Where to go, what to do? Greens and the Corbyn challenge
Mark Ballard was Green MSP for Lothian from 2003-2007. He writes here is a personal capacity.
When I left the Labour Party in the early nineties and started to put my energies into the Greens I felt it was unquestionably the right thing to do. I’ve been happy with my choice for the last 25 years.
Corbyn’s election success, and the wider implications this have for British politics have for the first time made me question the viability of the Green political project in the UK.
There is a lot of reflection and soul searching going on amongst Greens after a poor election result. Some might say that this is a permanent state for greens – but for many long standing Greens like me this is the first time they have had to not merely ask the familiar questions about the direction of the party, but actually question the entire point of the party. This article therefore sets out what some of the questions and challenges are for Greens – and makes a few suggestions what the options for the future might be.
So why did I join the Greens? The turning point in my relationship with the Labour Party came in 1991. I had proudly joined the party as soon I was able, on my 15th birthday. But my Labour Party badge always sat next to my CND badge. So when Neil Kinnock announced in July 1991 (through a Guardian article) that Labour was dropping its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, I felt I had no option but to leave, despite having been recently elected as secretary of Edinburgh University Labour Club.
It wasn’t just the particular issue – though nuclear disarmament was very close to my heart – but the fact that this clearly meant that the party would be prepared to abandon every principle it had to try to win power. More widely, former comrades of mine from the Labour Party Young Socialists were being expelled for the thought-crime of Trotskyism, and the people I really admired in the Labour Party – MPs like Tony Benn, Diane Abbot, Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – were marginalised figures who lacked any power or influence in the party.
Most of what happened to the Labour Party from 1992 onwards confirmed that feeling. From New Labour and the abandonment of the socialist principles of Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution in 1995 to the ‘Control immigration’ mug in 2015, Labour seemed to be on a desperate journey to adopt every Tory policy it could to try to win votes. The concept of triangulation dominated Labour thinking, the idea of creating a third way between traditional left and right. In practice this meant that whatever the policy position the Tories took, Labour would position itself slightly to the left, promising to be just a bit less awful, in the hope that this would pick up the votes of the centre ground. This meant a politics that was continually dragged to the right. Trying to triangulate the difference between Nigel Farage and reason was never going to end well. It just made Labour look like it didn’t believe a word it said. Ed Miliband promising to get tough on immigration convinced no-one.
Meanwhile in the Greens there was an exciting and dynamic process of finding a way to reconcile the best of what you might call the ‘Ecology Party’ agenda – a commitment to environmental sustainability and radical democracy and decentralisation – with the best of the ideas of the radical labour left agenda of the 80s – a commitment to social justice, economic democracy and equality. The Ecology Party changing its name to the Green Party in 1985 had been part of a wider recognition that sustainability needed social justice. The Scottish wing of the UK Green Party following the logic of decentralisation and becoming a party in its own right offered an amazing opportunity to try to forge something genuinely new.
The electoral appeal of the Greens across Britain always had two elements. On the one hand there was a hard core of voters who would vote Green as the only party that took environmental issues seriously. Beyond that there was a group of voters for whom the Greens’ appeal was as an alternative to the traditional parties. With Blairite Labour and compassionate Conservationism looking like ‘two cheeks from the same arse’, offering sometimes fairly indistinguishable varieties of neo-liberal politics, it was the Greens who offered real change.
The introduction of PR for European elections and the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies gave an opportunity for even limited electoral support to translate into elected representation. This gave a platform to people like Caroline Lucas (as MEP for SE England), Patrick Harvie (in Holyrood) and Stephen Agnew (in Stormont) to demonstrate what the green alternative to neo-liberal consensus politics looks like. Greens could demonstrate a politics that sought to maximise social welfare and environmental sustainability, rather than GDP growth. In so doing, complicated issues were forced into the open, where the instincts of ecology and left traditions within the green movement were apparently in conflict. Sometimes these could be reconciled without too much difficulty – so environmental visions of decarbonising energy generation and socialist visions of a socialised economy could come together in a shared campaign for community owned and managed renewables. On other issues things are still to be reconciled – what does a transport policy look like that simultaneously addresses the disabling and isolating effect of a lack of access to personal motor transport, especially for disabled people and in rural areas, with the need to substitute public transport (or reduce travel) for personal motor transport for planning and environmental reasons.
