Green Parties, Green Future: lessons from history for Green politics

Front cover of 'Green Parties, Green Future' by Per Gahrton, published by Pluto Press.
Front cover of 'Green Parties, Green Future' by Per Gahrton, published by Pluto Press.
How can Green parties acquire real political power? A new book by Per Gahrton, founder of the Swedish Green Party, is much more than a useful reference text on the history of Green Parties around the world, write Bennet Francis and Rupert Read. It's also a valuable manual in realpolitik that resonates here and now in the UK.
The fate of the Liberal Democrats in the UK's last general election could be a case study for the problems Gahrton sees facing Greens in government - the pitfalls of entering coalitions as a junior partner.

Ecologism is still the baby of political ideologies.

In the English-speaking world at least, it's unusual in public life to find a clear distinction drawn between environmental lobbying or environmental economics on the one hand and a comprehensive, wholistic, ecological Green politics.

'Green issues' have tended to enter the discussion at a late stage, far downstream of big ideas and core beliefs, with greens treated more like a minority interest group to be placated with superficial gestures.

Just this month, the UK's Chancellor gave us a striking example of this tendency. While defending the mind-bogglingly bad nuclear deal just struck with China, he remarked that "Nuclear power is cost competitive with other low carbon technology and is a crucial part of our energy mix, along with new sources of power such as shale gas."

George Osborne, like so many others, paid lip service to environmental concerns, while in the same breath displaying contemptuous indifference towards any attempt at a consistent Green strategy. The truth, of course, is otherwise!

The political culture of the UK and the United States, however, is behind the curve in this respect, as Per Gahrton's timely book brings out. Beginning in roughly the late 1970s, there has been an upsurge of political Ecologism, which has developed, from its origins in pressure groups and small-scale experiments of living, into an all-encompassing political ideal - "neither left nor right, but forward".

The inside story

Although Gahrton writes with the detached objectivity of the political scientist, the more interesting sections of the book are those that give us first-hand insight into the development of the international Green movement in Europe, given the author's own position as founder of the Swedish Greens and one of the first four co-secretaries of the European Greens.

The ideological differences between parties - such as the question of whether to accept leftist parties into the European Greens or only those with expressly ecological core values - led to confrontations between some of the biggest personalities in Green politics.

We can see the legacy of these debates in the composition of the European Parliament to this day: the Greens-EFA parliamentary grouping, to which the Green Party of England and Wales belongs, remains separate from the European United Left-Nordic Green Left grouping (which includes Sinn Fein - perhaps not everyone's idea of 'Green').

The fate of the Liberal Democrats in the UK's last general election could be a case study for the problems Gahrton sees facing Greens in government - the pitfalls of entering coalitions as a junior partner.

In the early years, the German Greens supported the inclusion of many of the parties that now belong to the latter grouping in the European Greens, to the consternation of purists.

To those habituated to a 'first past the post' electoral system, Gahrton's careful overview of the proliferation of Green parties across the world - with several enjoying electoral success and with it the chance to participate in government - is extremely compelling. It is a welcome reminder that parliamentary politics can be a valuable tool if used effectively.

What are Green Parties for?

Interestingly, Gahrton's own view seems at times more pessimistic: he argues that the role of Greens in parliament should be primarily "disruptive", focused on the banning of harmful practices. Positive change must be brought about from the ground up, through grassroots political participation.

This view is motivated by a complex combination of philosophical and practical considerations. Greens have defined themselves in contrast to traditional parties as committed to participatory democracy: genuine people-power.

Centralised government through Cabinet is therefore difficult to square with core Green values. The argument is reinforced by Garhton's study of the fate of Greens who have accepted ministries: often, he contends, traditional structures have forced them to act somewhat unilaterally, leading to a rift with rank-and-file members.

While these points are important, we should be wary of the idea that the main task of Greens at the parliamentary level is negative: a bold positive vision, put forward through domestic legislatures as well as the European Parliament, is needed to persuade the majority that a Green 'revolution' is not only necessary, but achievable and desirable. Only in this way will Ecologism gain broad enough support for grassroots action to be effective.

Lessons for the UK

The fate of the Liberal Democrats in the UK's last general election could be a case study for the problems Gahrton sees facing Greens in government - the pitfalls of entering coalitions as a junior partner.

Voters were not told in advance of the 2010 election what the Libdems would do should the opportunity for coalition present itself. The mere fact that they chose to make a deal with the Conservatives certainly cost them support. More votes were lost because 'red lines' for negotiation were not incorporated into manifesto pledges, leading to the tuition fees debacle.

Finally, in government, they were often made to carry the can for unpopular policies, and only too late realised the need to distinguish their position from that of their Tory partners.

Gahrton describes a similar fate befalling the Green parties of Denmark, Ukraine, Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Ireland.

Prospects for a pact

As Rupert Read and Caroline Lucas (Caroline contributes a glowing Preface to Gahrton's book) have argued, the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has moved in a promising direction, making the prospect of some kind of electoral pact between Labour and the Greens look like an exciting possibility.

In the spirit of Gahrton's analysis, therefore, it seems appropriate to offer the Green Party of England and Wales the some advice:

One: Greens must strongly distinguish their views from those of Corbyn's Labour, and make it clear where any element of a potential pact is a compromise. Such distinction is all the more important, if one is considering a pact: it is then vital to preserve one's difference, one's identity.

Corbyn has made some encouraging statements on the environment, but he has also been wide of the mark, a notable example being his suggestion during the leadership campaign that Welsh coalmines ought to be reopened.

Although he has since qualified that remark, it reveals the key distinction between Corbynism and Ecologism: Corbyn buys into the shoe-banging socialist faith in ever-increasing production as the road to emancipation. Whereas Greens are actually serious that, with regard all but the least polluting fossil fuels, the answer simply has to be: #leaveitintheground.

Two: The Green Party must now begin an internal democratic process to determine its 'red lines'. Learning lessons from neighbouring Green Parties and the Libdems, they must avoid a situation in which leaders' snap decisions alienate and anger the party conference.

Indeed, we need look no further than the present predicament of the Labour Party to see the dangers of head parting company with heart, as New Labour parliamentarians oppose and even fear the party's membership.

Three: Avoid co-option. George Osborne's remarks on nuclear power remind us of the grave danger that Green politics becomes an exercise in 'greenwashing'. Instead, we need to be clear about how radical and different we remain.

As Gahrton observes, several governments (mainly in former Warsaw Pact countries) have given a portfolio to a single Green, leaving them a largely symbolic ineffectual figure. The way to avoid this, Gahrton suggests, is to demand a post with budgetary control.

Green priorities

It is of course unwise to extrapolate too much from the fortunes of Green Parties in other countries. One thing the book brings out is the diversity of positions across the green range of the political spectrum, not to mention the variation in background political conditions.

Because of the first-past-the-post system, it is unlikely that Greens will play the role of kingmaker in the UK, as they did in Germany in 1998. Any conceivable pact would be part of a broad progressive alliance, probably including Plaid, the SNP and maybe the LibDems.

It seems clear that a key point for negotiation must therefore be electoral reform. The UK's voting system is designed to permanently lock out newer parties and entrench established privilege.

The only way UK Greens are going to gain anything like the influence they won in Germany is by prioritising the campaign for a fair, proportional voting system. Gahrton would be sure to agree.



The book: Per Gahrton's 'Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Government to the International Stage' is published by Pluto Press (US: University of Chicago Press).

Rupert Read is a philosopher of ecology, of economics and of 'the social sciences'. He is Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House.

Bennet Francis is an MPhil Research Student in Philosophy at University College London.

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