Lab vs. Green debate: We don’t need benevolent rulers, we need power for ourselves
Socialists in the UK who want to join a political party should join Labour. They should not be uncritical, nor have false expectations, but they should join nonetheless. There are four arguments for this, relating to efficiency, tactics, policy and class.
As far as efficiency is concerned activists who want to elect a left-wing MP will have greater success for the expenditure of less time and energy in Labour. The task of the Labour left is simply to influence the few hundred voters involved in each constituency selection process. To achieve the same in the Greens the left must not only win the selection but then recruit 10,000-20,000 Labour voters to win the seat.
From a tactical perspective it is clear that a moderate national swing from Labour to the Greens could result in no more Green MPs, but dozens of Labour seats lost to the Tories or Lib Dems. This could easily produce a Tory government. Tactically, a vote for the Greens can be disastrous.
These two reasons are important but well-rehearsed. Some would argue that the time and energy, and the short-term consequence of a Tory government, are worthwhile sacrifices for a Green Government (either as majority or part of a coalition) in the future. I disagree. My remaining two arguments seek to demonstrate that the election of a Green Government is not a desirable objective.
There is no reason to believe that, having taken power, the Greens would pursue a left-wing programme. This is my third argument and it relates to party policy. Green manifestos are currently to the left of Labour. But this is not a like-for-like comparison. A party’s policy is shaped by a range of factors, internal and external. The external pressures tend to be right-wing: for instance the need to finance campaigns or to win positive coverage from the right-wing media. As the Green party grows these pressures will intensify.
To counteract these pressures the left relies on internal democracy. But here too the Greens are deficient. The Greens’ party organisation has nothing like Labour’s link to the trade unions so the only ‘check’ on leadership power is the membership. As this grows, the more radical members will surely find themselves in an ever-shrinking minority.
This is not mere speculation. The record speaks for itself. The two most successful Green Parties in Europe are in Ireland and Germany. The former implemented austerity and the latter took the country to war in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the only Green-led council in the UK, Brighton, has slashed jobs and public services. A common rejoinder to this is that the Labour Party fares no better in government. I agree: the left should be critical and put pressure on the Labour leadership. But if a Green administration is not substantially to the left of Labour then why waste the energy needed to elect it?
The fourth and final reason is perhaps the most fundamental. The defeat of the Labour Party by the Green party would be a serious blow to the labour movement and to working-class political aspirations. In the narrow demographic sense, Labour is the party of ordinary working-class people, while the Greens are a party of the middle-class intelligentsia. But more significantly, Labour remains the collective expression of the trade unions. The unions hold just under 50% of votes at party conference, and provide the great bulk of the party’s income.
Even after numerous attacks from the Labour right, the party’s link to the labour movement is still significantly stronger than anything even proposed by the Greens. In fact, the 2010 Green manifesto included a pledge to prevent trade unions from donating to political parties. As it stands, trade unions have little influence in the Green Party and greens have little influence in the unions.
Ultimately, these class interests are the decisive factor. Even if the Greens could take power relatively easily and with no risk of letting the Tories in, and even if there was a guarantee that they would maintain their left-wing programme, to join them would still be a blow against collective working-class politics. One of the greatest tragedies of neo-liberalism is the emphasis on the individual over the collective. Electing a Green government, however charitable and philanthropic its leadership, would undermine the labour movement and the collective organisations of the working class.
Joining the Greens is a tempting option. You are surrounded by people with fairly left-wing politics and you will not be embarrassed by an unpleasant record in government. By contrast, the work in the Labour Party is often not rewarding. You have to engage with unpleasant ideas like dog-whistle immigration policies, the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and military adventures overseas. But these reactionary ideas are current amongst the population in general and socialists must challenge them.
If you think that bourgeois democracy can work and that the job of the left is simply to win ideological battles, then join the Greens. But if you are a socialist, and believe that class-struggle is central, then participation in the Labour Party should be a crucial, if uncomfortable, part of your political activity.
- James McAsh is a Labour Party and anti-cuts activist living in London. This is the first post in Lab vs. Green – a series debating which political parties progressive activists should get behind in the 2015 UK election.
Your headline sums up exactly why we should be supporting Green rather than Labour. We’re for radical decentralisation of power, democratisation of the workplace and empowerment of the individual. Labour’s policies on this are far, far weaker, despite their union ties (which for decades have failed to keep them supporting workers’ rights).