Nonetheless, by 2015, if you squinted a bit, it was possible to see a whole new political system staring to form. Two increasingly similar parties of the centre-left and centre-right – with new political formations on the right (UKIP) and left (Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett clasped in a close embrace). Then Brexit destroyed UKIP’s reason for existence, and Corbyn destroyed New Labour. The argument that Labour and Tory were too sides of the same coin was hard to maintain when the choice was Theresa May, making a blatant pitch to former UKIP voters, or Corbyn, passionately articulating the previously marginalised policies of the Labour left.
This has also had a huge potential impact on the SNP. Like the Greens, they have a voter base committed to the cause (though it is more like 20% of the Scottish population, as against the Greens 3% or 4%). However, their pitch to a wider electorate also relies on Labour being ‘red Tories’ – not offering any likelihood of substantial change. In 2015 the SNP were able to convince many people in Scotland who wouldn’t traditionally vote for them that the best chance of ending austerity would be to vote SNP and support independence. England, it was argued, would always impose governments on Scotland that were well to the right of what people in Scotland wanted. The result was that the SNP took all but one of Labour’s seats in Scotland. With Corbyn as leader, a substantial number of old Labour voters returned to the fold. There appeared to be a viable road to a left-wing Government of the UK, while the SNP’s record in office looked increasingly lacklustre and timid. Combined with genuine fear of a second referendum galvanising the Scottish Tories, the SNP lost 21 of those MPs in 2017, and retained quite a few of the rest in west central Scotland with only tiny majorities.
However, it is important recognise that until the last few weeks Corbyn looked like anything but an election winner himself. He was not a particular star in the Labour left pantheon – a good left MP certainly, but by no means a Benn or even a Livingstone. He went for the leadership in 2015 to do his duty for the left, taking his turn after Diane Abbot in 2010 who only got 7.42%. It was largely because of the woefulness of the other candidates that he got his chance.
The bottom line is that Corbyn’s political thinking hasn’t really moved from the Labour left agenda of the early 80s when he was first elected. Watching Corbyn’s speech at the 2015 Scottish Labour conference was a fascinating example of this. As newly elected UK Labour leader, his speech was a tour de force of labour history in Scotland, from Keir Hardie onwards. There were references to the General Strike, the ILP, the Upper Clyde shipyards. Then he got to the miners’ strike, and spoke powerfully and emotionally on the impact that the failure of the strike and the vindictive destruction of the Scottish coal and steel industry had had on working class Scotland. Then he stopped. It was as if all the political changes since 1985 had passed him by. With an exhortation to vote Labour he wrapped up the speech, without offering anything about the way forward for a post-Indyref Scotland.
Therefore, to Greens, it feels as though he understands and is comfortable with the left part of the green agenda – social justice, economic democracy and equality – without really getting the ecological part – sustainability and radical democracy and decentralisation.
So what then do Greens, and others on the radical left, do, after the 2017 election result has given Corbyn power and authority he never had before? Make no mistake, the 2017 results send a pretty challenging message to Green parties, especially in England where there is no PR assembly or parliament to aim for. The Green vote fell across the UK from 3.8% in 2015 to 1.6% in 2017. The vote in the English Greens’ target seat of Bristol West halved from 27% to 13% as those who had voted Green in 2015 overwhelmingly backed the Labour candidate, despite her opposition to Corbyn. The politics of Greens claiming to be the real alternative feel fairly weak as the two main parties ceased to try to triangulate their way to success. Many of the Green policies that had made the party appealing to a left-wing audience, and distinguished it from New Labour, such as railway re-nationisation, were in the 2017 Labour manifesto. And Greens struggled to work out a coherent response.
Very broadly, I have heard three suggestions as to how to respond to a Corbyn-led Labour – join it, make a deal with it or turn our faces against it.
So the first option would be to follow the former green voters who have switched and join Labour. This could be a formal move – Green parties could seek to affiliate to Labour like the Co-op Party already does, or informal as members vote with their feet and leave the Greens to join Labour. However, as I said, while there are large areas of policy where Greens would agree with Corbyn, there are also large areas where they don’t. Corbyn and his allies lack of interest in proportional representation or in a new UK constitutional settlement will be problematic for many Greens, especially pro-independence Greens in Scotland. Although he has increasingly adopted elements of the environmental agenda, such as backing banning fracking, he still has a long way to catch up with the Greens on a number of issues. Anomalies still remain, perhaps as a heritage of a politics rooted in the early 80s, such as his apparent call for the re-opening of coal mines in the UK in the hope carbon capture and storage proves a functioning reality. Most of all there is still a widespread tribal labourism that sits apart from the movement politics of the greens – though Momentum was to some extent an attempt to change this. Even if all 50,000 British Greens joined Labour tomorrow would they have enough influence to change all this?
