Lab vs. Green debate: the Green Party can never be a party of the labour movement
The greatest threat to capital – in this century or any other – is working class power. Social movements play a crucial role in building this power and in wielding it for social change. Electoral activity too can fulfil a useful function in augmenting class power and strengthening these movements. However, electing the ‘right people’ is no substitute for building our own power and our own movements.
Our most significant movement is the labour movement: the most powerful movement in contemporary society, and a representation of the potential of working class power. Thanks to the Labour Party’s organic link to the trade unions, participation in the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, they are often two sides of the same coin: the politics, structure and activity of the Labour Party will be shaped in part by the dominant ideas in the labour movement. When socialists argue for better ideas in the labour movement, or put pressure on the trade union leaderships to fight for their members, they cannot help but influence the Labour Party. Explicit and co-ordinated participation in both the party and the wider movement lubricates this process.
The Labour Party is the only political party in the UK where this relationship exists. Participation in all other parties is something that activists do in addition to their activity in other social movements. In the Labour Party the two merge: fighting for a strong, democratic, socialist labour movement is a fight for a strong, democratic, socialist Labour Party.
With no roots in the labour movement, the options open to the Green Party are more limited. In his piece, Peter puts forward two ways in which participation in the Green Party can achieve social change. The first is through direct implementation of Green Party policy. The second is by putting pressure on the Labour Party. I remain unconvinced that either method will be as effective as participation in the Labour Party.
Implementation of Green Party policy
Peter draws a stark contrast between an undemocratic Labour Party where left-wing conference policy is ignored, and a Green Party where arguments won at conference result in their implementation by parliamentarians. There is truth in his depiction of the former: a key task of Labour activists should be to fight for party democracy. But his portrayal of the Green Party bears no resemblance to reality: Green parliamentarians are insufficient in number to implement almost anything, and certainly not the more radical party policy.
Of course, this could change: over time many more Green parliamentarians could be elected. But there is nothing to guarantee a Green Party in this strengthened position would be any more left-wing than the Labour Party is today. In fact, as I argued in my first piece, the record of green parties abroad suggests that it would be no improvement whatsoever.
Peter’s response to this is to point to the record of Labour which, as I acknowledged before, includes much that is worthy of criticism. But this is an insufficient response. Left-wingers in both parties have two tasks: to put left-wing pressure on the leadership, and to win power for the party. The first task is bound to be easier in a small party like the Greens. However, a Green Party with more parliamentarians would presumably have a larger membership with more members close to the political centre. Thanks to Labour’s relationship with the trade unions pressure on its leadership would probably be more effective than on a comparably sized Green Party. The left-wing party member’s second task – of winning power for the party – is again easier for those in the Labour Party: left-wingers in the UK green parties have to slog endlessly before they are rewarded with the kind of betrayal their peers experienced in Ireland and Germany.
Putting pressure on Labour
Peter argues that external electoral pressure from the Green Party is the best way to promote left-wing politics in Labour. It is almost certainly true that this will have some impact, but I believe that Peter has grossly overstated it. He gives two examples to support his claim, one concerning candidate selection in Brighton Pavilion and the other concerning rail renationalisation. Neither example stands up to much scrutiny.
It is true that Labour’s 2010 and 2015 candidates for Brighton Pavilion, Nancy Platts and Purna Sen, are on the left of the party. But the strength of the Greens in the constituency is not the sole or even decisive factor in Labour Party selections. For instance, Platts has now been selected to contest the neighbouring seat, Brighton Kemptown, where in 2010 the Greens polled a mere 5%. Other winnable seats where Labour has selected socialist candidates include Salford & Eccles and St. Helen’s South, neither of which were even contested by the Greens last time. It is plausible that electoral pressure from the Greens can have an effect on Labour selections but there no reason to think that this is more significant than internal factors.
Similarly, it is true that the Labour leadership’s baby-steps towards rail renationalisation have followed Caroline Lucas’s election to parliament. It has also followed the policy’s rise in public support, and endorsement by the trade unions and a range of other party affiliates, for instance Labour Students and the Co-operative Party. There is no good reason to single out Lucas’s work for the change in Labour policy.
Transforming the party
All of my arguments rely on the Labour Party, and not the Green Party, being a party of the working class and the labour movement. Peter’s response is that Green Party democracy allows members to change that. Sadly, I cannot agree. In theory it may be possible to argue for a link to the trade unions similar to that which exists in Labour. But in practice, there is no sign that the Greens could forge a link to the unions that is anything like as strong as the Labour link is today, even after decades of it being attenuated by the right-wing of the party. The Green Party Trade Union Group, which Peter encourages us to join, proposes nothing like it.
