It’s not just Labour that needs a re-think after the 2019 general election result, argues Stephen Clark. Together with this article by Remco van der Stoep, a group of Green Party supporters within Compass are calling for a broad, open conversation that embraces radical thinking about how the Green Party should work its way towards greater influence.
In the wake of yet another victory for the Right, the Green Party must go through its own soul-searching process to decide how it can maximise its influence. In an article last August for Open Democracy after the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election I argued that the Green Party needed to review its political strategy against its policy objective of achieving a zero carbon Britain by 2030.
I suggested that to get early and decisive action on the climate emergency, the Party needed to reinvent itself as an entirely new political animal, becoming a more porous and open organisation accepting members from other political parties and groupings, embracing joint selection of candidates, and endorsing other parties’ candidates where they advocated shared policy. My reasoning was that against a background of first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections, the party was far from achieving the electoral power necessary to directly influence major policy change and this was likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Nothing about the 2019 election suggests a different strategy would have worked.
On the face of it though 2019 was a good year for the Green Party. There has been an increased awareness of the climate threat amongst the general public. This has borne out in the Greens’ electoral performance. The council elections in May produced a further 198 councillors and 9.2% of the overall vote. In the European elections in June they recorded over 12% of the vote and returned 7 MEPs, an increase of 4 seats. But in December’s general election the FPTP squeeze was on and the Green vote fell back to a mere 2.7%.
In my own street, houses that displayed Green posters in the run-up to the 2018 local elections now had red ones, frightened that a Green vote might unseat the Labour MP. Despite this, the total vote for the Green Party was over 800,000; 300,000 more than 2017, and average vote share was up 1.1%. In the ten constituencies where the Green Party candidates represented the Unite to Remain alliance – a pact that saw Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party unite behind a single candidate in 60 seats – the vote went up by an average of 6.9 percent. But the bottom line is we returned only one MP, with only a remote prospect of winning a second seat next time.
In the event the first-past-the-post system delivered the Tories a majority of eighty seats with only 43% of those who chose to vote. They now have total power for five years, halfway through the period to 2030 when the science says we should be carbon neutral. In a fair system there could have been an alternative coalition Government with a Green bloc of 50-60 seats having a major influence on policy, and I wouldn’t be writing this article. As it is the Greens’ political strategy is still getting the party nowhere near real power, and time ticks on.
The Green Party as presently constituted has broadly adopted the model of the other political parties competing for votes in national, regional and local elections. In general election TV debates, well-tutored, professional looking leaders perform competently against their fellows, but through a desire to ‘fit in’ as a credible party they tend to tone down the outrage and anger that has made others in the green movement popular, notably Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. At local level, members keen to become involved in preventing climate catastrophe find their enthusiasm tested on the bonfire of ‘Target to Win’, the party’s bible on winning council seats.
Green Party core values mean that the party is more respectful in debate, more democratic and has demonstrated a greater willingness to enter into partnership with other parties. But go to conference and scratch beneath the surface and you will find similar tribal prejudices that you find in other progressive parties. There is an element of this in a recent article by Molly Scott Cato, even though she also emphasises the importance of future partnerships. It is clearly not the case with all members, but you will see a tendency to mistrust the Labour Party’s adoption of green policies as integral to their vision of the new Britain. This is viewed as Green Party ideas being stolen, rather than a victory. And yet there are other ways of doing things that play to the Green Party’s strengths; and there are political opportunities arising from the seemingly disastrous situation in which we currently find ourselves.
Primarily, there is the climate situation itself. Climate breakdown is the major threat to the continued existence of humans and all other species and it isn’t going to wait for a change of government in the UK, Australia, the USA, or anywhere else. If your objective is too large for your means of achieving it, you must look for partners in the endeavour. The Greens have long accepted that their objectives cannot be achieved under capitalism as currently constituted. Any move to zero carbon will require fundamental changes in the way we live involving both opportunities and sacrifices. The costs of the change will need to be shared equally to achieve a fair transition, both nationally and internationally.
