In the Corbyn era, Greens must move from socialism to ecologism

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on the picket line supporting the junior doctors' strike, 26th April 2016. Photo: Garry Knight via Flickr (Public Domain).
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on the picket line supporting the junior doctors' strike, 26th April 2016. Photo: Garry Knight via Flickr (Public Domain).
Where does the Green Party go now? Last week's uninspiring election results show that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour poses a serious challenge to us Greens, who can no longer succeed by being merely left wing. We must fulfil our own destiny, representing a distinct, authentic ecological strand in politics, making the case for living as if we only had one planet - as is in fact the case.
The project of outflanking Labour on the Left is no longer tenable. In the Corbyn era, we can only beat Labour by giving people a distinct, ecological, green vision including the promise of a better quality of life, rather than merely more stuff / money.

The Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) has been through a roller-coaster couple of years.

There was the Green Surge: the astounding quintupling of our membership, which, despite the UK's antiquated and anti-democratic electoral system, put us in contention at the General Election for the first time ever, and eventually got us into the televised election debates, on a wave of popular support.

There were also Natalie Bennett's media meltdowns. There was the General Election result: a quadrupling of our vote - but no extra seats, because of that pathetic electoral system that we labour under.

And then there was the utterly unexpected ascension to power of Jeremy Corbyn. And that is what explains why, with a membership incomparably larger than we've ever had before, we failed to move forward at this May's elections.

The election results: half full or half empty?

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty for the Green Party of England & Wales to celebrate at these elections. The unappealing Labour and Conservative mayoral candidates were often bested in the campaign by our excellent Sian Berry, who went on to record the best ever Green Party result for London mayor.

We gained Council seats in various places, notably off Conservative incumbents (I'll come back to this point). And our sister party in the neighbouring nation of Scotland, whose politics are now very disaligned from England's, had of course a wonderful night, gaining four seats.

On the negative side of the ledger, we failed to move forward in the London Assembly, failed to break through onto the Welsh Assembly, and went backwards in some of our historic and recent powerbases. Strikingly, we failed to advance in both Cambridge and (most crucially, given that it is our best prospect for a parliamentary gain in 2020) Bristol, and we had a bad night, losing seats in Oxford and in Norwich. In all these cases, we lost out to Labour.

We have a horribly divided Government, which is easily the ungreenest Government ever. We have a horribly divided Labour Party, which lost seats rather than gaining them last Thursday, unprecedentedly within over a generation, for an Opposition at this point in the electoral cycle. We have several times more members than we have ever had in comparable elections.

The project of outflanking Labour on the Left is no longer tenable. In the Corbyn era, we can only beat Labour by giving people a distinct, ecological, green vision including the promise of a better quality of life, rather than merely more stuff / money.

And yet, on balance, the GPEW made no progress last Thursday.

This Green failure to advance is a tragedy, at the current time - a time when we have our last hopes of being able to head off climate chaos. Now is a time in human history that most desperately needs a strong and rapidly growing Green influence on Government. But it's far from happening, here in Britain.

The immediate reason why is Corbyn, and our flawed response to him, thus far.

The forward march of the Green Party halted?

To see what I mean, let's go back to the #GreenSurge. How did it happen? Well, one vital part of the story is that, for it to be possible for the Green Party to expand its 'mainstream' appeal, we had to break once and for all the stereotype of only being interested in fluffy bunnies and in recycling.

We had to succeed in getting people to understand that being and seeing green politically didn't mean only caring about 'the environment'; it meant (and means) caring about social justice and equality and public services too. And at last, in the last few years, we succeeded in doing this. For this achievement, Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett must take a good chunk of the credit.

It was a crucial achievement - because it gave us the chance of winning over for the first time huge numbers of former LibDem and Labour voters. When opportunity knocked, as the broadcasters sought to exclude us from the TV debates, a wave of sympathy converted into unprecedented membership growth, and (briefly) double digits in the opinion polls.

But therein lies our current problem. The situation has been transformed by the election of Corbyn as Labour Leader. The 'left wing' ground that we owned during the Green Surge has been grabbed from under us, by the unexpected arrival of the most left wing Labour Leader ever.

Attacks on him by the right wing press only feed this situation: in last Thursday's election, Greens suffered because many of our natural potential supporters voted out of a sense of sympathy or solidarity for Corbyn's Labour - never mind the fact that most Labour Councillors and MPs can't wait to be rid of Corbyn. That's a subtlety that doesn't affect lots of voters, or that possibly even just feeds the sympathy further!

Why calling ourselves 'Left' is no good for Greens

So our problem now, as Greens, can be starkly stated. Identifying ourselves primarily as a party of the 'Left' simply won't work any more.

This has been obvious for some time, as I pointed out last year in the New Statesman and (jointly with Jenny Jones) on IB Times. Unfortunately, however, the Green Party has mostly not yet adapted, to deal with this new reality. What then is the solution? It's this: we need to develop our 'USP'. We need to clearly and categorically distinguish ourselves from Labour.

