The Times They (may be) a’Changin

Sean Thompson muses on Green Party members’ response to Ken Loach’s appeal for a new party of the left.

Protesting about the bedroom tax in Hastings, East Sussex (Photo credit: Aspex Design: Photos by Dean Thorpe)

Protesting about the bedroom tax in Hastings, East Sussex (Photo credit: Aspex Design: Photos by Dean Thorpe)

Over the past couple of weeks, three things have served to lift the gloom of an apparently endless winter in Tory Britain. First has been the first stirrings of what may well become a real wave of popular revulsion at and opposition to the Government’s vicious Bedroom Tax. Three local councils have already publicly announced that they will not evict tenants forced into arrears by the odious measure – Dundee (SNP), Burnley (Labour) and Brighton (Green) – and there are signs that more may well follow their lead. At the same time, the first demonstrations against the tax have taken place in a number of cities across Britain.

The second event has been the flood of resignations from the SWP as a result of the bureaucratic and bullying attempted cover-up of the the ‘Comrade Delta’ affair by the party’s inept and dishonest leadership. While sadly, many of those resigning are likely to drift out of political activity all together, a number of them, along with a few of the many thousands of other ex SWP members, have established the International Socialist Network, whose web based forum is already showing fresh and independent thinking and a determination not to reproduce an SWP Mark II (i.e. much the same politics only much smaller).

Ken Loach

The third event has been the appeal by Ken Loach for socialists to get together to discuss the formation of a new political party of the Left which could bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity. Within a few days, over two and a half thousand people had signed up and now I gather it’s over three thousand. It’s early days, but there is clearly some enthusiasm on the left for a fresh start.

However, the capacity of socialists not to listen to each other, to make assumptions about each other and to be knowingly or unthinkingly sectarian, appears to be almost limitless.

In response to Ken’s appeal on the Left Unity website, Will Duckworth, Deputy Leader of the Green Party, member of Green Left, the party’s ecosocialist tendency and, it should be stressed, a fine comrade and a really admirable bloke, wrote the following sectarian nonsense ‘Coalition of Resistance is the movement and the Green Party is the political party. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; just get behind it and push.’ Will’s post was followed by similar contributions by perhaps a dozen other Green Party members from the left of the party in much the sam vein.

I responded to Will by posting the following: ‘This is a classically sectarian response. Just change a couple of names and see what Will’s statement sounds like – “Unite the Resistance is the movement and the SWP is the political party. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; just get behind and push.” Catch my drift?’  (To be fair to Will, he responded by saying that I had made a good point).

However, the excellent Andrew Burgin, who runs the Left Unity site, asked Tom Walker, who has recently very honourably resigned from both the SWP and his job as a journalist on Socialist Worker, to ‘write in response to the concerted effort by the Green Party to suggest that we should all join them.’ (Although, to anyone who knows the way the Green Party operates, the idea of it mounting a ‘concerted effort’ on anything is laughable). Tom responded to the invitation with a article entitled  ‘How left is the Green Party?’ .

Now, cards on the table, I am (currently at least) a member of both the Green Party and Green Left – but I am also fully behind Ken’s appeal and the project to renew the left and move towards the establishment of a new mass party. So I have to admit that I was slightly depressed by both the naive sectarianism of the Greens and Tom’s rather shallow analysis which did nothing to aid an understanding of the nature of the Green Party.

Green Party of England and Wales

I’ll deal with the reaction of many of my comrades in the Green Party/Green Left first. As Tom says of some of his Green friends, they ‘seem not so much angry as bemused as to why there is even a discussion on this subject at all’. After all, as Tom himself points out ‘the Green Party’s most prominent spokespeople are all left wingers’. Will himself of course is, as is the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett and the party’s only MP, Caroline Lucas,  who is one of the left’s few representatives in parliament, is widely admired across the left and has frequently explicitly described herself and the Green Party as anti-capitalist.