I acknowledge that the Greens have some good policy. That’s not my point. Supporting the Greens means trying to get new leaders installed who will, from above, give us those things. As a socialist, I think the important task is to build working-class power and part of that means fighting for political representatives in parliament. For reasons I have outlined above, I believe that the Labour Party is the best tool that we have for this
Thanks James. I don’t disagree with any of that, except for the conclusion in the final sentence, which seems to fly directly in the face of 20 years of experience of the Labour Party post-John Smith. I’ve replied in more detail on facebook, so I’ll include a link here rather than reproducing the same arguments.
I’m in a slightly strange position, in that I actually think it’s useful to have socialists in the Greens and Labour (also Plaid Cymru, SNP etc.), though I draw the line at TUSC et. al. when it comes to usefulness. I’m no believer in vanguards. I think socialists should embed themselves in whatever organisations they feel able and work to spread socialist values and build working class power.
I couldn’t join Labour because they have attacked me personally. They tried to replace my school (and were successful with many of the other state schools in Stoke) with privatised schools (academies). This was pushing a right wing agenda on working class communities against the will of those communities. I also have trouble “toeing the line” when my principles are attacked, as Labour does often with its toxic mix of neoliberalism, weak social democracy and UKIPy scapegoatism. I fear even if I joined Labour, I’d soon be kicked out.
In the Greens, I don’t have that problem: they almost always stick to values I hold and proudly allow members to diverge from the ever-changing “party line”. Policy is made democratically, and I have been part of successful efforts to vote through policies like wealth taxation and the right of workers to have (state supported) buy-outs of their workplaces. My experience also contradicts the idea of the Greens as middle class. The vast majority of people I’ve met through the Greens are ordinary working class people. You certainly don’t get as many middle class PPE careerists in the Greens.
“You certainly don’t get as many middle class PPE careerists in the Greens.”
The author has apparently spent a couple of years in student politics, been on a university full time sabbatical and failed to get elected to a sinecure in NUS. Some advice to him would be to stop the lecturing on “collective working-class politics” when it’s apparent by his actions his intent is on personal political career building.
I can only assume that the author is very young with relatively little experience of the Labour Party or politics.
In Scotland, Labour is in FORMAL coalition with the Tories in five local councils including my own. A fifth of current Scottish Labour MSPs are related or married to a past or present Labour representative. The most common previous job of new Scottish Labour MPs elected in the past decade is working in the office of a Scottish Labour MP. Labour in Scotland is an incestuous entitled clique.
Labour launched the Iraq and Afghan wars, cosied up to big business, did light touch regulation of the banks, introduced tuition fees, introduced privatisation to the NHS, saddled our children with debt for building public buildings at 5 times their cost through PFI…..need I go on?
Socialists should join Labour? Don’t make me laugh.
I’ve seen similar arguments from the Labour left in terms of the historical link to the unions. However there are two points to bear in mind with that approach. One is the very likely possibility that the unions may well simply be staying with Labour because there is no other option for them right now – they may get ignored and given at best lukewarm approval by the party whilst they are affiliated, but already weakened by Thatcherite anti-union laws (which Labour failed to repeal), if they can’t find a big enough ship to jump to, they risk total political isolation. I believe it is the job of the Greens to provide that next ship. A second but related point is this: just because a party has the support of the trade unions, does not mean they are the best vehicle for advancing the interests of the working class. For example, in Jamaica the party with the longest and strongest ties to the trade unions is the Jamaica Labour Party – but the ideology it espouses is centre right and neoliberal.
The point about representing the interests of the working class is that it has to be based on the working class being conscious of class politics. The Labour party for the last two decades has outright rejected class politics and class analysis, and does not seek to develop any understanding of this. It’s all very well saying you have the unions at your back, but if you don’t actually have a class conscious movement behind you, you’re a Labour movement in name only.
I do not know of any pledge in any of the UK Green Parties’ manifestos to ban unions from donating to political parties, but I do know that the Greens would be eager and willing to forge stronger ties with the trade union movement, as a party with pledges to strengthen the rights of unions in society. As I already said, Labour in government utterly failed to improve things for the unions, so in what way can you justify claiming the party is “the collective expression of the trade union movement”?
And the argument that because other Green parties in Europe went astray the ones in the UK will surely do so too is so egregious it’s hard to overstate. Certainly in the Scottish Greens, the lessons of Germany and Ireland are repeated often as warnings against falling into the same mistakes and traps they did.
I agree that it’s conceivable that the unions could jump ship and find another party. If that happened it would end my support for the Labour Party. However, it is very unlikely that this will happen with the Greens. As I say above, the current Labour-union link (50% of votes at conference, 33% of votes for leader, majority funder etc etc) is much stronger than anything *even proposed* by the Greens. If you’re up for changing that then great. But my understanding from conversations with Greens, including on the left of the party, is that most people would see this as an attack on the individual democratic rights of their members.
