Green Party: the place to start rebuilding the left?

The Green Party vote last month was four times higher than 2010. How should the left relate to the Greens? Ollie V from Sheffield argues that building the Greens is the best way of cracking the neo-liberal consensus.

Sheffield Greens banner

Photo: Joey Ramone, Flickr

The Green surge took off as it became clear that Labour wouldn’t present a thematic alternative to austerity and racism, and at a time where the Greens took an uncompromising stand against the establishment consensus on these issues. The past few years has seen a general crisis of the far left, yet parallel to that, the best ever showing for organisations to the left of Labour. The rise of these left organisations has meant that the establishment narrative has been questioned on a scale it wouldn’t have been had these organisations not been there. These facts have changed my view on broad left alternatives, so therefore I want to argue that in England at least, where it is the Greens that are the mass party and most serious challenge to the ruling ideas, that presently a stronger and larger Green Party is a necessity if we are to break down the prevailing “common sense” and also explore what radicals can do within the Greens.

Marx said that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances…”, and that has particular resonance when it come to the Greens (other than it not being “men” making history, rather the women of the Greens). The left has engaged in various failed attempts to create a reformist challenge to Labour and all ended in nasty recriminations amongst those involved, yet these same projects such as Respect or Left Unity have not been significantly more radical than the Greens’ manifesto, even when led by revolutionaries. Had their exact manifesto been released under a nominally red flag rather than a green one, the left would have been hugely excited about building such a project and inspired by the colossal growth in membership from mainly young people, identifying with this anti-neoliberal alternative. Just because this hasn’t unfolded on our terms or “self-selected circumstances” doesn’t mean we should dismiss the project’s potential.

Precisely because the Green surge has happened outside the existing far left, it has meant that many struggle to really understand the character of the Greens or their politics. For example, when talking about the left within the Greens, the official “Green Left” organisation is often cited, and it’s pointed out how they’re consistently a minority in internal elections, don’t really exist outside London and so forth. This is the wrong way to look at it. In 2010 Green membership stood at just 20% of their membership today. Whatever the Greens were before 2010, and whatever factional battles were going on then, they’re all a minority now that the Green surge has transformed the organisation. The official “Green Left” is just as much a remnant of the old party as the old liberal guard. Clearly those who have flooded into the Greens are those new to politics and who are joining on a specifically left and anti-establishment basis – the experience of anyone interacting with Young Greens today would confirm that. An example would be a speech given recently by the president of Sheffield Young Greens – which Green members around him agreed with – when he explained that he believed the Greens were in fact anticapitalist because the idea of a “zero growth economy” (in their manifesto) would obviously require a level of democratic planning and reorganisation that would take society beyond capitalism and undermine the role of profit. I’m sure that’s not how Natalie Bennett would interpret the policy, but it does show how many of the new members are not just radical, but also open to radical ideas and see the Greens as the expression of that.

Another misconception is that the Greens are a purely electoral party. Of course electoralism is the dominant orientation, but the party extends far beyond that. Caroline Lucas’ campaign manager wrote recently that getting Green MPs elected is so important because they give “Parliamentary expression for wider social movements” – Greens are beginning to break out of electoralism. In Sheffield they joined anarchist and other radical groups in calling an anti-austerity demo, while in Colchester, where I used to live, they were the first to visibly build the 20 June demo and their candidate was a radical trade union rep who has led multiple strikes in the past few years. These are just some local examples. Nationally, the Young Greens are running a very exciting campaign called “Get Organised” aimed at unionising young people in work, promoting the importance of trade unionism to new Green members and ensuring party branches are working with local trade unionists.

My experiences with Greens locally have certainly been positive, if uneven. Green students on campus are by far the largest left grouping. Before the election they were holding meetings of up to 300 – one of which, with Natalie Bennett, had nearly 600 attending on Facebook so that they were forced to ticket the event since the venue had a maximum capacity of 350. The group are nearly all very new recruits and their politics are very radical if chaotic. Because they’re new to politics they sometimes lack confidence in strongly arguing positions and often defer to the older branch leadership in the city, but many would see themselves as broadly anticapitalist and have an understanding that the logic of Green politics pushes the boundaries of what’s possible under capitalism. They city branch is somewhat different, there’s a very clear divide between a very elderly and middle class layer of members who are the official leadership of the branch and have been so for years, and the younger (non student) more working class layer who are far to the left and are clearly somewhat frustrated at the older members for taking a very apolitical and managerial attitude to party building. The Greens now play a big role building the social movements in the city – clearly this is down to this younger layer winning the rest to that approach. It’s a different experience and sometimes uncomfortable, but undoubtedly a sense of excitement at being part of something that is already giving Labour a bloody nose and building a counter hegemonic current with genuine success.