How do we do that? We need to go back to basics. Having successfully established at last that we're a party that's strong on equality and social justice and defending public services and fighting cuts, we need to give people a compelling reason to vote for us rather than for (Corbyn's) Labour.

And that compelling reason simply cannot possibly be: 'We're strong on equality and social justice and public services'. Because not only does that not distinguish us form Labour any more, worse still, it encourages the thought that there's no need to vote Green any more, now that Corbyn leads Labour. It fights worse than weakly, because it fights on, and reinforces, Labour's home ground.

The project of outflanking Labour on the Left, a project that has in many ways been valid for as long as many of us have been politically active, is no longer tenable. In the Corbyn era, we can only beat Labour by giving people a distinct, ecological, green vision, including the promise of a better quality of life, rather than merely, as the other Parties (including Labour) do, a larger quantity of stuff / money.

That's the key: ecology, and quality of life.

Beyond 'growth'

At the heart of this big picture is the need to slay the tired old dragon of economic growthism. Of the obsession, which everyone from Corbyn to Cameron is equally bought into, of (above all) targetting an increase in this utterly out of date number, GDP. The hegemonic shibboleth of economic growth needs to be challenged, and displaced.

The pie can't keep growing bigger, because the ingredients are running out. Instead, we need to share the existing pie better. Growthism is an excuse for not sharing enough. The promise of being able to redistribute a bit of a larger pie is an excuse, moreover, for an economy the vast majority of the proceeds of which accrue to the rich.

Economic growth is not making us happier; on the contrary. As The Spirit Level has taught us, it is in fact making us less happy, fuelling as it does rising inequality.

In a rich country like Britain, we don't need more stuff. We don't need more things, more consumables, or more money. Instead, we need more community. More leisure time. More meaning in our lives. (Plus, as I've said, we need to share out the money and stuff rather better.)

Jobs, jobs, jobs?

What about jobs? Isn't growth needed, in order to provide jobs? No. We should share out the work we have, more: it is absurd that, living in the most overworked country in Europe, we still have many unemployed.

We should organise a just transition, a green transition, a real Green New Deal. But this means shifting jobs from the 'grey', polluting economy to the energies and industries of the future. By all means, please let's have 'green growth' in the renewables sector; but we need to shrink the fossil sector, at the same time. So there's no case for net green growth across the economy; on the contrary.

Finally on this question about jobs, consider a radical green notion: what's so great about jobs, anyway? Ought we all to be working full time, forever? Whatever happened to 'the leisure society'? Are jobs for the sake of it to be welcomed? Even if they are pointless, 'make-work', or indeed destructive - as many jobs in our present economy are?

Consider in this connection Corbyn's ludicrous make-work proposal to keep the Trident nuclear subs, only without their carrying nuclear weapons - a proposal made to paper over the rift within civil war-stricken Labour, by proposing something that everyone in Labour can like: the keeping of some jobs. This shows Labourism's 'work for the sake of it' mentality at its worst.

The Green vision is of a future that sees us all working less (except for the unemployed, who will, obviously, find it easier to find employment if the work is shared out more.). A key ingredient of that vision is a Citizens Income (CI) to replace the morass of benefits we currently have with a radically simplified system that enables everyone, unconditionally, to live.

And that ends wage slavery and the benefits and unemployment traps; and that, because of the security it brings people, will fuel an explosion in volunteering and in social and economic entrepreneurship.

The Citizens Income vs the Living Wage

Now, it's true that John McDonnell is wanting to explore Labour adopting the Citizens Income, a signature Green policy, as Labour Party policy. Great. I wish him luck. But I'd bet heavily that he won't succeed. Labour will not go into the next election with CI as its policy.

Why? The clue's in the name. It's the Labour Party. It essentially exists to get a fair deal for those who work for a living; it will never take the risk of signing up to what the Daily Mail et al will probably call a 'shirkers charter' - CI. The signature policy for such a Party, a Labour Party, is: a decent minimum wage. So Labour under Corbyn-McDonnell will get into a long struggle with Osborne over the level at which the Living Wage (LW) should be set.

The Green Party must opt out of any bidding war over the level at which to set the LW. For two reasons:

  • First, because the promise to raise the Living Wage always higher than Labour will offer to, as current Green Party policy in effect tries to promise, is a dagger pointed at the heart of our prospects of winning over the votes of SMEs. A really high LW is unaffordable, a kind of tax on work.
  • And second, because we have something better. The visionary policy of the CI is an alternative to the LW. (It is of course economic illiteracy to have both; part of the raison d'etre of CI is to make it possible for any organisation to offer employment to anyone at whatever rate that person wishes to work, or indeed at no rate at all: because everyone has their basic needs satisfied already by the CI alone.