In terms of the trade union’s seeming inability or unwillingness to challenge the Labour leadership, I agree that this is a problem. But I don’t think it’s a result of Labour Party structures (however need of reform they may be).
British trade unions in 2015 are not fit for purpose. They are incapable of defending the rights of the most marginalised workers and they appear to be unable or unwilling to put up a fight in the Labour Party. We are living through the second-longest lull in labour-movement history and things are really bad.
But I think it’s important to draw a distinction between *trade unions as they are now* and the *potential of the labour movement as a whole*. The former are weak, the latter is the most important progressive force to have ever existed.
I allude to this at the end of my article (quoted in this Fb post). I don’t know anything about your political background, so maybe you feel that social change will be achieved through convincing people of left-wing ideology. If so, then fair enough, the Greens make sense. But if you see change as being won through the struggle between classes of irreconcilable material interests then our job is to take the best tools we have, however blunted over the years (Labour Party, mass trade unions) and sharpen them up. This involves, as you say, building ‘class consciousness’.
The reference to banning trade union donations is from the 2010 GPEW Manifesto (https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/resources/Manifesto_web_file.pdf on the right, second from the top of page 32)
I accept that using evidence from Green Parties abroad is not perfect, but given that the parties share an ideological tradition and that there is no actual experience of Greens being in Govt here, it is the best we have. What is there in place to ensure that SGP or GPEW do not follow suit? As far as I can see there is nothing more than a belief in the goodwill in the membership.
The system of voting used in the Labour party has advantages and disadvantages – as you say it does allow for larger representation of trade unions than they might otherwise have (though I’d be interested to see what proportion of Labour party internal votes come from trade unionists before the electoral college calculations – it’s possible they might actually be under-represented under that system), but it also means that internal democracy is not fully proportional to members. I would fully support an official relationship between the Greens and the trade unions, perhaps with a permanent (elected) trade union rep on the national exec, though I think the electoral college system Labour uses is simply antiquated and unnecessary.
I’d argue that we have to create change by convincing people of left-wing ideology *and* through relationships with working class organisations. As you say, there is a great deal of working class support for UKIP (the BNP and the National Front before them were also historically working class), so there is clearly a lot of work to be done to build class consciousness in the working class and fight against xenophobia among them. Now part of this will be helping to strengthen working class institutions like the trade unions (something Labour, despite their historic link, are absolutely not doing), but another part will be changing people’s minds about the nature of society, economics and class relations. If you don’t do that, then you cannot have a cohesive movement to overthrow exploitative class relations, the people need to know what they are fighting for and what they are fighting against.
Like I said under the other post, you are either a party which represents working class interests or you are not. Demonstrably the Labour party are not and it is our duty as socialists to produce a viable alternative without the centrist, neoliberal culture. The choice is either continuing to support a right-wing-controlled Labour party which essentially holds the unions ransom, or supporting alternatives which the union movement can feel confident of putting their weight behind. All you need to do is look at the modern Labour party to see that it isn’t simply a “blunted tool” it’s utterly broken – it is to actual working class politics what premiership football is to the old informal athletic teams. Similar in some form, but so completely removed from it’s past that any suggestion that it can be reformed from within is unrealistic at best.
I see you are a good student of the Marxist understanding of working class mass movements – but I would like for you to consider Foucault for a second and look at the power relationship which exists between the Labour party leadership and the trade unions. Is it realistically a relationship of trade union representation, or is it an abusive one, where the leadership of the party gives uses the unions as shields for a neoliberal agenda, and bets on there being no better alternative for them?
Apparently even then goodwill of the trade unions is not enough to prevent Labour from turning their back on socialism, so “relying on the goodwill of Green party members” (many of whom are trade union activists), considering the principles the membership throw themselves behind, doesn’t seem like such a bad bet to me at all.
I must confess that I am no expert on Foucault! I will try to respond regardless…
“I’d be interested to see what proportion of Labour party internal votes come from trade unionists before the electoral college calculations”
I don’t think that we should look at it in terms of individual atomised trade unionists but in the context of unions as a whole. At party conference and in the National Policy Forum (and other committees) the unions have an effective bloc-vote. Sadly they tend to not use it to push the Party to the left. Nonetheless, this is much more significant than there simply being many individual trade unionists with voting rights: it means that trade unionist interests are expressed collectively, which is much more powerful.
“I’d argue that we have to create change by convincing people of left-wing ideology *and* through relationships with working class organisations.”
I agree. That’s why I am on the Labour-left. The Labour Party and the trade unions are working-class institutions which face a huge corrupting pressure from capital. This tension between being both a working-class *and* bourgeois party is central to understanding its behaviour. This tension is also something that socialists can exploit, using the working-class structures to challenge the power of capital.
