In the Corbyn era, Greens can still embrace socialism
Green Party and Corbyn posters in a window in Islington, London, Jeremy Corbyn’s home constituency. Photo: David Holt, Flickr.
On 10 May 2016, The Ecologist published an article by Rupert Read titled “In the Corbyn era, Greens must move from socialism to ecologism”. This article was written in response.
The most recent local elections results represent a mixed bag at best. The Greens continues to make solid and steady progress in the shires, but in urban bastions we at best held steady or at worst fell backwards. Despite this calls for a change in direction of party ideology are misguided.
The Corbyn Effect
The rise of Corbyn has undoubtedly posed a conundrum for the Greens. Suddenly Corbyn has taken policies long shunned by his party, long supported by the Greens, to the heart of the Labour Party. Yet amongst the turmoil, the infighting and churn of the Labour Party it is hard to ascertain what is the policy of Corbyn himself and what is the stance of the wider Labour Party.
Indeed the only clear line Labour is currently able to get out is one of internal strife. Focus groups and polling has time and time again shown that Corbyn has not yet defined himself positively or his message clearly. Either through the drag of internal politics or incompetence of his team (or both) Corbyn has not defined what he is for, and instead is daily being defined by his opponents.
On policy the party has continued to be fractured. The party officially didn’t back the Junior Doctor Strike, but Corbyn spoke after pickets had closed. Corbyn has had to hastily withdraw suggestions of suspending companies paying dividends if they didn’t pay the living wage. There has yet to be a big policy proposal or narrative the party can get behind.
Nonetheless the Green Party has failed to develop its response beyond initially welcoming Corbyn’s election. The party was right to point out that Corbyn’s election showed a wider hunger for the type of politics the Green Party had long espoused. Our next step must be to make the case that we are in fact the better custodian of progressive and radical politics than an unsteady, inconsistent and divided Labour Party.
It’s quickly forgotten by critics but the party garnered its record breaking 1.15 million votes in 2015 on a radically anti-austerity agenda that put social justice at the core of its message. The consistent demands to return to a more ecological based agenda is hungering after an electorate that doesn’t exist, as consistently demonstrated by elections in 1992, 1997 and 2001.
In the last election only 2% of all voters said their primary motivating factor for how they voted was the environment. Indeed only 12% of Green voters said their primary concern was the environment. Undoubtedly the party should do more to boost the salience of the environment in elections, but this is not by playing the doom monger. It’s by showing how the answers to the ecological disaster we have long campaigned on unlock the solutions to the social justice issues voters have at the core of their concerns.
Voices that call for a dramatic change of policy direction risk losing the voters we have gained in search of voters that do not exist. Anti-growth, euroscepticism and “concern” over population growth is not an election platform, it’s a niche poorly attended lecture.
Furthermore, the calls for change of message simply paper over the organisational cracks in the party. Our current levels of revenue, the level of support available to local parties from the national party and indeed adherence to campaign strategy should be seen as bigger concerns than the message we are fighting on.
Areas that have stubbornly refused to follow national election strategy has unsurprisingly failed to make any gains. A change of message should not be the key concern. Increased revenue, better support for target areas and the spread of best practice should be. If the West Midlands Green Party can solidly post gains in the era of Corbyn there is little reason for us not to see it in similar areas.
Meanwhile highlights elsewhere show opportunity for the Green Party. Sian Berry posted a record breaking result for London Mayor. Her campaign of big ideas designed to disrupt a conservative and unimaginative “two horse” race was innovative and shows exactly where the future of the Green Party lies. We can be the party of big radical ideas, whilst the Labour Party’s internal strife means such ideas are out of reach.
Our brilliant party political broadcast bitingly sent up our opponents and shows that the Greens can generate bright and clear messaging that cuts through. Amongst our new cohort of councillors and assembly members there are the message carriers who can carry a radical and positive agenda better than the divided Labour Party.
Moreover it is all too easy to forget that whilst Corbyn represents a sea change for the head of the party, many of the same issues we face with Labour on a local level remain. In London the Greens posted their best results in Lambeth & Southwark, a place where a Labour council is shutting down libraries and demolishing estates. The actions of many Labour councils are massively out of step with the rhetoric Corbyn espouses and we must become the people’s champions in face of local intransigence.
There is a battle for the soul of the Labour Party and it is massively hindering its ability to be an effective opposition. It may prove that the Corbyn project was only a temporary experiment. Either way there is a long term future for the Green Party as a progressive party to challenge a brutal Conservative administration and a divided Labour Party.
