Green Party campaigners in Bristol

Rosi Sexton has invigorated a leadership election in the Green Party of England Wales that was – for its last three outings – something of a coronation. It is clear why. She has delivered an open and clear-eyed campaign to a membership that is liable to cruise on minor successes or wallow in self-confined cataclysm. Her emphasis on winning is a tonic for activists, many of whom will have felt a kind of triple defeat in 2019: a campaign at times woefully misguided, a Tory government and a pummelling for the hope of Corbynism. It’s at least a promising sign of her team’s communicative ability that there is no getting away from her main prescription: the word ‘serious’ appears three times in her slogan. It’s the second of the three chosen objects of seriousness however – “serious about credibility” – that I argue is a cause for concern.

Sexton’s case for credibility rolls out a familiar set of arguments, heard typically from the (sadly) better-dressed half of the Green tradition, the realos. Her vision states:

We urgently need to reform the party, to ensure that our systems and processes are fit for the task at hand. We must cultivate a reputation for competence and careful, evidence-based policy making … Our policy platform must be comprehensive, constructive and credible.

These are understandable objectives, and certainly a source of pride for members to the extent they already exist in many areas of policy. The lure of respectability, even if its form and audience is contestable, is always significant for the hyper-politicised inhabitants of progressive yet still-fringe parties. This is especially so for UK Greens, who carry the added unjust, decades-long denial of representation that a majoritarian electoral system guarantees. But with a backdrop like recent years, the attention to credibility should set some red lights flashing.

Firstly realos, if left to their own devices, have always run the risk of spending more time on triangulation and, if electorally successful, ministerial portfolios than outcomes and the longue durée. Or, in Austrian Erich Fried’s words, of becoming a “completely opportunist ginger-group of the Social Democrats”. The Irish Greens’ turn in austerity government from 2007 to 2011 is a case in point.

But even putting aside the baggage of green splits, the rhetoric is generally code for a quite particular way of doing politics. Under the auspices of a very similar schema, of professionalism, responsible government and ‘credible opposition’, Keir Starmer was buoyed to a margin of victory in the Labour leadership election close to that of Corbyn in 2015. In a sign of things to come, and far from the sepia-toned activist lawyer image his campaign began with, one Labour councillor is said to have told their CLP repeatedly to “vote for the hair and the suit”. You can now find ‘Brand Keir’ revealed in all honesty on a t-shirt – the tie-as-focal-point, no need for a face, and on a grey background of course.

This pitch is so recognisable that it should hardly need saying it is a return to politics-as-usual for the Labour Party after the rollercoaster of the Corbyn years. Under forensic Sir Keir, the achingly sensible are once again at the helm. What output does this rationale promise? The four months since have given a taste: a politics of shirking and dangerous appeasement on Black Lives Matter, the Green New Deal, migration, COVID-19 bailouts and housing. As Christine Berry has written, Starmer’s team’s problems are less in policy than politics: “they are trying to game the UK’s increasingly decaying political system, rather than finding ways to change it”. But this is no Labour malaise and there is no need to centre this analysis on that party. There are theoretical and empirical explanations for why politicians have been behaving this way for decades.

The void

In his 2006 essay Ruling the Void, Irish political scientist Peter Mair, having assessed the decline in electoral turnout, partisan commitment and party membership across Western Europe, concluded that nations were beginning to resemble democracies without a demos. Citizens were exiting the national political arena at a remarkable rate. In the UK for example, party membership rates halved between 1980 and 1998. (They later halved again to 2013, to a historic low of just 0.8 per cent of the electorate.) UK turnout also fell precipitously through to the 2001 historic low of just 59 per cent. By 2017 it had recovered to 68 per cent – still lower than any post-war twentieth Century election, before once again falling in 2019, especially in seats that Labour lost. It bears remembering what the stark implications of this are – hundreds of thousands of voters exiting the political sphere, rejecting the only political act they might ever undertake, perhaps for good, and with real consequences in constituencies. For all the furore, breathless analysis and passion surrounding the great circus of a Westminster general election, now one in three voters play absolutely no role in the result.