This points to a broader weakness in Peter’s argument: democracy is essential but not enough. A party cannot escape its ideological and material constraints. If Green Party Conference passed a resolution to become a party of the working class and the labour movement, this would change nothing. It would still be a party of the middle-class intelligentsia. It would simply have become more delusional.
The labour movement and the working class need political representation. For all its flaws, the Labour Party fulfils this function. The Green Party does not and never will.
- James McAsh is a Labour Party and anti-cuts activist living in London. This is the third post in Lab vs. Green – a series debating which political parties progressive activists should get behind in the 2015 UK election.
Interesting article, but I would say that the “greatest threat to capital” is no longer “working class power”. The organised working class ceded power and lost battles over and over again, until it has ended up a pale shadow of its former self. The greatest threat to capital now is the realisation of the limits to growth doctrine, and that is what the Green Party represents. There will be no technical fix to this. The only solution is radical transformation of society via ecological politics, and the agents for change are an alliance of the remnants of organised labour with the dispossessed multitude who suffer directly from the imminence of these limits, plus conscious representatives of all life on earth, not just human beings, and certainly not a sectional interest group defined by an outdated economic dynamic.
My conviction is that the GP’s policies are right morally, economically, environmentally and practically,( almost all of them) and shows that any member concerned about our world, after listening to evidence and informative debates do make the right decisions. The GP trust people to make those decisions unlike any of the other parties, that I am aware of. Please point out if I am wrong. I think that is extraordinary and a powerful validation of the inherent goodness of most people, who are concerned and willing to listen. I think the GP is the party of the future, but that may be some time away. I don’t believe in seeking power for powers sake,it is more important to be right, humane, and argue and debate and show people that there is a better way.. The Labour party is wrong about so many issues and not just wrong but almost as viciously spiteful to the vulnerable as the Tories. It was Labour, who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the middle east and for allowing torture surveillance, the privitisation of the NHS etc etc to become acceptable and the majority of MP’s who voted for and allowed it ton happen are still MP’s in that party. To criticise (Justly imv) Greens for making bad decisions in Germany and Ireland seem unbelievably hypercritical, in view of the catastrophic destruction inflicted by Labour on the lives of probably millions of people’s throughout the world.
I agree that there is much to criticise in Labour Party policy, however I don’t think that a like-for-like comparison between the two manifestos is a useful way of making your decision. I explain this in more detail in the first article (https://bright-green.org/greenparties/lab-vs-green-debate-we-dont-need-benevolent-rulers-we-need-power-for-ourselves/)
Would be interested to hear what you think
You say “The left-wing party member’s second task – of winning power for the party – is again easier for those in the Labour Party” – true, but it is also a much easier task for right-wing members of the Labour party too, and it has also proved much easier for them to win power within that party.
Utter utter nonsense. As comments mentioned in your previous article, and Peter mentioned in his article, other than simply “putting pressure” on the party, there is no clear way for Labour activists to actually influence their party’s leadership. And like I said in response to your previous article, the Labour party seems alarmingly unresponsive to the Labour movement despite their long marriage. A party is only as supportive of the working class as their policies – they are either a party putting forward a programme and a party culture which serves working class interests or they are not. The Labour party demonstrably is not. Saying you’re a party which represents the working class interest because you are affiliated with the unions is like saying you’re not a racist because you have non-white friends; it’s a cover, a con and one which people are increasingly aware of. Simply having affiliations is obviously (from Labour’s record in office) not a guarantor of pro-working class policy QED.
As I said in my previous comment, the unions’ continued affiliation with Labour is a total mistake on their part, but one bourne from desperation. If you think for one second that the unions will remain loyal to a right-wing Labour party in the face of an emergent progressive party which truly represents their interests, then the charge of delusion falls on you I’m afraid. Ultimately the party which best represents the wishes of the working class is the one which fairly and openly gains their vote and encourages their political aims. You can be friends with as many non-white people as you like, but if you keep campaigning to close the borders and deport foreigners, you’re still a racist.
Also, your argument that the Greens and Labour have majorly different “class characters” is not obvious in the slightest – I would be very shocked if I could find actual demographics showing party membership between the Greens and Labour being markedly different (and bear in mind being a member of a union does not make you a member of Labour, so you can’t necessarily count them).
I think I have responded to the majority of your points in my comment on the first article.
I don’t think I have responded to the last paragraph though. I suspect that demographically the Labour Party is much more working-class than the Greens, but I don’t have figures. However, this isn’t the point I was making: UKIP is probably more working-class than both but that doesn’t make it a party of the working-class.
The point is about material interests, which again takes us back to the Labour-union link. The trade unions are the most basic fundamental working-class organiations, representing the interests of labour against capital. The fact that they play such a giant role in the Labour Party, and negligible role in the Greens, is what I mean when I say ” A party cannot escape its ideological and material constraints.”