This will be vital to the future of ethical businesses, non-profits, political parties, alternative media, etc. CI is an alternative whose advantages are manifold and manifest, in this era of precarity and automation where the idea of a Labour Party is increasingly anachronistic.

So, this is a key example of our vision for a very different society than Labour wants. A more equal, less job-obsessed, happier society living within ecological limits.

The tide is rising

Arguing for this isn't simple. It requires some willingness to think ahead a little, and to think outside of the box. It requires some received unwisdom to be questioned. It pits us against assumptions among 'mainstream' journalists and economists - assumptions that the ongoing financial crisis and the worsening long climate crisis are showing to be worthless, but that are still deeply ingrained in to the mainstream psyche.

It isn't simple. It is however necessary. It's the only way for us, especially now. There's no getting away from it. It might take longer. But we've just witnessed, last Thursday, that there is no 'Left' short cut to success for the Green Party.

And the tide of history is on our side. We call for one planet living (as opposed to the three or four planet living that our current economic model involves). Sooner or later, either we'll be electable making that call, or the Earth will force it upon us all anyway.

Either the human race will catch up with the tide of history, or rising sea levels and storms will sweep away all boats.

Labour: a thoroughly growth-fetishising party

But, I hear you cry, isn't Corbyn's Labour 'onside' on 'environmental' issues?

In name only. You can tell that they aren't actually even remotely serious about ecology or about quality of life, by reference to this simple fact: that their number one criticism of the Conservative Government is that its 'austerity' policies are holding back economic growth. Corbyn and McDonnell repeatedly call for faster growth. In other words: they repeatedly call for worsening the number one cause of the ecological crisis.

As I've detailed before on this site, this oh-so-tediously-mainstream call is the basis of their incredibly dodgy policies on matters such as airports and roads (they want them expanded) and coal mining (ditto). Such policies are a scandal, in this day and age.

Most of us like Labour a lot more than the Conservatives. But let's face it: Labourism is hopelessly past its sell by date. We need an alternative to Tory cuts that does not merely involve reheated state-centric growthism.

You can't out-Corbyn Corbyn

It is therefore of course the Green Party that has a USP: for example, in being serious on tackling air pollution; on genuinely sustainable public transport, walking and cycling; in policies for localisation and building resilience; for green spaces and 'green lungs'; for food sovereignty; for nature; for non-human animals; for tackling the causes of ill-health.

Anyone who really cares about any of these things will get less than nowhere, by voting Labour.

The Green Party got so excited last year about having, for the first time ever, a public profile on issues other than stereotypically 'green' issues, that it has forgotten this USP. It's past time now that we reclaimed it. We cannot fight Corbyn's Labour on its own ground: the proof of that is in last week's election results. We must fight, instead, on our ground.

For let's note what the places where we really struggled last week - places like Oxford, Norwich and Bristol - have in common. They are all University cities. The kinds of places where the appeal of Corbyn to students and to the 'educated middle classes' is causing us Greens trouble: because our 'Leftist' packaging gives us little to offer these voters that they don't already get from the new Labour leadership.

But they are also the places where an appeal along the distinctively green lines that I outlined above could work: an appeal to eco-logic, and to quality of life.

Meanwhile, it's important to be clear that a Party that tries to be 'more left wing than Labour' is going to undercut terminally the appeal that we clearly can have (as several of our Council election results last week showed) in Conservative-held areas.

A state-centric vision, talk of being a strongly 'Left' Party, appearing to favour open door immigration, an insufficiently critical attitude toward the EU: ideas and framings such as these will make it impossible to win over genuinely conservative voters who we could win over to the politics of ecologism.

The 'Conservative' Party has abandoned conservatism in favour of neoliberalism; we should be appealing to those voters too, and not trying to out-Labour Labour.

Beyond 'left' vs 'right'

Every time you say "We're a Left Party", you're reinforcing the tried old Left vs Right - Labour vs Conservative - framing of politics. Meanwhile, the Left vs Right dichotomy simply no longer addresses many of the distinctive challenges of the 21st century. Rather, the relevant dichotomies include these:

  • One planet living sanity vs. growthist fantasy;
  • 'Small is beautiful' vs gigantism, whether corporate or state based;
  • Localisation and resilience vs 'free trade' globalisation;
  • Quality vs. quantity;
  • Green vs. 'grey'.

On all of these fronts - whether the issue is TTIP, or transport policy, or whatever - we are, for all Corbyn's virtues, on the other side of the issue from him and his party.

Labour are as hooked as the Conservatives on growthist business as usual; they therefore have nothing to offer our children and grandchildren. Their outdated philosophy needs to be made to yield (at the ballot box) to the philosophy of the future: green philosophy.

Otherwise, a grim future beckons, in which human survival, let alone flourishing in the true sense of the word, cannot be taken for granted. Greens, let's rise to the challenge!



Rupert Read is the Chair of Green House. A former Norwich City Councillor, he stood in Cambridge as Parliamentary candidate for the Greens in the 2015 general election.

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