The Tensions Between the Green Party and the Trade Union Movement…

By Jane Watkinson

Whilst the right like to claim that Ed Miliband is a union symbol of the ‘ Old Labour’ movement, it is clear from his recent actions, he is definitely not ‘ Red Ed’ . Ed has tried his upmost to distance himself from the left, whilst contradictorily claiming to move Labour to the centre, which most people would recognise involves a “ lurch to the left” considering the right wing nature of the previous ‘ New Labour’ movement.

Regardless, it seems that Ed Miliband is making it quite clear that he would rather like to distance his associations with the trade union movement. Now, this is a real chance for the Green Party to advance the need for a collective workers’ movement, especially considering the current economic and political climate. We have a chance to promote the capacity of such a movement, especially as we are not afraid to openly admit we are fighting with and defining the rights of ordinary people; unlike Ed Miliband (consider his u-turn regarding the TUC anti-cuts demo).

However, we must not be complacent nor overly optimistic of our ability to form increasing substantial trade union links; there are several obstacles. For one, there is the political levy, which automatically goes to Labour with the option of conversely opting out. Reform to the levy would be desirable, however, theoretically the Green Party can still be affiliated to the trade unions if the executive and democratic processes wish – but this raises the question of whether we want to proceeded with a ‘ democratic centralist’ approach. However, a relevant argument, which was eloquently put at a recent Coalition of Resistance meeting in Leeds, is that reforming the levy would undermine the labour movement. This does have merit, but arguably, reform may provide more confidence and help undermine the “union baron” critique of the right. It may also provide more impetus for calls to reform party funding in general.

Another problem is that environmental issues have been historically associated with the “ new middle class” . The sacrifices to be borne from the environmental decisions, as witnessed by the recent cancellation of the Sheffield Forgemasters contract for nuclear energy, can cause serious unrest amongst the working class population. As the working class form the majority of the trade union composition, the threats to jobs for sectors that produce environmentally damaging energy, for example, can pose as a real threat to the union movement and Green Party link, as well as a general working class link.

In my recent readings, there has been an interesting argument put forward by some authors such as Burkett (1997). Burkett refers to Marx’ s focus upon use and exchange values and argues that they can be utilised to form a pro-environmental working class movement. He argues that as the capitalist system creates a dialectal relationship between the exchange and use values, the working class movement would benefit from a focus on the importance of use values; which would also have a consequential positive effect upon the environmental movement. This is interesting to consider, and illustrates possible solutions to the contradictions that can form between the trade unions/working class movement and the Green Party.

We also have the benefit of being arguably the only party with mainstream recognition, who have been actively campaigning against the cuts – whilst Labour have accepted half of the cuts, which will still be extremely damaging. Again, in much the same vein, Labour were scared to support growth and investment as the route out of the recession, but as I predicted, the right weren’t
supporting the likes of Ed Balls for a joke; as shown by a recent poll – they are genuinely scared by his suggestion of there being an economic alternative. Of course, the Zero Growth aspect of our economic perspective also posses challenges when trying to connect to the working class and trade union movement, who have developed within the context of measuring systems, such as GDP, which privilege growth and include environmental destruction as a sign of “ progress” .

There are many areas of concern and debate when considering the possible connections between the Green Party and the working class movement. These are important if we are to consider developing the party, especially when it comes to expanding into more of the Northern areas to replace the LibDems as the true challenger to Labour. We need to make the Labour leadership realise that they need to respect their union link and working class base; instead of trying to please the Murdochs by their constant distancing.