Lastly, what role can socialists play in the Green party? First and foremost, socialists should be in the Greens building it – a larger Green party can question the neoliberal and anti-migrant consensus in English politics with greater force if it’s larger. But the left does have a unique role – many of us have years of experience in activism and building movements, while many of the new Green members don’t have that same background. We can play the role of encouraging the need for greater extra-parliamentary action and giving some direction to that – this won’t be a hard sell within the Greens, but it’s a way that a small number of radicals can affect things.

The necessity for a mass left-of-Labour alternative is obvious. The Greens certainly aren’t the finished product, but we do have to understand that any serious mass left challenge will involve them. The Green Party presents us with a vehicle with which to challenge hegemonic ideas around neoliberalism, austerity and immigration on a much larger scale than the small networks of the left – our project must begin with winning the millions not just ones and twos. During the election I campaigned for the Greens, and have now decided that joining is the best way currently to aid that left-of-Labour challenge. We desperately need an ideological alternative that can crack the pro-austerity argument that the Tories have won amongst a large layer of English people, because until those basic ruling ideas are challenged then revolutionaries are swimming against a tide that’s just too strong for us. The Greens are just currently the most successful vehicle for cracking their consensus on a mass scale alongside building a wider radical movement. 1 million votes isn’t a bad place to start a left challenge to Labour.

There are 3 comments

  1. maik

    Many Thanks for writing this Glimmer of Youthful Hope Ollie V_ and publishing it at the end of a week where “nasty recriminations” continue unabated in the Old Liberal Guard of the Green Left ‘community’ _ I resigned my membership of Green Left last week and based on the goings on in discussions on social media and other web-forums (including Rise) I am certain I speak for many who have not only been thoroughly disillusioned by the stranglehold that ‘older’ Green members jealously possess over the Left Flank_ but are equally concerned that the overt manner they smother vitriol over anyone who doesn’t ‘tow the line’ will put off strangers from joining (and definitely from taking part!) _ AND voicing such concerns_ no matter how gently or honestly_ has resulted in the eviction of group members and the deletion of dozens of posts_ both before and after the GE _ There is an ignorance and a nastiness in Green Left that should be avoided by anyone who wants to move a genuine Left Revolution forward!
    Though my age has precluded me from becoming directly involved in the Young Green movement_ in the run up to the last General Election I have been an active Green campaigner in as many ways as I could be and my engagement meant that I came across and shared many experiences (mainly online) with Young Greens _
    Green Left was a sanctuary for me_ and people like me_ a place we mistakenly assumed that Left Wing policies would be able to be explored and nurtured_ hopefully to eventual fruition _
    With all my Revolutionary Socialist I wish you and Young Greens a brilliant future that will rescue and rebuild a Welfare State that protects all members of our society _ but i earnestly urge you to avoid the cabal that Green Left currently represents _ and to form your own Green community of the Left _ Great Good Luck!

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  2. Peter A Garbutt

    As one of the “elderly and middle class” layer of members who have led the party in Sheffield for years, it is with huge joy I welcome the exuberance of the new young members, who have played an incredibly positive role in the elections and in other spheres within the party. If we – the oldies – appear to be not as left-wing, it may well be because we’ve been fighting the battle for a long time prior to the Green surge, building both through targeted election activity and through campaigns. Our rhetoric may not be of the same outspoken character as that of other left groups, but I can assure you I am as anti-austerity and anti-capitalist as any of them, and I’m far from being alone in this.

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  3. Adam Ramsay (@AdamRamsay)

    thanks for this – good piece.

    For full disclosure, I’ve been a Green member since 2001, and would call myself a socialist, probably generally of the Gramskian school.

    Just a couple of details I think aren’t quite right here (though you won’t be surprised that I agree with the general thrust).

    First, looking historically, it isn’t right to say that the fact that Green Left was a relatively small group in the party implies that the left was small in the party. It’s worth remembering that soon after its foundation, Green Left became the main organisation supporting a ‘no’ vote in the referendum on whether to have a leader. There were many socialists in the party (me included) who therefore didn’t join it. I’d argue the most significant left grouping in the party for the last five years has been the Young Greens, who have very little overlap in membership with Green Left. In recent years, the two groups have tended to work together, along with others on the left in loose ways. And more recently still, most people in leadership positions nationally have come from the more general left.

    Second, I’m pretty sure Natalie Bennett would call herself an anti-capitalist, and Caroline Lucas certainly does – and has done on national TV. So these changes aren’t as new as they sometimes appear (though there certainly has been a shift in rhetoric from the party in recent years).

    Thirdly, whilst the new membership does include lots of people new to politics, my experience is that it has in it significant numbers of people with lots of experience on the left. My impression during the surge was that lots of my friends and comrades on the left who I had been wishing would join the party for years almost all did, all at once. This is significant, I think, because it implies that there are likely to be lots of people now in the party who arrive with a capacity to organise, on the left, and who have few illusions about the challenges they’ll have internally. Which I think is very positive.

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