The Irish Green Party has just elected a new leader. He is Eamon Ryan, former TD (member of parliament) for Dublin South and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources from 2007-11. The leadership election comes in the wake of an election defeat in February that was so cataclysmic that it has serious implications for Green Parties around the world and for progressive politics more generally.

The election of Eamon Ryan as leader may make the job of bouncing back from the election defeat much more difficult. Many Irish people, who would have been happy to give the Greens their second preference have deserted the party following their performance in Government. Having a leader with no link to the wildly unpopular coalition government with Fianna Fail would have made it much easier to move on.

So why did the Irish Greens get beaten so comprehensively?

The most puzzling element of the Irish Greens’ policy platform was their commitment to austerity programmes. It was clear to most progressives that austerity in the face of a recession was going to exacerbate the economic problems, particularly for the most vulnerable. For some reason the Irish Greens enthusiastically signed up to a programme of austerity that hammered the poor. Meanwhile they left corporation tax at the lowest level in Europe.

While some Greens like ‘simple living’ for themselves and their families, the imposition of austerity almost always has disastrous consequences for the poor. This is as true in Ireland as it was in the countries that were so badly hurt by the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s. But Greens in a number of European countries have argued in favour of these cuts. Abandoning this commitment to hair shirt politics will be a prerequisite for Greens forming governments of their own. It is a gift to our opponents, and it is what gives “Green Taxes” such traction as a line of attack on Greens. Greens must stand, and be seen to stand, with the poorest and most vulnerable. If we don’t future Green forays into government will also result in catastrophic defeats.

The reason why the Irish Greens felt comfortable in this government is their view of the party’s role in politics. The Irish Greens came to see themselves as a ‘bolt-on’ party. They were neither left nor right wing. By reducing Green politics to a politics of the environment they could make the case for the environment with any other party.

It didn’t matter that the essential Green commitment to social justice had been jettisoned. All that mattered was that they were in government talking about the environment. They thought they’d been elected to call out “climate change” very much like the followers of Hare Krishna call out “gouranga.” In fact this politics appeals to about 2% of the population, a group never large enough to elect anyone. The chances of Greens can get elected to talk about the environment evaporated in the early ’90s when other parties adopted most of the popular elements of environmental politics.

Another obvious lesson is that hard work is not enough, and that political education and development is vital to any party. While the Irish Greens made a number of mistakes, lack of work was never one of them. Even the members of Parliament who had ministerial duties were to be found regularly knocking doors.

In political parties, as in most organisations, there are those who attribute a lack of success to a lack of effort. Effort, of course, is a very important factor in success. Very few political movements are successful without serious organisation and the loss of substantial shoe leather to street politics. But for some the need to work hard outweighs any need to understand the political context. The Irish Greens found themselves in government having deferred discussion of what Green politics was until they got into government.

The result was a non-ideological mess. Ministers and TDs (members of parliament) were used to dealing with potholes, campaigning for green space, and arguing for better animal welfare. This though didn’t prepare them for having to sign up to a programme of government. They were left in disarray by the need to put forward a programme for government that met the needs of their much larger coalition partners, Fianna Fail.

Had the Irish Greens been properly prepared for government, with a good understanding of what difficult choices needed to be made they would have driven a much harder deal before going into government. Rather than being bought off with a salary sacrifice bicycle purchase scheme and a project to get people to grow their own organic vegetables, they would have stood firm against benefit cuts. Instead of being strung along by Fianna Fail’s promises of a carbon tax, they would have focused their efforts on massive expansion of renewables, providing jobs, clean electricity and Green votes in abundance.

The reluctance to engage in serious debate about the difficult choices that face parties in government is underpinned by a number of structural problems. These problems are shared by many other Green Parties. The first is an assumption that because Greens are better people than those in other parties, they won’t make mistakes in government.

Too often Greens argue that their representatives acting on their prejudices will make better decisions than people in other parties. If you are seeking election, and to govern simply because you are a better person, you don’t need to think about what you’ll do. This attitude has underpinned the Liberal Democrat involvement in both national and local government for some time. It is poisonous and must be rooted out. Greens must select the best candidates, not the nicest candidates, or the candidates who fit best into party cliques – or in the case of Eamon Ryan, the candidate who’s been hanging around the longest. Very often the best candidates fail in selection because they want to appeal beyond the party and to the electorate.

Green Parties can’t afford to avoid debate. They must work hard to develop all-encompassing programmes for government. This means going beyond issues that Greens are comfortable talking about, like recycling, plastic bags or road projects. It is important that Greens don’t present themselves as “bolt-on” parties, there to talk about the environment. We must – for the sake of people and the environment – develop full programmes for government that tell people how we will act if we are selected to govern.

But the most important lesson that we can learn from the Irish Greens is that Greens must be parties committed to progressive politics. For too long Green politics has been undermined by the dogma that Greens are “not right, not left, but straight ahead.” This forms the introduction to the Irish Greens’ last election broadcast. They caricature the position of the other parties as irrational, in contrast to their own moderation. In this case the straight ahead the Irish Greens were talking about was straight ahead into oblivion. Other Green parties following their lead are doomed to share their fate.

The electorate expect Greens to be a progressive party. When the Irish Greens turned out not to be progressive at all they lost all their seats. The electorate expect something more than a narrow environmental politics. That means that Greens must commit to a broad and progressive programme. Caroline Lucas has made a great start to doing this in the UK Parliament.

Greens are a party of social justice as well as the environment. In Ireland the electorate believed this until it was proven to be untrue through Green participation in government. Green parties must improve the level of policy debate internally and must better represent the progressive politics of their voters.

Eamon Ryan has a big job ahead of him. He must disown his own past in government and start the task of convincing people that he cares about social justice, about the vulnerable and about eliminating poverty. The risk of electing him will be that the Irish Greens try to defend their record in government, and alienate further an electorate that is very sceptical of them.