Greens need to resist mainstream pressure for political ‘justification’…
There are two key paragraphs from Rupert Read’s recent article, which addresses the impressive growth of the Green party membership and its implications, I wish to highlight:
“We need to review our policy commitments to ensure that there is nothing there to embarrass us, because our policy commitments are going to come under more scrutiny than ever before, now that we have an MP casting votes on every bill that comes before Parliament.
We need also to ensure that we have the research capacity and intellectual strength to be ready and able to explain and justify flagship policies that are open to misunderstanding or spinful denunciation. Among the policy areas that require such attentions are: our policies on migration, on population, on decriminalisation of various currently illegal activities, and on citizen’s income”
Whilst I agree factual accuracy and intellectual competence is a must if any policy is to be withheld and justified, this must not signal a mainstream assault on any of our, let’s say, controversial policies. These do include the policies that Read listed, but there are many more.
For example, our economic policies are also vulnerable to scrutiny as the current ideological and dogmatic economic bandwagon is that the only way to deal with the deficit is through cuts, and that the deficit is so ‘immorally’ unjust, it needs drastic immediate action. This is where Read is right, there needs to be a collection of the already broad and conclusive pieces of evidence that clearly cast doubts on the current economic practice.
However, regardless of the amount of justification given for key policies, there will always be moral panics created, especially by the right wing press, around policies such as decriminalisation of Class A drugs. There are many evidence based led campaigns, such as the Vienna Declaration, which competently illustrates the need for a science evidence based policy towards drugs. However, regardless of information, for some reason or another the mentioning of certain drug names sends sections of the public into a frenzy.
Therefore, my worry is that in desperately attempting to fend off any misunderstanding, we may undermine our very roots of success: our principled distinctiveness. We are arguably the most mainstream truly lefty-socialist progressive party, and the only mainstream party that has a radical approach to many of the social inequalities that exist in society. Our socially justice approach is what makes us unique.
There is a famous sociologist/political theorist, Robert Michels, who had begun his career as a socialist/Marxist but after a while, became rather disillusioned with the so-called ‘democratic’ process. His ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ reflects this, as he gradually came to believe that it was impossible for an organisation, even if it starts off with revolutionary and democratic principles, to ever be truly governed by the mass and represent a truly democratic movement.
Whilst I sadly agree with his, and the others within the ‘Realist’ tradition of his time, that we can never have a truly democratic mass organisation as there will always be some form of political leadership; I think that his work raises interesting questions for the Greens.
He talks about revolutionary ideas being replaced through this process, which is exactly what I am concerned with now. As the Greens grow in membership, their structures change, their basis and vote attraction mentality changes. We have to make sure that as a membership, as political activists – our radical edge never loses its potential. We have to try to defy the odds of political reality; we only have to look at what happened to the LibDems to see the problems with political power and structures on party’s principles and radical potential.
I think there are many things that the Greens need to discuss, and yes, intellectual justification for our key policies should be strengthened. But this unfortunate tendency for political elitism and consequently, policy mainstream dominance, well that needs to be stopped. The Greens need to maintain their radical cutting edge if they are to continue to rise.
Jane Watkinson blogs at Jane’s Political Ramblings and co-edits the pluralist Broad Left Blogging.
Thanks for that, will have a look.
See Tom Chance’s interesting response to Jane and me, here:
I totally agree with what you are saying, and as you have recognised, this was never intended as an attacking reply – I instead wanted to constructively reply, and build on what you said. Glad you agree with what is said.
I totally agree with you, and I don’t think what you have said is anti-thesis to what I said. You have just made a very good argument for defining the type of social justice we uphold, and I totally agree with you.
Jane, I stubbed my toe on this line:
“Our socially justice approach is what makes us unique. ”
There are several other parties, ranging from Respect, right down to the LibDems and poor old Labour who would claim (with varying degrees of justification, or not) that this is what they are about.
Our USP lies in the fact that our political philosophy is rooted in ecology – the study of the interrelationship between an organism (in this case, humans) and its environment.
The great historical political divide has been between individualists (Hobbesians, Conservatives, neo-liberals &c) and Socialists – Communsits, Marxists, Leninists, Maoists, Labourites &c &c &c in their infinite regression of sub-divisions). The only thing they share is their anthropocentric starting point. Political ecology takes us beyond this divide.
The fact is that humans are social animals, like wolves, not solitary animals like bears. Socialists base their philosophy on this fact, which is undoubtedly better than individualist philosophy, simply because individualism has no scientific basis (all it has is a lot of money, which gives it its dominance). Labour demonstrated the weakness of socialism in its corrosive attack on individual civil liberties. We on the other hand have a fairly strong libertarian and anarchist tradition in our party.