The initial step must be – as far as possible – to align climate policy across all the progressive parties to provide a consistent and constructive attack on Tory inaction. The first step must be to flesh out the detail, timing and cost of the work already started with the Labour Party on the Green New Deal.
To say the very least, the Labour Party has not shown itself to be co-operative. It feels that it is too important to have to join with others on the development of policy or on the selection of joint candidates to maximise the progressive vote under FPTP. Despite the support of a majority of the membership (in a YouGov poll for MVM, 75% of Labour members backed PR) the party is still reluctant to adopt electoral reform as part of its programme. It would rather lose several elections in a row and suffer decades of Tory government for one chance of ruling alone. Unfortunately, if socialism can wait another five years, the climate cannot. And right now, there is a window of opportunity.
Labour is confronting an extended period outside of government and the possibility that on its own it cannot win another FPTP election. The outcome of the current debates within the Labour Party and the forthcoming leadership election may provide the way to positive co-operation. Clive Lewis, one of the early candidates for leader, has already emphasised the importance of the climate debate, partnership, and a new models of democracy, and crucially wants the party to commit itself to electoral reform. There may be others. The Green Party must be open to this.
The Greens and Labour don’t have to agree on everything, but a Common Platform of key demands on climate action based on the Green New Deal, an electoral pact in 2024 and commitment to electoral reform without a referendum should be attainable first steps. The Green Party won’t get everything it wants out of this, but it can retain its own more radical approach; this not inconsistent with a shared common programme. The platform should be designed to achieve the sign-up of all the other progressive parties. Where possible this common understanding should go further and deeper.
Alliances cannot be confined to political parties. There is so much work to be done with pressure groups and a whole range of civil society organisations, from trade unions to community groups. There is the continuation of campaigning and direct action with school strikers and Extinction Rebellion. More emphasis in local parties should be given to working with those already elected to build on commitments made to zero carbon local authorities. Green Party members can work well with community groups to green localities, improve public transportation, provide better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, encourage community shops and local fresh food markets – all this good work should increase. Without holding council seats, Greens can still exert real pressure to ensure local developments meet sustainability guidelines and better.
And now is the time to press for more community involvement in decision making and processes for deliberative democracy, including citizens’ assemblies. There are also growing opportunities for not-for-profit, community-owned enterprises for local energy generation and other municipal initiatives, and Greens are well placed to spearhead such schemes. The task is to build a climate emergency movement across society that cannot be side-lined by an unfair electoral system or ignored by government. The Green Party should be the major driver in building that movement and modelling new ways of doing politics.
Does all this imply an abdication of the traditional Green Party’s role as the political wing of the environmental movement? I don’t believe that it does, but it will involve a change of emphasis on where it currently expends its time and energy. At local and regional level, where fair proportional electoral systems exist, the Green vote performs best and all seats should be fought.
At FPTP local elections, favourable wards should still be targeted, but more efforts should be diverted to working in with community groups and elected councillors from other parties to drive climate emergency initiatives. Where electoral pacts are possible, as in the London Borough of Richmond, they should be actively pursued.
For Westminster elections a flexible approach should be adopted. Favourable seats will continue to be fought by the party alone. Some seats may provide opportunities for pragmatic alliances similar to remain to win. In others, possibilities may emerge for joint selections, open hustings and endorsement of other parties’ candidates who are favourable to democratic change and Green environmental policies. Other seats may be best left well alone and the effort directed elsewhere.
A new deal based on democratic reform and renewal, pragmatic alliances on elections and policy, and stronger and deeper links across civil society offers a productive way forward in the new decade. What is not an option is for the Green Party to continue doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.
Stephen Clark is a member of Compass, and is on the Compass Strategy Team. In the 2017 General Election the co-ordinated the Progressive Alliance across the London seats. He is also a member of the Green Party.