The responses from Green Party members seem to me to have been, on the whole, needlessly defensive and prone to a naive sectarianism. For example; ‘The Green Party is the only Party who’d renationalise railways, reverse Health and Social Care Act, provide a fair welfare system, etc. It is the Party of the Left’… ‘The Green Party is already in the forefront of the fight for social justice’… ‘The Left does not need another party to split the vote and allow Tories in. The left needs to unite behind the Green Party and make a massive change for all our good at the next election… ‘The Green Party is the party of equality – the party’. And so on.

First, all of this nonsense seems to me to betray an obsession with programmatic purity, which, as Hal Draper pointed out many years ago, is a defining mark of sectarianism. Second, it reveals an extraordinary degree of self deception about the influence and reach of the organisation – another fatal sign of the sect mentality.

‘Sect’ is a term usually used as as term of abuse to mean a group one doesn’t like, as in the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, but I see it as a group that claims for itself exclusive rights on the Full and Correct Programme. The sect mentality typically sees the road ahead as one in which one’s group will grow and grow, because it has the Full and Correct Programme, until it becomes a small mass party, then larger and larger until it becomes large enough to impose itself as the party of the working class (or in the Green Party’s terms, to win a general election).

The Green Party may be an unusual sect (and, unusually, a pretty civilized and tolerant one), but a sect it is nonetheless. Like other sects it is obsessed with the Full and Correct Programme (in this case it’s Policies for a Sustainable Society rather than the Transitional Programme of 1938 or the British Road to Socialism) which, if presented to the unenlightened masses assiduously enough will eventually lead them to recognise their previous shortsightedness. Like other sects it tends to view actual concrete struggles through the distorting prism of its own programmatic priorities. Of course, it doesn’t share with most far left sects an obsession with a ‘Leninist’ conception of the party (although, arguably, neither did Lenin) and it doesn’t have a class analysis (or much of any kind of analysis) of society and the state. It doesn’t have any of the various laughable programmatic tics and obsessions of what some have called ‘the 20th century left’ – but then it doesn’t need to as it has plenty of its own.

It is largely the hollowing out of the Labour Party and the continuing failure of attempts to regroup the far left sects and reshape them into something that has even a nodding acquaintance to reality, that has led the Green Party to become, largely by default, a pole of attraction for an increasing number of homeless socialists. For many of them, the party is a sort of Sargasso Sea where isolated (and often disillusioned) lefties can drift, substituting attendance on demonstrations and the drafting of radical motions for party conferences for real political activity – rather like student politics for the middle aged.

For many lefties in the Green Party, the experience of being in an organisation that is, for the most part, clearly to the left of Labour, is extremely congenial. Thus Howard Thorp, the party’s Campaigns Co-ordinator (and member of Green Left) responded to Tom’s article by asking whether he had ‘ever bothered to read the GPEW’s policies? Yes, there are many of them, pro-trade union, pro-economic democracy, pro-NHS and public services, and dealing with the realities of climate change rather than just talking about as the other parties do’. Of course the problem is that ‘dealing with the realities of climate change’ (what hubris!) is interpreted as simply putting up candidates in elections at every opportunity – who rarely win – and going on the annual climate change demo.

As far as the party’s size and importance is concerned, comrades in the Green Party need to stop deceiving themselves and making puffed up claims for the organisation. Officially, the party has around twelve and a half thousand members but in reality barely 10% of the paper membership is active in any meaningful  sense .

The claim that the Greens are the fourth largest party in terms of elected officials and paper members is meaningless. Leaving aside the fact that the rest of the left, whether aligned or non-aligned, have thousands more elected members in the trade union movement, which remains the most important democratic institution in Britain, being fourth is nowhere. Having 155 councillors and 1 MP when there are over 14,000 councillors and 650 odd MPs makes the Green Party a midget – and it has taken it 40 years to become that midget.

