In an open letter to Green Party supporters, Rupert Read takes a detailed look at why the Greens need to articulate a distinctive message to a Corbyn-led Labour Party, and how to do so.

Dear fellow Greens,

Normally, us Greens wouldn’t tend to take too much interest in the race to elect a leader of a rival party. At least, until that internal election was over. But something very different is happening this summer. Something rather extraordinary, that demands our attention now. This time, we can’t afford to wait until the leadership race in question is over. We have to start to prepare ourselves for that moment now.

You all know what — who — I’m talking about…

Like you, perhaps, I’ve been on radical demos with Jeremy Corbyn several times, over the years. I honestly never thought I was being addressed by or marching with a future Labour Leader – but Corbyn is now hot favourite to be the next Labour leader. So, it looks like I was wrong; we all were. It’s stunning, truly exciting and hopeful to see a man like this poised to take the reins of the Labour Party. What a pleasure it would be to have a Labour leader who actually is radical. A socialist. Anti-austerity. Anti-nuclear. And more. This can only be good news for the country. Good news for politics.

And good news for the Green Party. People may now hear many Green policies (e.g. renationalising the railways; higher rates of tax on the rich; rent controls; ending ‘corporate welfare’) being advocated by the leader of the Labour Party, the ‘leader of the Opposition’: and so those radical policies are on the verge of becoming much nearer to being ‘mainstreamed’. The political agenda — what is debatable, discussable, manifesto-able, and ultimately commonsensical — should move in our direction.

And then some will ask, rightly: why vote for a Party fully 90% of whose MPs don’t agree with its leader whenever he talks a Green-ish talk?

And some will ask, rightly: Why vote for a Party led by a decent and genuinely-radical bloke — someone who is clearly enjoying a great popular appeal right now partly because he comes across as natural, as authentic, and as uttering home-truths that for too long the Labour leadership has shied away from — but who, if we are honest about it, is however not really a credible PM? I mean: he’s neither a real orator (as Benn and Foot were), nor someone with any experience of government or even of the front-bench (even though he’s 66 years old). If Corbyn becomes Leader of the Labour Party, he will be an accidental Leader. Meanwhile, we are lucky enough to have the brilliant speech-maker Caroline Lucas, who is eminently ‘Prime-Ministerial’, as leader of the Greens in the Commons…

At the same time, and pretty obviously, Corbyn’s potential election poses a serious challenge for the Green Party, as has already been acknowledged here and here on Bright Green. A very serious challenge, in fact. For, while Corbyn may be a Jeremy-come-lately to some of the issues that you and I have been banging on about for years, and while he is set to become leader of a hopelessly and perhaps terminally divided Party, and while he himself – for all his fine qualities – can’t hold a candle to our Caroline in certain regards, we are about to face for the first time ever a Labour Party led by someone who is actually reasonably credible (from a Green point of view) in terms of many of his policies and in terms of what seem to be his basic values. A few Green Party members have already drifted over (or back) to Labour. Much of Corbyn’s support thus far has come from the top Green demographic: the thoughtful young. How are we going to have any more ‘Green surge’ while Corbyn leads Labour? Has Labour just managed, by electing Corbyn, to stop the Green Party in its tracks?

Let me be blunt: the answer to that last question might be be ‘yes’, unless we buck our ideas up. It isn’t enough for us to be able to say that Corbyn leads a divided Party, that Caroline bests him, that he’ll almost certainly never be PM, or that a Corbynian Labour can’t be trusted alone to implement the would-be ‘green agenda’ on energy, etc. that he is personally in favour of. All these things are surely true: but they aren’t enough. If they are all that we have in our arsenal – if we are forced to concede that a Corbyn-led Labour in theory at least ticks most Green boxes – then we are in very serious trouble for the foreseeable future.

People are going to ask, ‘Why bother voting Green, when I can take a punt on Labour’s Corbyn? Why bother voting for a small Party that usually loses First Past The Post elections, now that Labour is finally ‘coming good’?’

What we need to do, in this context, is really very simple, even obvious. We need to be the Green Party. A Party dancing to a different drum; a Party truly looking to the future and not caught up in fantasies of repeating 1945, in the very different world of 2015; a Party proud of being ecologistic in its ideology, and not just ‘socialist’.

