Only Pluralism Can Save Us Now
This article is part of Bright Green’s ‘Labour or Green?’ series- if you’d like to contribute to this series, please send a draft to firstname.lastname@example.org
The call for the Green Party to down tools in favour of the Labour Party is probably as old as the Green Party itself. Of course since Corbyn’s rise those calls have become more fevered. It’s time to realise those siren calls are damaging for both the Labour Party, the Green Party, the environmental movement & the broader left.
Corbyn’s sudden rise to the Labour leadership was both unexpected and unheralded. It seemed entirely likely that the same soft left milquetoast vision of the world espoused by Ed Miliband was to be carried on by Andy Burnham. The takeover of Labour by its almost dormant radical left was entirely novel and not reflective of the radical left’s fortunes in Europe. There instead new parties of the left arose supplanting tired third way social democratic parties.
After a year of Corbyn’s leadership it is entirely clear why radicals in Europe started new parties, rather than try hostile takeovers of existing parties.
Corbyn’s first year has been littered with savage infighting, brutal attacks on the leader and a struggle to communicate a clear message to the electorate. Instead of articulating a clear anti-establishment and radical message (that so fired up Greeks & Spaniards) Corbyn has spent most of his time dealing with the anguish inside the Labour Party.
Back in 2015 Corbyn was meant to be the token lefty who lost badly in the leadership election. Abbott had ran in 2010, it was his time to lose. Even when it became clear Corbyn was to win the election he and his team seemed ill prepared. It hasn’t improved and Corbyn has disappointed as a leader. A principled man perhaps, but not charming, engaging or electrifying like Tsipras or Iglesias. At too many opportunities he’s given his enemies ammunition, alienated allies and failed to communicate his own vision.
Fundamentally the radical left has gone all in on a poor hand. A shaky political vehicle, a damaged leader and no cohesive message does not bode well for the next election. If the Corbyn project fails we risk disappointing a generation of radicalised activists and the perhaps inevitable handing back of the party to a now rather smug and galvanised moderate wing of the Labour Party.
For any Green wanting to sign up to switch ship to the Corbyn project there’s fundamentally somethings they must take into consideration.
Firstly simply joining is not enough. The Labour membership is full of people joining “to support Corbyn”, but passively paying fees is not enough to keep the Corbyn project afloat. Corbyn’s opponents hold many positions of power and regularly use them against him. Radicals must realise that much of their political energy will be sapped by bitter rancorous infighting and political obstructionism. If there is life after Corbyn the party will need radical reform in it’s internal democracy and processes. For any activist the next few years may be an inward facing time. For me as a campaigner it’s not something I can spend my limited time or energy on.
Second is the lifeboating issue. If Corbyn fails and the Labour Party goes back to bland centrism where is the next natural home for radicals? If the Green Party has folded radicals might have to spend their time reinventing a new party (potentially Momentum?). Or else go back to waiting their time to takeover their party with echoes of Foot & Corbyn in their ears.
Next is an issue of pluralism. Caroline & Natalie have not been shy of supporting Corbyn when he gets it right, refugees as one example. In the face of a hostile media and an incredibly reactionary right it has been a boon to have more than one party leader speaking up for inclusivity and progressive values. An end to the Green Party would see Corbyn’s Labour even more isolated.
Tied in with this is sometimes the need for constructive criticism. Because the fate of the radical left is so intertwined with Corbyn’s fate many activists have assumed a near constant defensive position. Any criticism of Corbyn is responded to with immediate bombast (indeed I expect this article to generate some). The problem is sometimes Corbyn does get it wrong. When it comes to the EU, reopening the coal mines or wider campaigning and messaging Corbyn does need constructive criticism. When his leadership team seems to be in bunker mode, under siege and wobbling, there seems little space in the Labour Party for sensible constructive criticism. The two options seem blind hagiography or intemperate rage.
The Green Party can and should hold Labour to account, on both the environment and social justice. This is particularly true on a local level, where many Labour councils continue to disappoint. There is a huge difference between say Islington Labour and Lambeth or Newham Labour. Not every council is infused with Corbyn style politics. But all of them could use a local Green Party that holds the party to account.
Another issue is the widening disparity of the UK electorate. The EU referendum clearly highlighted the huge gulf between Labour’s metropolitan seats and the seats it holds elsewhere. Having campaigned myself in the referendum I saw the huge disparities in community’s concerns in different areas around the country. The Labour electorate is an increasingly fragile coalition of voters who often have different concerns and do not speak the same language or understand how to engage each other. It’s a trend across Europe where the cornerstones of social democracy (Trade Unions and strong local communities) have broken down.
How does Labour appeal both to UKIP-Labour-Conservative switchers and Labour-Green-Lib Dem switchers? The resounding answer thus far is it cannot. A narrative that captures both a core working class vote and a generation of young radicals drawn to the new left has been beyond most parties. I fundamentally do not believe the Labour Party can win a national election by becoming the Green Party. I do believe a radical party can win a general election but it does need a different tone, a different focus and a different style.
In European countries with sensible electoral systems this is how progressive majorities are won. Coalitions of liberals, Greens, social democrats and socialists win a broad base of support. Under this FPTP with our current electorate Labour has never looked further from a majority. Strategically Labour needs to reconnect with its core working class vote, something which all factions of the party seem clueless as to how to achieve. Aping UKIP will not do it. Nor copying the Greens. Labour desperately needs an authentic radical narrative to stop its core working class vote drifting to Ukip or the Tories.
This is where a progressive alliance is most needed. Unless the widening disparity between communities can be staunched (and indeed that will take a progressive government elected first) the electorate needs more than one progressive party. It needs a liberal and a Green Party to connect to seats where an authentic working class Labour message won’t carry & vice versa. The current polls certainly point to the idea that Corbyn cannot win a majority alone.
Our politics also needs a party who will (as well as promote social justice) fight for the environment. Climate change should be seen as the number one crisis our country faces, yet even the radical left has not done enough to address the issue.
There’s also clear evidence that there is still electoral appetite for the Greens. The party has remained solid in the polls at 4-5% and Corbyn has not squeezed that vote. In some areas of the South West and South East, where Labour branded politics have never caught on, the Greens have proven themselves as the most viable vehicle of progressive politics. Defeating the Tories will take a coalition of liberals, Greens & nationalists. (Though the Lib Dems really need to decide where their politics lay, are they progressive? Will they ever prop up a Tory government again? I’m deeply uneasy about stepping aside for a Lib Dem to then see them enter into coalition with the Tories again).
Crucially getting this reactionary and oppressive Tory government out as soon as possible is vital. It’s something everyone from Europhile liberals, to environmental campaigners to lifelong trade unionists feel. As a broad coalition with a commitment to proportional representation and progressive politics we can defeat the Tories. The belief that Labour alone can carry us over the line is outdated and unrealistic. We need to work together, but Socialism in one party is old hat. Only pluralism can save us now.