There is no chance at all the the GP can, on its own and with it’s current eclectic blend of economic and environmental crankery, sentimental reformism and socialist demands for justice and change, become the mass movement that is capable of  mounting an electoral challenge – or any other sort of challenge – to the two and a half parties of the ruling class.

But disappointingly, Tom’s article really doesn’t really attempt to understand the peculiar nature of the Green Party or the socialist left within it. Instead, it approaches the question in a rather shallow journalistic fashion and merely attempts to dismiss the party as not really on the left and therefore more or less irrelevant.

Having conceded in his introduction that the party’s main spokespeople are clearly to the left of Labour he then goes on to resurrect the old ‘ah, but what about the Greens in Germany and Ireland’ chestnut. So it doesn’t matter if most British Greens think that they are to the left of Labour and act as if they are to the left of Labour – what really matters is what other Greens elsewhere have been up to. And Tom is selective in his choice of Greens when playing the guilt by association card – he doesn’t mention the Catalan or Portuguese Greens, who work in alliance with communist and trotskyist parties, for example, nor the Greek Greens, who are part of Syriza.

And then there is the clincher – Brighton. Of course, the capitulation of the the Green Group on the council without even putting up a show of resistance has been disgraceful, but this has been attacked just as forcefully from within the Greens’ ranks as from outside and even Caroline Lucas has distanced herself from the decisions of the discredited leadership of Jason Kitkat. But for Tom, this wholly predictable collapse of an inexperienced bunch of left reformists when unexpectedly handed a local council to run as a minority administration is ‘the canary in the coal mine’ that reveals the true nature of the party as being essentially the same as Labour.

English: Councillor Bronwen Maher of Dublin (r...

Tom misunderstands the development of the Green Party towards an idiosyncratic left social democratic politics over the last few years; a politics more or less in the tradition of the ‘sandal wearers and fruit juice drinkers’ of the ILP that so maddened Orwell. While he acknowledges that the party has ‘many good socialist members’ (thank you very much) ‘and some radical policies’ he insists that nonetheless it is not only not a party of the left, but it is deliberately not. He doesn’t mention which secret cabal has made this decision, but goes on to say that quite a large section of the party ‘are devoted to an agenda of ‘cycling and recycling’, with a narrow focus simply on environmental issues’ . While this is unfortunately true, although less so than Tom might think, he then goes on to say that the left in the party are ‘happy to work alongside those who use the phrase “neither left nor right” with a straight face’. This is simply not true, not only because the organised left in the party has relentlessly opposed this sort of politics, but because the numbers clinging to such a daft and reactionary position are small and growing smaller by the day.

Of course, when Tom concludes that ‘the Green Party offers no solution to the problem of working class representation, or a left alternative to the mainstream consensus’ he is right – we need an entirely new sort of mass party of the left that can mobilise millions. The Green Party is not that party, nor can it be. It is merely the largest sect on the left and like all the others cannot provide the basis of such a party. At some point we must make a fresh start.

However, it has played a valuable role in bringing  green issues, once derided or ignored by most far left groups, into the mainstream of socialist politics and it certainly contains as many socialists as the SWP or the Socialist Party. It, or at least a large section of it’s membership, could and should be a valuable asset in our common endeavor of working towards that new party of the left that Ken has so eloquently called for.


15 comments

15 responses to “The Times They (may be) a’Changin”

  1. Tom Walker says:

    Briefly – I think this is an interesting and useful analysis of the Green Party, for all its condemnations of me! Where we disagree I think is in the idea that it’s useful to just look at the nature of the Greens in the abstract, when in every actual example of the party taking office it has betrayed its base. I accept that the Irish and German Greens are to the right of the England and Wales party, but they are important because they show what the overall Green approach can lead to – hence the relevance to Brighton. Or do we dismiss Brighton as… what, some kind of coincidence?