Mair’s insight was that politics had generally become something to be watched, not participated in, an ‘audience democracy’ engaged in mere ‘video politics’. With this came a turn to government-by-focus group, the outsourcing of policy to technocracy, and of politics to spin. Parties meanwhile deprioritised their representative role in favour of becoming appendages (and dependents) of the state. “In political-science terms,” argued Mair, “they have become more ‘office-seeking’ … either governing or waiting to govern.” The party organisation “gradually withers away. What remains is a governing class.”

How much of this reeks of the populists’ potent critique of politics per se over the last decade? Established parties across Europe, and later the US, found themselves with no one left to lie to. Mair’s description of office-seeking spin is no longer the sticking plaster it was. In fact, it antagonised and energised the populist base, more often to the benefit of the right. Voters, as Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan detail in their new book Angrynomics, are angry. Anti-System Politics, as per Jonathan Hopkins’, reflects their exhaustion.

The dire insights of Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2020 showed only Russia to fare worse than the UK in how little its institutions are trusted by the mass population. Three in five in the UK say they are losing faith in democracy as an effective form of government, while 53 per cent believe capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good.

The moment

As Adam Ramsay wrote, even before COVID-19, we were faced with “a great interlocking quartet of challenges: environmental breakdown, economic injustice, deep democratic alienation, and the growing use of borders and surveillance to secure social control for openly racist regimes. We must either go big, or get out of the way for those who can.”

This is the arena the Green Party operates in. The ‘adults in the room’ have not been the political winners of recent years – they are not set to be this decade’s either. One only has to look at the 42 per cent of US voters who think President Trump has managed the response to coronavirus well to see this. Simply reminding ourselves of the name and record of the current Prime Minister should also suffice. Sexton’s pitch is to offer credibility in a market where credibility as typically understood has been seriously devalued.

Every major recent political success in the UK has been characterised by its capacity to tap into this sentiment, from the Scottish independence movement’s massive mobilisation of voters, Corbyn’s returning of Labour to a mass membership party, Brexit’s cut-through cocktail of anti-politics and sovereignty and Johnson’s final success in capitalising on this in 2019.

The movements that Sexton has frequently distinguished herself from are not outbursts of irrational and inconsequential anger (that’s Beyond Politics). Organising groups are precisely trying to overcome the dynamics of the void, seeking to reengage and empower people in their lived realities of the workplace and community. This is what carries the potential to redirect what Chantal Mouffe calls the ‘rational kernel’ of populist anger towards material political power for a progressive agenda. They need and deserve political cover to legitimise and mobilise – including in contentious areas, such as direct action.

In the Green New Deal the Green Party has an actual vision, not an artifice of one, and is fit to speak with genuine authority rather than transient triangulation to the incredible demands of the moment. This is a risk and an opportunity. It is a risk because its radicalism is a target for powerful interests should, and we should expect the chorus of the right-wing press to sound for any ‘sensible’ Green Party precisely as a Financial Times editorial did the moment Keir Starmer was victorious: “It is not enough simply to put a managerial veneer on the same product.” Concessions will be demanded and if they are not made in full, the party will be punished.

For every ostensibly sensible, painfully cautious and thoroughly evidenced policy taken up by Ed Miliband in 2015, a voracious media was there to maul it into terrifying ‘Red Ed’ oblivion, many to only then return under May and Johnson. If that tactic fails, the looming, often manufactured, culture war – think Rule Britannia – is the omnipresent bulwark of the Tory press, ready to ram the discourse rightward (and therefore home).

But it is an opportunity for credibility of a different kind, but an opportunity that can go to waste. Young voters and those most attuned to and affected by those interlocking crises of today who expect a voice might easily see the Green Party as part and parcel of the system they are increasingly rejecting. Just as the heat-of-Brexit retort to pro-Remain politicians waxing lyrical about “our GDP” was “Your GDP!”, it is not inconceivable that Green, system-aligned politicians will soon have to face the equivalent rebuke. “Our environment”: “Your environment!”

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Image credit: Bristol Green Party – Creative Commons