As a longtime liberal left winger with an interest in animal rights, veganism, sustainable living and spirituality from an early age I would say I am probably the sort of person who was turned off by the single issue years. I came through the Labour sell out of socialism and a move towards an intensely imperialistic foreign policy and found the Green Party. Not of all of us are throwing our hats in the ring in a Corbyn world, although I’ll happily say I’m a fan and want him for PM (like most Greens?), and it would be bizarre to have a bizarre kneejerk back to what, some kind of Deep Ecology angle and try to put those points across and shrug when the NHS is in crisis because we don’t want to look socialist?
If anything the comments I’ve seen Ali and Bennet make about Corbyn moving the centre to us is absolutely pertinent. The shroud of the Left is being lifted and young (and some older) people are uncovering all kinds of things: old skool socialism, the peace movement, the CND, the New Left and… Eco Socialism. Why draw up the gates for these people when we’ll need them to win the seats which could well lead to a progressive coalition under Corbyn.
Liberialism with a big L is mostly pointless in crisis, we need a government which can intervene on behalf of the electorate not corporate interest. You can’t do that without embracing wealth redistribution. We have a chance to put holistic Ecology on the big table in British politics, don’t screw it up because they don’t put CLIMATE in big letters on everything.
Sigh, I think when you look at the Green party and it’s political philosophy then the 2nd part of the article’s title is a truism though not very helpful in the context of the 1st part.
The Greens have always been a party for socialists (I’d call myself one) but not a socialist party. What Greens share are some core values and fundamental policies on the environment, society, freedom, wealth, conservation, progress, etc. But there is no widely share philosophical background, no shared -ism. The values and core policies can be arrived at starting at a number of philosophical backgrounds, including (undogmatic) socialism, environmentalism, liberalism – or even none, just a basic sense of fairness.
Ideologies can be important, and I have spoken to many self-declared socialists that agree with all our policies but simply do not feel at home in the Green Party (some of them often being quite active members anyway, because the alternatives are far worse). In fact you could say in the Greens, nobody minds you singing The International, but few will join in. (Though of course we did sing it with gusto at young greens’ gatherings late in the evenings in the pub in the 90s.)
This gives means the party is a policy-driven party. Because there is a wide range of ideologies within the party, the meaning of these is regularly debated, and this seems to me to be yet another one of those. But I feel it somewhat pointless, pretty much every previous version has concluded that it is the policies that matter, not why and how you got to them. (Incidentally this policy focus makes entryism quite impossible in the Greens too.)
In terms of Corbyn’s Labour Party, in my view the key issue is working together. Working together is of course a core Green value – and given our policy strength and political power (former high, latter not so) also a strategy hard-wired into most Greens’ behaviour. But we have always stepped back from getting too close with potential partners that do not share our core values and policies (hence the we haven’t joined the Labour left, or the Socialist Alliance, etc). With Corbyn’s Labour Party, this surely hasn’t changed. Much as I would want them to be even closer to our policy basis, they aren’t that close and therefore there is no case of merger, just of joint working where we share policies. But neither is there any case of changing our policies – or our political tactics as they are based on the values. And as said, ideology has always been a side-show at the Greens, so any debate that starts with what Corbyn means about Green Socialism may result in some interesting insight about strategy and joint working, but will in my view ultimately have little to say Green and Green party members private ideology.
Amen to this, what a great comment.
So I’d second much of this and perhaps the addition of the title confused matters. The article itself simply calls for a continuation of our policy ideas from the GE, in rejection of Rupert’s I think call for a major change of focus.
“In the last election only 2% of all voters said their primary motivating factor for how they voted was the environment. Indeed only 12% of Green voters said their primary concern was the environment. Undoubtedly the party should do more to boost the salience of the environment in elections, but this is not by playing the doom monger. It’s by showing how the answers to the ecological disaster we have long campaigned on unlock the solutions to the social justice issues voters have at the core of their concerns.”
I actually clicked the link, and found that, far from voters having social justice “at the core of their concerns”, they were actually concerned about:
Flooding 6% (isn’t that related to the environment?)
Consumer debt 2%
Perhaps you could amend that article to say that 8% listed environmental issues as their main concern (flooding 6% + environment 2%), while 8% listed social justice issues as their main concern (poverty 4% + unemployment 4%)?