    Is it “shallow” to look at the facts of Brighton? I don’t think so. I see no reason at all why the party would behave differently in any other local council, or indeed in a national coalition if that ever came to be on the table. I know too many Greens who are defending the Brighton council as the height of left wing politics – hence the two-thirds vote at the party’s conference to back its cuts budget. That doesn’t seem to me like there’s a left majority in the party (or if there is one then the vote was stitched up somehow). Of course you have plenty of socialists, but the Kitcats have the power.

    But anyway, we definitely agree on the need for a break with the sect mentality, and many other things besides.

    • Sean Thompson says:

      It certainly wasn’t intended to be any sort of condemnation of you Tom – perhaps more a slightly schoolmasterish tut tut.

      You are right of course that Brighton has exposed the fundamental weakness in the Green Party’s politics -it’s total lack of analysis of how the state works and it’s de facto (i.e. unrecognised) acceptance of the the limits to action imposed by its narrow electoralism.Of course, the Green councillors were inevitably going to be blown over by the first puff from the state. That’s what happens to left reformists – but it doesn’t mean that they and their party aren’t/isn’t part of the wider left.

  2. Joseph Healy says:

    Sean, I will come back to the substantive points raised in your piece later, much of which I agree with. However, as a historian I feel very strongly about the constant rewriting of history which is going on since Natalie Bennett was elected Leader. In this question at the Oxford hustings for the leader election last year, she is clearly questioned re the Brighton budget. Not only does she refuse to condemn it but she also tries to cover up the fact that Caroline Lucas had come out against it at the national conference – thus she replies dishonestly “not on the record” when Romayne Phoenix mentions it. It is only Romayne who challenges the cuts agenda and lays out what the Greens could have done – which is why I endorsed her campaign.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcM7X_lNWG8&list=PLA0268426E2DDA024&index=16

    Second point, both you and a number of other Greens have stated that the Greens in Greece are in Syriza. They are not. The Green MEP is a member of the European Green Party and the Green Party is a separate party. There are radical ecosocialists in Syriza but they are not the Greek Green Party.

    Here is the Q & A from the European Green Party Council in Athens in November last with the Green MEP on the platform. The press ocnference was interrupted by a demonstration from Greeks against the cuts.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-pQgCYJyRI

    • Elliot Bovill says:

      I think what both sides of this argument (which I have been following closely) have not taken into account, is the distinction between “Greens” & “greens”. Capital “Greens”, are members of the party, but small g “greens” are just everyday grassroots activists. Most “greens” I know do have very strong left wing principles, and this article is spot on about it being some sort of haven for disillusioned/non-aligned lefties. I also have tend to found what may be missing in terms of “20th century” socialism (which obviously, annoys a vast amount of orthodox marxists) is infact more than made up with more up-to-date and relevant attempts to incorporate elements of ecology and global social justice (not just banging on with jargon or just promising that things will be fine after “the revolution”) into the manifesto, and I think too many old school socialists have been too quick to leap on Greens/greens (using the terms interchangeably) simply for their deviation from text book Marxism, and attempts to find new approaches to dealing with our problems.

      What the Brighton Council did though, may well have ruined this upcoming and fledgling Party’s representation for quite some time to come yet. There is no denial, that before the last election, and with Caroline Lucas getting in as MP there was a lot of enthusiasm and promise for the party. I’ve met Natalie Bennett & Will Duckworth (though I’m not a party member), and both of them know exactly what they’re talking about. I think the way you explained putting amateur politicians in councils for the first time and not expecting miracles was very diplomatic, and possibly the best response I’ve heard given to it. Deep down, all Greens are pissed off with this Council’s decisions, but as will always be the case with anyone, they’ll obviously defend the organisation they support in the face of critics. Do not forget that, nor that the rest of the party have been jeopardised by them, and are having to act in similar situations (i,e Natalie Bennett telling journalists Caroline Lucas wasn’t opposed to them making the cuts or whatever). What “the left” should take from this, is that there is infact a party full to the brim of like minded people, and instead of shouting at them and trying to tear them down, should be approaching them and finding out how they can work together.