We cannot now (if we ever were) be a party of ‘socialism plus action on climate change’. We have to embody a wholistic philosophy that confronts head-on the intellectual weaknesses and blindspots even of a good man like Corbyn. We have to be proud and confident to be Green. Here’s a couple of key examples of what I mean by that:

  •  ‘Labour’ is all about rewarding the work that people do: the clue’s in the name. But as a society we need to reduce work (we are an overworked society, whereas we ought to become a ‘leisure society’, starting with a reduced and ever-reducing working week. Thus while Corbyn-Labour wants a true Living Wage, we want a much more radical change: we want an unconditional Citizens Income for all. Our policy in this crucial respect is both more radical and more realistic than Labour’s, as explained brilliantly by Guy Standing, over on Open Democracy.
  • Labour is all about allowing the deprived to consume as much as those who have grabbed most of our society’s wealth. But as a society we need to reduce consumption (to the sanity of a one-planet level; our current ‘binge-consumption’ is both utterly unsustainable and getting us nowhere, in terms of well-being: see this review of Neal Lawson’s All Consuming). Anything else — such as the fantasy of further economic growth while staying within climatic safe limits, the aspiration (sic.) for turbo-consumption for the currently deprived and for an endlessly-rising living wage for all, these being the kind of picture of the future that tends to be promoted by Corbyn et al — simply sustains outdated growthist thinking. Thus we join with Corbyn in opposing austerity, but part from him if/when he assumes that opposing austerity means opposing all cuts. For, when there is less work and less consumption, then the tax-base will correspondingly shrink: we can’t responsibly promise ‘the Earth’ (sic.), when we know that there are limits to what government can and should spend. What we need to do, in this context, is, above all: look to cut spending on everything that is harmful. For example, all fossil fuel subsidies, for starters.

JC is good news, but no messiah, whatever the advocates of ‘Corbynmania’ might think. We’ve had the proof, earlier this month. Namely, Corbyn coming out in favour of a resumption of coal-mining in South Wales. Anyone uncertain about where the balance would fall, if the chips are down, in a Corbyn-led Labour between ‘economy’ and ‘environment’ has surely had their questions answered by this .

Now: don’t get me wrong. As I started out this article by making crystal-clear, I very much welcome Corbyn’s potential election. It is nothing less than one of the most encouraging and remarkable things to have happened to the country’s politics in the last few years. In particular, like Caroline Lucas, I would like to see some kind of pact between Corbyn’s Labour and the Green Party in seats in England where, by working together, we could oust the Tories, and thus bring in electoral reform after the next election (though one needs to note here that Corbyn was until very very recently a strong advocate of FPTP; again, he is rather a Jeremy-come-lately to the idea of any electoral reform at all, and he has still not pledged to back PR). Corbyn and Caroline have long worked together on various issues in Parliament. Why not build on this happy experience, across the country?

But don’t get the times wrong: Corbyn’s election constitutes a serious threat to the Green Party. If we are not careful, we may end up looking irrelevant. I have briefly set out here how we can demonstrate clearly how to escape such potential-irrelevance. It is by being what we were born to be, made to be: Greens. Not: a temporary refuge for those driven out of Labour by its long embrace with neoliberalism. But rather: a Party with a truly radical, truly 21st century agenda, in ways which which Corbyn’s, for all its many virtues, is not. Our agenda is composed of post-growth one-planet-living (and thus an end to the absurdities of economic-growthism), of agricultural reform and land-reform, of a future where our lives are less and less ruled by work, of a progressive deglobalisation and bottom-up democratisation. Unique policies of ours such as monetary reform, land-reform, land-value-tax (LVT), Citizens Income (CI), and democratic local governance – historic, signature Green policies – are the way to demonstrate our ‘USP’, and to set our vision radically apart from Labour’s and Corbyn’s ongoing growthism, centralism and (er) labourism. And what’s more, post-growth policies such as LVT, land-reform and CI are actually much more serious about pursuing a more equal society than even Corbynian Labour. A truly equal society is a society where people can provide for themselves: where they have access to land, where they don’t precariously rely on someone else paying their wage. A Green society will be more effective than Corbynomics’s unachievable dream of turbo-industrial socialism (even within an environmental patina) ever would be.

And: if there is to be any kind of electoral arrangement with a Corbyn-led Labour, as I hope there will be, such a pact needs to be between Parties which are nevertheless offering distinct visions, Parties which actually have a raison d’etre. If possible, we need in places to combine forces in 2020 in a rainbow alliance – not fantasise a melting pot in which we would lose our identity altogether.

If we try to keep up with the Corbyns, if we try to be more Labour than Labour, we’ll fail. And rightly so. For our destiny, our historic task, is very different. We do our voters and those who are quite simply depending on us – especially: the young, and above all future generations, plus of course non-human animals – no favours if we don’t offer a new and distinctive stance, a genuinely radical agenda for the future. We need to give voters a big set of reasons for voting Green — or all our praise of Corbyn will simply bury us.

I have sought here to outline such a set of reasons.

Faithfully,

Rupert Read

About Rupert Read

Rupert is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Chair of the Green House think-tank, and the transport spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales.