Taking the crisis seriously – Greens and a progressive alliance
If politics moves from the edges, then the Green parties of these islands have, in many ways, had outrageous success over the last decade.
In 2017, a Labour party which had largely adopted our manifesto from the 2015 election got 40% of the vote, taking our ideas into the heart of British politics.
The breakdown of our climate is more widely recognised as an emergency than ever before. Proposals like basic income, which used to be relegated to poorly attended workshops at Green Party conferences are now at the heart of political debate. And Caroline Lucas is perhaps the UK’s most popular parliamentarian.
The need for radical democracy – a core Green principle since our party’s foundation – is broadly accepted as the solution to the democratic crisis, with proposals for constitutional conventions abounding. Our support for Scottish independence – long a niche view on the left across the UK, is now commonplace among progressives, and the brand of internationalist, decentralising libertarian socialism which once separated us from the more troglodyte elements of Labour are now the dominant politics of progressives.
We are winning the argument.
But we are losing the power struggle.
The British state has been captured by oligarchs and lobbyists, desperate to smash and grab a disaster capitalist hard Brexit. We don’t have time to wait before securing radical action on the climate emergency. Yet our fossil fuelled, billionaire financed regime clings on by raising the union flag, and diverting anger and blame towards people of colour, migrants, and the EU. Inflating Anglo-British nationalism, they can mobilise around half of the country.
In this context, we need to ask ourselves deep questions about strategy and tactics, about why we exist and what for. And for me, the answer is simple. Either Green Parties exist to transform our world, or we are pointless. We are faced by a great interlocking quartet of challenges: environmental breakdown, economic injustice, deep democratic alienation, and the growing use of borders and surveillance to secure social control for openly racist regimes. We must either go big, or get out of the way for those who can.
In the early 90’s, capital encircled the world with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and neoliberalism replaced colonialism as the highest form of capitalism – turning back on Western states to extract wealth through privatisation, deregulation and wage suppression, buying public consent and consumers with a mass expansion of debt.
A decade ago, the financial crisis holed this neoliberal model under the water, and for the last ten years, capitalists have been developing new models, working out how to protect and expand their wealth once the temporarily reinflated debt bubble bursts, once the world has warmed, eco-systems collapsed and the last corners of our states have been privatised.
The battle now is the fight against their attempts to establish this new model – where they hide their gold behind ever bigger walls or far offshore, and secure consumers and social control through what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.
Amidst this transition, establishments seem to be abandoning the carefree attitude to social liberalism, which came with neoliberalism, instead mobilising the insecurities of powerful demographics – men, white people, non-migrants – at the minor erosion of their sense of entitlement to automatic privilege to find allies for their tranformation.
Fighting against this transition in capitalism means working intelligently to cut out the three gnarly, intertwining roots of the crisis – capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. It means accepting that the challenges we face are not a collection of individual problems to be solved, but the putrid death flowers of an interconnected system which is sucking life out of our planet and the people on it.
None of these questions can be answered alone, because they all stem from the same broken system. If the attempt to stop Brexit feels like an attempt to restore the pre-Brexit regime, it will fail. If action on climate change feels like a project of the elite, it won’t happen. We can’t solve the great crises of our day without addressing the deep power imbalances that have produced them.
In the UK, that means replacing our bully-boy empire state with radical democratic structures, redistributing power away from our feral elite. It means demanding a rapid descent to zero carbon and the rewilding of our land and seas. It means growing a just and democratic economy from the ashes of neoliberalism.
And it means doing all of that quickly. Because the climate clock is ticking, species are going extinct, migrants are drowning and being locked in camps, and, across the world, the spectre of fascism casts a dark shadow.
Swift action means grabbing onto those around us, lining up, and directly confronting the powerful. It means being willing to take on the vested interests who are warming themselves on the flames of our burning world. It means standing together, digging in our heels, and refusing to allow a shock doctrine Brexit to be imposed on the people of this country.
Confronting those vested interests will require broad alliances, collaborations and solidarities. And that’s the context in which the conversation about Greens and electoral pacts must be understood. It’s the understanding with which Greens must approach conversations about votes of no confidence, and the sacking of Boris Johnson.
There are, of course, a lot of bad ideas floating around, which Greens should steer clear of. A government of national ‘unity’, for example, pretends it’s possible to unite the interests of the mega-rich and the people and planet they exploit to make their money. It presents the crises we face as technocratic problems to be solved, rather that the inevitable products of a feral elite who will stop at nothing to secure their wealth and power.
The idea of government of national unity is built on the inherently nationalist idea that there is such a thing as a single national interest: an idea which the establishment has always mobilised to imply that this aligns with their interests.
So, no, Caroline Lucas should not lead or participate in a government of national unity. The interests of the planet are not the same as those of Ineos, Shell and BP. The interests of landlords are not the same as those of their tenants. The interests of bosses are not the same as those of their workers.
The second bad idea is a “Remain alliance” which in England usually implies an alliance between Greens and Lib Dems, and, more recently, in Wales, also included Plaid Cymru.
The problem with this idea is that it posits Brexit as the central political question of the world today – exactly the framing that right wing Brexiters want. In doing so, it will always be used to pull Greens and anyone else with radical politics behind a toxic establishment desperately trying to fortify its position just as the economic model it relies on crumbles.
Much of the centrist vote in British politics – the “let’s just go back to 2013” electorate is built on an enormous personal debt bubble, which allows people to feel, just as they did before 2008, that the current model works for them. At some point, sooner or later, this middle class will go pop.
As Jeremy Gilbert has said, it is the role of radicals to lead a coalition which includes liberals, not be subsumed into establishment liberalism.
