-austerity campaigners such as the Irish Socialist Party (the sister party of the Socialist Party in England and Wales) – currently celebrating a string of electoral successes. On the back of a mighty campaign against water charges, Socialist Party member and Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate Paul Murphy recently won a sensational by-election victory in Dublin South-West, to become one of three Socialist Party TDs. The Greens candidate in this by-election scored 1.9%.
Electoral success was a serious test for the Greens. In practice the party showed that it is prepared to do what’s necessary to protect capitalism despite the costs to people and planet. No wonder then, that this party has been discarded by working class and young people, who are instead looking towards a genuine alternative.