      Cheers guys.

      • John Penney says:

        So much handwringing and remorse over the capitulation of the Green Party administration in Brighton ! Unfortunately this outcome, when an avowedly reformist party with a very broad , rather disconnected, radical shopping list agenda, gets into a position of local “power” (in a very nominal sense), at local government level, during a major capitalist crisis and ruling class offensive, is absolutely GUARANTEED ! There simply is no route through this crisis with wishy washy , reformist politics. If the Green Party politicians had refused to play to the Central Government rules and NOT made cuts , they would have made the council insolvent. the District auditor would then have been imposed on the Council, and the Green Party councillors would have been personally surcharged, and banned from office. We saw it happen with Clay Cross in the 70’s and Liverpool in the 80’s. Real power simply doesn’t reside at local government level . of course real power doesn’t reside in Westminster either – it is currently held by the capitalit class. A radical socialist party wishing to fight for working class (ie, most of us) interests may well start out with basic resistance to the cuts programme, but to progress , rather than either collaborating (as in Brighton) or being crushed for resisting (Clay Cross, Liverpool)it will have to be a much more steely organisation for the long haul than the dyed in the wool reformists of the Green Party will ever be.

        I’m afraid the Green Movement is a “fair weather” (period of capitalist boom) party only , seeking to make undoubtedly desirable modifications to capitalism in a period of prosperity, when capitalism can afford some reforms. It has no analysis or answer to a world capitalism in systemic crisis.

  3. Glynn Smith says:

    The “coalition of groups against what we have now” would be a start…as long as it didn’t include the “coalition of groups that demand even more extreme what we have now”. Naturally a name that sounded like a Nail boutique crossed with an XBox addon and suffixed with “turbo” would massively increase the paper membership.

    • Adam DC says:

      Please speak plainly, what’s an Xbox and a nail parlour got to do with anything! Enlighten me please.

  4. Barry Kade says:

    A missing part of this discussion is a consideration of a parties strategy and tactics. The GP seems happy with a division of labour. Social movements may use direct action or mass civil disobedience – but the Green Party’s elected officials stay within the law. Furthermore, the council chamber is not seen as a platform for subverting politics and inciting civil disobedience against the cuts. It is a conventional electoral political party – with some good left reformist policies. The scenario for change appears to be a Green electoral majority, – rather than an account of change that is also extra-parliamentary mass direct action and direct democracy. What we need is a conversation about what it really means to be a party of the social movement. When Labour was young and small it had poplarism – radical council led civil disobedience. The Green party needs to learn from this example, if it is to step up to the plate and really be different.

  5. Lawrence Richards says:

    A leftist coalition like the Front du Gauche in France is probably a good way to go – their success in last year’s election in France was a rare chance for a socialist voice to be heard loud and clear throughout Francois Hollande’s disappointing tenure instead of just during the campaign. It can definitely be a shared effort, and a broad agreement to try not to step on each others’ toes whenever possible would be a good start.

  6. Martin Wicks says:

    Burnley Council can’t evict tenants since according to their web site they transferred all their housing to a Housing Association in 2000. So the search for the first Labour Council to make a commitment goes on…

  7. Bob Irving says:

    This is a very long piece. Would I be doing it a disservice if I paraphrased it down to “The Greens aren’t left enough for me and they sometimes go along with the status quo when others wouldn’t. Therefore I won’t support them.” ?
    The point of the Greens’ Policies for Sustainable Society is that it is an attempt to bring clarity and consistency to the party, to avoid, as much as possible, arriving at the Labour Party situation where it is trying to be simultaneously the party of John Macdonnell and Tony Benn and also of Peter Mandelson and Liam Byrne, where you vote in a set of leaders to bring peace and enlightenment, and in the next moment find yourself protesting against an illegal war. However, shoe-horning this into the Brighton situation where the Greens don’t have a full majority and have a totally hostile local government bearing down on them was never going to be easy, particularly as it’s not inconceivable that a sub-text of Pickles’s manoeuvring is to divide and demoralise all sides of local government… The Greens in Brighton could, presumably, have walked out on a ‘no cuts’ basis, but leaving what?