It is also worth highlighting the fact that despite Corbyn being the leader of the UK Party how little of the rest of the party structures are onside. Scottish Labour ran a campaign based on their opposition to a second independence referendum, rather than opposition to austerity. Even where Scottish Labour won seats, that is likely yo be be in spite of the local campaign rather than because of it. The leaders of both Scottish and Welsh Labour have little sympathy for Corbyn, and have used their roles of the Labour NEC to block him where they can. So it’s not as simple as thinking about the relationship between Green and Labour. The question is much more multidimensional – what do Greens in Scotland do about a fairly unsympathetic Scottish Labour and a SNP which looks increasingly as bereft of ideas as New Labour did after it had also been in power for a decade? What do Welsh Greens do about Welsh Labour and Plaid? These are all quite separate questions to the challenge faced by English Greens with Corbyn.
So if the policy differences mean many Greens will stop short of actually joining Labour, the next option would be some form of ‘progressive alliance’. Caroline Lucas pushed this strongly in the run-up to the election, and Greens stood down in a number of seats to clear the way for ‘progressive’ candidates. But as many in the party pointed out, this undermines the central plank of the Greens’ message since the 1990s. If Labour are genuinely different enough from the Tories to stand down for, then that makes Labour a ‘real alternative’, not just the Greens. Why vote for a small and relatively unsuccessful anti-austerity party when you can vote for a large and much more successful one? Labour did not reciprocate the moves by the Greens by standing down any of it’s candidates to help the Greens, even in Lucas’s Brighton seat, and made it clear that they considered Labour itself to be the only progressive alliance required. As Darren Johnson, the former Green London Assembly warned recently, “In every seat apart from her own, Caroline Lucas risks turning the Green Party from being a serious political party into little more than a tactical voting pressure group”. Why would Labour, on a roll, have any interest in such a progressive alliance, in the the same way that the SNP saw no need for a ‘Yes alliance’ in 2015.
Which brings us to the third option. Greens like Rupert Read have argued that “The project of outflanking Labour on the Left, a project that has in many ways been valid for as long as many of us have been politically active, is no longer tenable. In the Corbyn era, we can only beat Labour by giving people a distinct, ecological, green vision, including the promise of a better quality of life, rather than merely, as the other Parties (including Labour) do, a larger quantity of stuff / money.” So for Rupert this means abandoning our position as defining ourselves a party of the left, and going back to the Ecology Party position of being beyond left and right. For many Greens though this will sound like a denial of the reality of poverty that many people in the UK face. It’s all very well saying you are against growth to people who are already comfortably off – for people who are really struggling it just seems like middle class complacency.
So where do I stand? I look with bewilderment at the current state of the Labour Party, both in Scotland and UK-wide. How can it work to have a party with a UK leadership so at odds with its MPs, not to mention its leadership in Scotland and Wales. If Corbyn did become Prime Minister as the Tories implode under the pressure of Brexit, what kind of government could he lead?
Had Labour lost badly in 2017 a second attempt at a coup, or failing that a split, would have been very likely. Labour’s success under Corbyn means that the rumoured Yvette Cooper leadership challenge is now off the table – but those Blairites will need a political home in future, and it is unlikely to be Corbyn-led Labour. What new political formations might arise from the current Labour Party if it becomes impossible to hold the various elements together?
The reality is though, that my Green comrades are the people I have campaigned with on many issues over years, and are the people whose political instincts I trust and understand. I have friendships that date back to first joining the Greens. I won’t give that up in a hurry. So I will be staying – but for the first time since 1992 I am wondering if there is a party better placed than the Greens to meet my political objectives.
So be in no doubt that Corbyn’s success re-writes the political landscape for Greens (and the SNP and Plaid). The old certainties are gone. Our challenge is to work out how to take advantage of the new order, to bring our Green message of sustainability and social justice to the widest possible audience.