We greens base our philosophy on our interdependence on the real world, that is, on ecology. We were called the Ecology Party before we changed to the Green Party. In basing our thought on ecological reality, we transcend the individual-social divide, and can reconcile the individual-social antithesis in our bigger framework. Our affinity is more with socialists, simply because of the fact that we are social animals, and because the solution to the ecological crisis depends on co-operative action. But because we are not merely social-“ists” (i.e. not religiously wedded to the idea of the primacy of society, or the interests of one group within society above all other groups) we can also promote the importance of individual liberty within the constraints of the needs of environment and society.
Our emphasis on social justice is not just based on the fact that it is ethical, but also on the fact that only an equitable society will have the strength and cohesion necessary to make the radical transition to a sustainable economy. (Spirit Level stuff)
I keep hearing this line “we must get beyond being an environmentalist party”. We never were an environmentalist party, in the sense that the LibDems claim to be. We sorted this one out in the 70s, but it seems that we have to sort it out again. We are an ecological party. The difference is between something that is desirable, and something that is existential.
The argument can be summarised by saying that we seek justice and equity, not just within our own nation (as most other parties would claim), and not just between our nation and other nations (as internationalists would wish), but also between our generation and future generations. This tripartite approach to social justice is what makes us unique.
Thanks to Jane and thanks to the commenters. I’m glad to say that I think we are all on the same hymn sheet here.
I would absolutely share Jane’s concerns about any watering down. I think for instance that our radical policies addressing manmade climate change need to remain intact in toto: because they are what the science calls for, in effect. Similarly, we should be proud that we are the only Party brave and bold enough to stand up and call for equality, which Labour has given upon on. Spirit Level readers ought to vote for us.
I meant just what I said in the article, and I think, as commenters have said and as Jane has agreed, that that is compatible with Jane’s much-needed reminder here of Michels, etc.
Once again, I repeat (as i have said in a previous comment). I did not say that Read was or wasn’t definitely saying that we need to curve our radical edge. I just wanted to warn against main streaming our policies so that they are justifiable – as that would be falling into the trap of defining what is accepted and justified in accordance to the dominant political position.
Also, i never disagreed in the view that we need to have informed rational evidence behind the policies we advocate. Again, it was simply a warning that by justification we cannot undermine what we stand for.
There is a big difference between pragmatism and relativsm. What Rupert Read is saying is that the Greens need to be able to stand up and have the science and the rationale ready to underline Green policies. As the only party offering a radical departure from mainstream politics, Read is entirely correct in his understanding of the Greens’ task. If the Greens really are serious about changing Britain for the better, then they need a party machine to do it. The views of ordinary members are crucial to the future of the Greens, but parliamentary success requires making arguments within the confines of pre-existing political discourse.
Thanks for that, and anytime – glad you liked it.
Thanks for your link, had a read and I really like it. I totally agree with your point, especially, that the Greens are not just about the environment – there are so many elements to us that need to be better communicated to the electorate.
Yeah, that was mentioned by the above comment too. I agree policy needs to be based on evidence and support – but as you agree, radicalness doesn’t need to be sacrificed to achieve this.
Thanks for this. A really excellent post.
I’ve said some similar things here: http://bit.ly/ay1FCP.
I think, though, that there is a serious need to rethink some of the policy areas where things have moved on.
The best example is on things like homeopathy (thankfully now fixed), where the party’s position up to 2009 was substantially out of step with its supporters.
Thanks for the comment.
I wasn’t saying that Rupert was saying that, all I was saying that I agree with his views around needing to strengthen our policy evidence, but that we must make sure not to pander to mainstream expectations of what policy is. Therefore, it was more a warning, not a direct criticism of what Rupert said.
I totally agree with you, and what you are saying. I was just wanting to highlight that justification shouldn’t lead to watering down.
Broadly I think I agree with you, it’s important we don’t try to water down our policies in an attempt to be more ‘electable’, or to get into power sharing agreements where we have elected representatives already.
However, without any in way speaking for Rupert, my reading of his post wasn’t that that was what he was suggesting. More that now that our policies can have more impact we need to make sure they’re up to date and still express what we believe in. For example, until this Spring the GPEW manifesto had loads of policy promoting alternative medicine, particularly homeopathy. That’s embarrassing, it doesn’t reflect my beliefs and it most likely cost us votes in the euro elections last year. Fortunately, we reviewed that section and it’s now much more sensible.
We also have an awful lot of policy, so it’s very easy to not know or understand all of it, I know almost nothing about agriculture policy for example, but with more scrutiny and publicity we need to be on top of everything. And be able to clearly explain it and defend it. That’s not shying away from our radical policies it’s promoting them.