Greens rallying to the simplistic “bollocks to Brexit” banner and becoming little sibling to a Liberal Democrat party whose leader, less than half a decade ago, was an employment minister in a government which declared economic war on working class people is a capitulation to the forces which got us into this mess in the first place.
On the other hand, the lesson from first past the post elections is that smaller parties can have huge influence and help to shape our politics by picking and choosing where to stand, and whether to endorse candidates from other parties.
It’s hard to imagine the Labour Party growing to the second party of British politics without the Lib-Lab pact of the early 20th century. It’s easy to imagine the Brexit party having significant sway in any coming election by selectively endorsing preferred Tory candidates.
What is to be done?
It’s easy to sound like a crank in these situations: coming up with fantasy governments as though it’s your dream rock band or fantasy football team. I usually avoid doing so. But I’m going to outline in some detail what I think should happen next, not because I think it will happen, not because I’m particularly fussed about the specifics, but because I’m trying to make the case for a possible direction of travel, and sometimes, the easiest way to do that is to spell out the steps which might be taken.
First, this summer, Caroline Lucas, ideally with support from all three Green Parties of these isles, should present herself as an honest broker to lead a progressive alliance to bring down the Tories – lead it not because she is a Green, but because she has the personal moral authority to do so. She was, for example, recently voted the 6th most admired woman in the country – the highest ranking politician.
Such a move would clearly be controversial – the obvious candidate to lead another government is the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. And much of the refusal to countenance this idea comes from a particular kind of liberal, who seem to think that his moderate, northern European social democratic ideas make him a terrifying radical. Jo Swinson’s admission that she prefers a hard Brexit and the death and destruction it would lead to, to allowing into 10 Downing St a man who wants to tax the rich slightly more, tells a powerful story.
Much of Corbyn’s treatment has been deeply unfair, but the political reality, given the balance of the Commons, is that he probably doesn’t have the cross party appeal – or even the appeal in his own party – to pull off a vote of no confidence and install himself as prime minister. Radicals must understand political reality in order to bend it. Lucas, who hasn’t been as smeared by the media as Corbyn, perhaps does have some chance. It seems reasonable to argue that she is the radical politician at Westminster with the broadest personal appeal.
Doing this would require careful behind the scenes negotiations, and the product of these will not be determined by my witterings on this website, written as I sit in the sun outside my local bagel shop with my sunbathing dog lashed to my leg by his leash. But here is a rough sense of the proposals I imagine she might put to each party. I think she should start from the smallest – Plaid Cymru – and work up. But I’ve written the list from the biggest, down.
Such a government would obviously be dominated by Labour, with, say, John McDonnell as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dianne Abbott as shadow Home Secretary and Jeremy Corbyn as foreign secretary, with Lucas temporarily in number ten.
The SNP would be given Scottish Secretary and permitted a referendum on independence in which the ministers would be freed from a whip.
The Lib Dems would be promised a second referendum on Brexit, as well as a full constitutional convention where a jury of citizens re-writes the rules of British democracy – including replacing the electoral system and the House of Lords. They would be given the Brexit department, responsibility for the constitutional convention, and perhaps the Justice department.
Plaid Cymru would be offered Secretary of State for Wales and a specific Welsh constitutional convention.
The government would also hold citizens conventions to develop a plan for rapid decarbonisation of the country.
Once the constitutional convention had concluded, the government would put its proposals to a referendum, and usher in a new constitution including, hopefully, a new voting system. It would then step down, and call an election under this voting system. It would be up to each party what they would promise in this election.
To bring down Johnson, with parliamentary arithmetic as it is, ChangeUK, the smattering of independents and one Tory would need to also vote for such a government. But if Lucas could cobble together the strongest alliance, they may well be forced to choose between backing it, or accepting a hard Brexit.
The coming election
Let’s assume for a moment that none of this happens: that Johnson calls an election in the Autumn, either having delivered a hard Brexit or seeking a mandate to do so.
In that circumstance, I think Greens should draw up a charter, asking candidates to sign up to something akin to the above programme: zero carbon by 2025/30, a convention to re-write the rules of our democracy, including slowing each nation of the UK to choose its relationship with the UK and the EU, an end to austerity and take serious action towards economic democracy.
Where candidates – whether Labour, Plaid Cymru, SNP, or even Lib Dem – are willing to sign up to all of that, and can demonstrate to a local Green Party that they are best placed to beat the right in that seat, and that the seat is sufficiently marginal for Greens to make a difference, Greens should be willing to endorse that candidate, and actively campaign for them, as the Green Party.
In reality, this would mean Greens standing in most UK seats – safe seats, and those with no desirable candidate. But it would also mean that the party maintained a role in steering the agenda in areas where it is unlikely to get a foothold otherwise for a long time, and building profile and credibility which can be cashed in in local, Mayoral, Holyrood and Senedd, and Police Commissioner elections – and in a collection of target seats, like Belfast South, the Isle of Wight, and Bristol West.
Earlier this year, English Greens were richly rewarded by progressive voters for their brave decision to push a progressive alliance in 2017, which made clear to voters which side of the political divide we sit on. In Scotland, where the party refused to participate in a progressive alliance, the same surge didn’t happen. Solidarity is never transactional, but politicians who display it tend to be rewarded.
For the last three years, I’ve been investigating how the right is using well funded political innovations to maintain their grip on our politics – from importing US style political action committees to flooding elections and referendums with dark money. If we are to resist this, the left also needs to think anew.
Greens have led progressive thinking in the UK over the last decade. It’s time for us to step up, and lead a progressive alliance.