Or perhaps that would undermine the whole point of the article?
If we’re going to be pragmatic, and give voters what they want (which seems to be what you’re saying), then we really need to make more noise about the economy and immigration… Any takers?
I’d argue you’ve got a rather narrow definition of what social justice is! Arguably if voters had concern over immigration (and I’d argue our voters would be concerned over the negative hostile climate not too many people) we can include that share in the social justice lump. I’d also say our stance on anti-austerity and job creation and redistribution to make a lion share of those voters as social justice voters. If we include NHS and debt then perhaps we can a lion share of our support are more closely aligned to social justice than ecological justice?
Don’t let facts get in the way of a good argument, eh?
I think the question of ecology vs social justice is the wrong question in the first place. Green politics is holistic, and sees ecological and social issues as connected together. Asking people to name a single issue that is the most important, and setting ecology and social justice against each other, just doesn’t seem very green.
I *could* argue that all those voters who named the economy as their most important issue are actually primarily concerned about the environment, because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. But that would be a silly argument to make. The fact is that hardly anyone named *either* social justice *or* the environment as their most important issue.
So either we take the pragmatic approach, and adjust our message to suit what voters think is important (the economy and immigration). Or we take the longer route, and persuade voters to change their minds about what they think the most important issues are, and then vote Green as a consequence.
We Greens must still remain distinct from Labour and have a distinct green message, at any rate, and push environmentalism further up the agendas and priorities of voters, since the fact that only 2% put it as a high priority is a serious problem in light of increasingly evident consequences of artificial climate change and other forms of environmental damage.
Socialism as a project has failed. As Greens we need to get over it as Greens are the only party that can unite the spectrum against Labour & Tories.
The issue I think the original article attempted to address was that as Greens we shouldn’t be the Socialist alternative.
Rupert talked about Ecologism as an alternative to Socialism. Still ‘left wing’ – using outdated language.
Corbyn and Labour are still obsessed with economic growth. This must be our fundamental selling point. We live on a finite planet with finate resource.
Are people really going to vote for the party telling them there isn’t any more? Post-growth is never going to be an electoral selling point. Redistrubution and sustainability much more. Yet that USP is not a USP because it’s not selling.
Excellent article, I agree.
I would go further. I remember Peter Mandelson’s response when asked whether Labour’s core voters would leave the Party due to the New Labour move to the right. His response was, “Where would they go?” I think having a genuine alternative on the left means that even the most cynical and dishonest of Labour Party members needs to realise they can’t simply expect to both sell out to the rich and Right Wing ideologues, and continue to expect support from the people they betray.
It is also true that the Green Party has indeed had left wing policies even from it’s inception. The Basic Income is a Left Wing, Egalitarian, policy. Other policies such as renationalisation are democratic socialist centre left policies. Both together they give rise to the ability for an economy where more co-ops and self employment is possible; the very definition of the means of production and distribution being in control and ownership of the workers, or Socialism.
Evidence of course supports the need for such left wing policies. Left Wing is defined as political economic policies which encourage a fairer distribution of the moneys from government to increase equality. My concern with those who argue against the ideas of being branded Left Wing, is that if they succeed in removing the label, they will then try to increase evidence free ideologically driven policies which favour the wants of a relatively few privileged people over the needs of society at large and the economy.
“The Basic Income is a Left Wing” – no it isn’t! First proposed by British Conservatives in the 1940s, concerned that Beverage’s welfare state would be bureaucratic and expensive to administer; a view now finding favour with right wing US Republicans. As for (re) nationalisation the British National Party has long and consistently argued for nationalisation – I don’t think anyone would suggest the BNP is the champion of “democratic socialist centre left policies.” Green politics must transcended the shop-worn prejudices of right and left. As Rupert points out, Greens challenge the narrow, linear view of ‘progress’ measured by continuous economic growth, favoured by both left and right. Green principles are as far removed from the left as they are from the right’s dogmatic and superstitious cult of market forces, or the extreme right’s racism.
How can you not mention that you have gone back in all your target areas? You’re also propping up two Tory councils. The Greens are dead, socialism survives.
So why did the Green Party keep the Tories in power in Norfolk?
Great post, though my one big quibble would be its a bit unfair to say Corbyn’s hasn’t been able to get his message through due to the divided party and his teams incompetence without mentioning the massively hostile media. The same massively hostile media that largely prevented us from getting our message across at the last election once the surge showed we’d started to make an impact.