  8. Sharon Pavey says:

    You say “As far as the party’s size and importance is concerned, comrades in the Green Party need to stop deceiving themselves and making puffed up claims for the organisation. Officially, the party has around twelve and a half thousand members but in reality barely 10% of the paper membership is active in any meaningful sense .”

    Our local Green Party here in East Devon has grown 600% since we set up 3 years ago. Our ‘meaningful’ active membership stands at 34%.

    You say “Of course the problem is that ‘dealing with the realities of climate change’ (what hubris!) is interpreted as simply putting up candidates in elections at every opportunity – who rarely win – and going on the annual climate change demo.”

    I’ve never been on a climate change demo and spend a lot of my free time working as a Green Town Councillor. This includes fighting to stop much needed departments in our local hospitals closing, stopping the local youth club from introducing charges for kids to attend, developing a Sustainable Transport Plan and fighting changes to the new planning regulations which will allow our countryside to be concreted over.

    I found your article interesting in parts Sean but please don’t make unsubstantiated generalisations or negate the work many elected Greens do up and down the country day in and day out.

  9. Bob Irving says:

    Moving on…
    Elected Greens have influence above their numbers. Greens in Kirklees started the Warmzone project that has improved the energy efficiency of thousands of houses in that district and been mimicked successfully elsewhere. See http://www.kirklees.gov.uk/community/environment/energyconservation/warmzone/warmzonemenu.shtml where it started, and http://www.warmzones.co.uk/ for what it has become..
    The Greens have taken up and moved on the Living Wage principle and 20 mph zones. Currently, Caroline is working on Land Value Tax, country-by-country reporting of corporate accounts. Elected Greens have lately helped to stop a wasteful incinerator project in Gloucestershire.
    If you want to see how far the Greens have come recently, look at the Council results for the West Midlands.

  10. Tom Trainer says:

    Great; another party to take a share of the left vote. Just what we need.

  11. The problem the Green Party faces is Brighton is that of having executive responsibility. It is all very well to take oppositionalist stances along the lines of “no cuts” and “no pay cuts” etc. However if you have cuts forced upon you by central government, your choice is to implement them as best possible, or to walk off and leave it to someone else who will make a worse job. If you inherit a work force from several local council areas amalgamated into one, all on different terms and conditions, with different pay, allowances, perks, etc, and are legally required (and morally so too by principles of fairness) to equalise those terms and conditions, then it is inevitable that some people will be worse off in consequence – even if on average everyone is better off and the employment cost goes up. Leftier-than-thou types with the benefit of having no executive responsibility will always be able to adopt hypocritical “nothing too good for the workers” stances, but at the end of it, there is a job to be done by whoever is in power. The alternative to accepting that responsibility is to abdicate power. Which is exactly what the local Labour Party would love. And when and if they got into power, they would then proceed to do exactly the same as the Brighton Greens are now doing, because there is no choice in the matter. While probably continuing to blame it all on the Greens. There is a case to be made, that the Greens should always avoid assuming political power, so that they can always oppose the party or parties that are actually running things. But this is deeply undemocratic. If the democratic will is to give the Greens executive power, they have no right to cede that power to others who do not have a democratic mandate. Of course when they do so, they will face furious opposition, not least from the political forces that the Greens have eclipsed, who believe that they have a right to rule, and who will pull every political lever in their attempt to vilify and discredit the Greens and ultimately unseat them. This is the rough old world of electoral politics. My only criticism of the Brighton Greens is that they have not put defended themselves and their record with the energy and commitment that they should have. But they are nonetheless right and deserve the support of electors, Green Party members and everyone else who supports progressive politics in the UK.


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