The Green Party has no such tension as it is neither. It is not big enough or powerful enough to have been infiltrated by capital, and it has no link to the labour movement either. It may be useful as a means of convincing people of ideas, but that’s as far as it can go.
“Apparently even then goodwill of the trade unions is not enough to prevent Labour from turning their back on socialism”
No, it’s not! The trade union leaders have completely failed to tether Labour to the left, despite I’m sure having good intentions. However, this has to be understood in the context of the lull in the labour movement. If the labour movement were stronger (which I presume we agree is desirable if not vital for winning social change) then we would be in a better place to use the Labour-union link to push the party to better represent working-class interest.
In other words, I have no more faith in the good will of the unions than I do in the good will of Green Party members, the difference is in their material relationships. Marx himself makes a point along the lines that the working class are no more noble or righteous than any other class, it is just that by fighting for their own *selfish material interests* they fight to transform society and bring about socialism.
Silly article. You will find almost the same candidate in each party. Some have found acceptance in a social group that wears Red and the others in a group that wears Green. It is unfortunate that they then split the progressive followers of the Premiership into opposing forces who waste their energy squabbling while the cronies just keep hitting those doorsteps lying about what they have done and what they will do, while for their banker, developer, landlord friends it’s business as usual.
If you would like to find out if your candidate is honest and accountable and open minded to standing aside for a similar candidate at he last minute to not split the honest vote then visit SMART-voter.org
James, genuine question, what would Labour need to do to lose your support? If scrapping clause four, pressing on with privatisation, bringing in tuition fees and waging war in Iraq were not sufficient to demonstrate that they now work for capital rather than labour, is there any absolute line they could cross beyond which you would advocate their destruction, or does it not matter as long as they’re a shade to the left of the Tories?
Good question! No, being to the left of the Tories is not sufficient for me. For me the central point is about the relationship to the unions which, as I argue above, is still stronger in the Labour Party (after decades of attacks from the Labour right) than anything even proposed in the Greens.
Come on Labour. You really must do better than this. “vote for Green/SNP and you’ll get Tories”. How about convincing your upper levels to put forward some policy that is significantly different from Tory flavoured ones. Then maybe we could vote on policy, not tribal lines.
Get a grip and sell yourselves, not put everyone else down.
I fully support PR. However, I think people should make decisions on how to act on the basis of the structure they exist in. For now, this means FPTP. And that means that votes for the Greens can have the serious unintended consequence of giving Tories/LibDems additional seats.
However, I agree that this is not the most important argument. For this reason I only spend 50 of 850 words on it.
In terms of policy, I agree that there is much to criticise in the Labour Party platform. However, I do not believe that we are comparing like-with-like: you can judge Labour on its near-century-long record. There is plenty to criticise there. With the Greens there is much less evidence. They have never been in a UK or devolved Govt so the best we have is the record of the Brighton Council and Green Parties overseas. Neither of which is particularly impressive. Aside from just hoping that everything will be alright, what makes you think that a Green government would follow up on its left-wing credentials?
So much to comment on here!
but first Brighton Council has not made ONE compulsory redundancy. So this sentence ‘slashed jobs and public services’ is a bit rich considering what Labour Councils have done across the country.
Secondly and most crucially. how are Labour members supposed to influence their party? there is no democratic method available.. as a former labour member I know that you’re treated as a foot soldier. and you have no possibility of reaching the leadership at the top of the hierarchy. I have heard that a majority of Labour PPCs oppose the renewal of Trident but this is not reflected in their party policy.
Thirdly I honestly am struggling to find one Socialist policy by Labour. They even took Months to decide to oppose the Bedroom tax. They are also obsessed with the work mantra.. and have not taken aboard any issues regarding the finite resources of the planet.
Lastly – Labour need to win on their own merits. People will vote for them in huge numbers as before as they always told that it’s them or the Tories. whereas wouldn’t it be refreshing if a stalemate was produced and we actually got down to a reform or our archaic frankly embarrassing dysfunctional electoral system.
Perfect summing up of the current state of British politics.
I agree with much of what you have said. There is much to criticise in the Labour Party’s manifesto and past record, the avenues for individual members to shape party policy are inadequate, and I also support electoral reform.
However for me electoral politics is only a small part of achieving social change, and the primary vehicle for this is through the struggle between classes of irreconcilable material interests. Despite the weakness of the major trade unions and the Labour Party itself, these instruments remain vital tools for us, however blunted they may be! Our job is to sharpen them up.
This is what I allude to in my final paragraph. The Green Party may play a useful role in convincing people of ideological points, but I don’t think that this is enough.