Alex Phillips

A year ago, alongside six other Green Party MEPs, I was elected to the European Parliament in a vote that no one expected to happen, even just weeks earlier. The Green Party celebrated its best ever result in the European Parliament, the People’s Vote campaign was gaining ever-greater momentum, and after a third failed attempt to deliver Brexit the government was paralysed and rapidly losing the will to live.

Now, just a year later, we have a Tory government with a huge majority (proving to be just as incapable but for very different reasons), Brexit has gone ahead, and Donald Trump is eyeing up the NHS. So what went wrong?

As incapable as he is in dealing with the coronavirus, we have to recognise that – in Boris Johnson – the Tories have a leader who can engage and impress working class voters and toffs alike, by saying what people want to hear in a convincing manner, regardless of whether he has any intention of delivering it. This was the man who told (i) his party there would be no border in the Irish Sea, (ii) the Irish there would be no border in Ireland, and (iii) the English that we were leaving the customs union and the single market. Most of us know that these things are mutually exclusive, but he didn’t care.

And now we have the third highest number of deaths in the world from the coronavirus, a test-and-trace system that doesn’t work, and a prime minister who’s spent the last two months telling us to stay at home also tell us that his advisor did the ‘right thing’ not to stay at home.  But despite all this the Tories are still the most popular political party in the UK.

Worrying times indeed for our democracy, not just because it’s made voting Tory acceptable for large swathes of the population – it has also normalised the lying and the double standards. And meanwhile 4.2 million children live in poverty in the UK, the number of people reliant on foodbanks is exploding, and we are very likely on the verge of the greatest depression the world has ever seen.

So what do we on the left do about it?

We’ve been here before. Faced with the prospect of five more years of austerity, Brexit-obsession and climate-wrecking policies, Greens in 2017 led the calls for a ‘progressive alliance’, actively pursuing agreements with other ‘progressive’ parties and unilaterally standing down in 38 constituencies. The Lib Dems stood down in two constituencies and the Women’s Equality Party stood down in one. Labour didn’t stand down in any.

According to Compass, ‘progressive’ candidates received 5.7% more votes in constituencies where there is an electoral pact. As a result it is highly likely that the Greens’ unilateral action in these constituencies ultimately had the effect of removing Theresa May’s majority.

Politically, however, we paid a heavy price: less than half the vote of just two year’s before, a dramatic reduction in parliamentary ‘short money’ (which goes towards funding Caroline Lucas’ office) and no reciprocal action at all from Labour. Indeed, worse than that, the experience of 2017 seemed to make Labour expect the same again in 2019. When I stood as the Green parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown last year I received a huge amount of pressure, verging on harassment, from Labour activists telling me to stand down or I’d “let the Tories in”.

And yet, again in 2019, Labour failed to join the so called ‘Unite to Remain’ alliance, partly because as in 2017 Labour mistakenly thought they could win without any alliances, but also simply because Labour was not a Remain party. As a result, the Unite to Remain alliance was a complete failure, with just one gain and one loss leading to a net gain of absolutely nothing but a bad taste left in the mouths of Green supporters who witnessed the Tories win with an overwhelming majority, whilst they couldn’t vote Green but were asked instead to vote for the austerity-supporting Lib Dems. Politically, we should not have aligned ourselves with the Tory-light Lib Dems, something I spoke out against on many occasion.

So why might it be different now?

It’s clear from the previous attempts at progressive alliances that they will only work if the largest ‘progressive’ party, Labour, is on board. The irony is that if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had embraced the ‘progressive alliance’ in 2017 there is every likelihood Labour would have won and Jeremy Corbyn would be Prime Minister. But so many in Labour are still wedded to the idea that Labour is a ‘big’ party who can ‘win’ on their own… although the evidence shows the opposite. First past the post no longer works in their favour.

Apart from this blind doggedness, there are also practical reasons why Labour didn’t join the party: there was very little time to debate it within the Labour Party and we were too close to an election. Labour, the argument went, would look ‘weak’ if it entertained the idea of a progressive alliance.  Clearly ridiculous, this shows the mindset of an old-fashioned gammon party where cooperation is considered a weakness.

With Keir Starmer, it is still too early to tell which way Labour will go. Clearly a lot less radical than Corbyn, Starmer presents us with an opportunity to focus on social justice and fighting austerity, and give those on the left of Labour a home. We cannot simply carry on appealing, in the main, to educated, white, middle class people. This is quite apparent at the moment, with the Black Lives Matter protests. I would like to see our new leaders, as well as those on GPEx (the Green Party Executive), to be diverse in colour, region and class. Only then, will we begin to broaden our appeal and better represent the diversity of our communities.

Starmer’s election also gives us an opportunity to start a conversation with Labour about how we can achieve our shared goals of ousting the Tories at the next election. The idea that Labour can do it by themselves is plainly ridiculous – whether they are mature enough to see that only time will tell. But we cannot allow ordinary people to bear the consequences of their ineptitude and short-sightedness.

We need to step up to the plate, lead the way and organise. Now is the time to act. The road ahead is fraught with risks, but the prospect of the Tories remaining in power indefinitely should be enough to focus all our minds. We are far enough away from the next General Election to effectively mobilise an alliance, so that there is only one anti-Tory candidate in every single seat.

And only then do we have a chance to kick out the Tories, once and for all.

This article is the eighth in a series on the forthcoming Green Party of England and Wales leadership election. Bright Green has invited a number of Green Party members and activists to contribute their views on what the next Green Party leader should deliver. The articles in this series can be found here.

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