Tom Armstrong of Manchester Left Unity offers his view on the Green Party
At their September 2014 conference, the Green Party momentarily brushed with the media limelight, particularly in the Guardian. Membership has surged, with their Facebook page boasting that their membership is at an all-time high as of the time of writing.(1)
It is clear that the Greens are seeking to fill the vacuum created by the mass disillusionment with the mainstream parties, notably the Liberal Democrats who are set to implode at next year’s election and a Labour Party that still offers nothing to those that for large parts of the past century readily voted for it, and if their latest conference is anything to go by still seem hellbent on trying to out-Tory the Tories whilst paying lip service to undoing the worst of the Con-Dem policies. However, for those who want to see progressive politics take centre stage in this country, this is not entirely good news, as I will seek to explain in this article.
How progressive are the Greens anyway?
The Green Party certainly propose a lot of “nice things”, and have become the go-to protest vote for many people on the left of the status quo. But what is beneath that nice, fluffy image?
Firstly, let’s look at the very issue that is responsible for the the Green Party existing (and for ages left them open – somewhat unfairly – to claims of just being a single-issue party), the environment. Whilst they acknowledge how population growth, increased economic activity and subsequent increases in demand for resources is putting pressure on the environment, it takes a fairly reformist and top-down approach to tackling this issue – trying to legislate their way to an environmentally sustainable world with all decisions being taken by a future Green government which assumes that it “knows best”, and there is frighteningly little about trying to consult with people who may be potentially be most affected by future Green policy.
A further issue is that the Greens tend to attack the symptoms rather than the cause – the cause being a capitalist system that ultimately puts profit above all else, and where the working class (or “99%” if you prefer that term) is disenfranchised at the expense of the ruling class/bosses/“1%”. This stems from a lifestyle-activist mentality which is prevalent amongst the Green movement (including the political party that was set up to act in their interest) that states that all would be well if we all bought organic food, made sure all our tea, coffee etc is Fairtrade, never took a holiday anywhere which would involve flying, and put on half a dozen jumpers in winter rather than put on the heating (which ironically many of the poorest in society are actually forced to do). Whilst I am not saying this is true of all Green Party members and supporters, there are many examples found in within the party where the beliefs indeed match the stereotype.
Look through Green Party policy documents and it becomes obvious that a lot of faith is put into international and European organisations (e.g. the UN and the EU) in order to build a fairer world, something that is particularly naive considering how both organisations were created by capitalist countries to serve the interests of capitalist countries, and this still remains the case, with most summits and protocols aimed at controlling climate change hamstrung by the pressures of the governments involved to appease the needs of their capitalist economics – the inadequate demands of Kyoto being one example, and the shambles which was the 2009 Copenhagen summit being another. Yet these are the vehicles which the Green Party will think will save the world.(2)
A standard charge is that the Green Party is by middle class people and effectively for middle class people, and no matter how many people in the party attempt to refute this over the years, this charge has not gone away. In fact in the 2010 General Election they have been most successful in the following constituencies: Brighton Pavilion (where former leader Caroline Lucas was elected as the party’s first MP), Norwich South, Lewisham Deptford, Cambridge, Edinburgh East, and Hove. Other than Lewisham these are all solidly middle-class constituencies.(3) When the magazine Red Pepper wrote a piece on the Green Party in 2008, it commented on their conference in February of that year “that delegates were indeed overwhelmingly white and well-spoken; many of them boasted a Dr before their name; and an improbably high proportion of members seemed to have a perfect grasp of the most intricate details of green energy technologies.”(4)
The Greens also have some pretty naive stances when it comes to international issues. The Greens are ready to condemn the aggression of the Israeli state against the Palestinians, but on the flip side, they consider retaliatory actions by Hamas and fellow travellers to be just as bad, and that it should be up to the United Nations to create a peaceful two-state solution.(5) Now there is a lot of unpleasant things that can be rightfully said about Hamas, but as was recently made all too clear to see during the latest military attacks on Gaza this year, it is Israel who is the main aggressor and the side that is by far responsible for the most bloodshed, and the UN has been proven time and time to be toothless when it comes to seeking justice for the Palestinians. Additionally, the implicit support of a two-state solution is in itself problematic.
More damning is their willingness to work with people who promote the status quo to the detriment of ordinary people. This stems from an ethos of being “beyond left and right” (although recently they have found it makes electoral sense to advertise themselves as left of Labour), but this in effect means they will work with the Tories – such as they did in Leeds during the middle part of last decade. Already the Greens are looking like a certain other party that capitalised on the disillusionment with Labour during the course of the last decade, which leads me on to…
Exhibit A: Brighton
Up until 2012, I was broadly supportive of the Green Party, although I was taken aback by how the Liberal Democrats were willing to do anything to get power – having voted for a supposedly progressive incumbent Lib Dem in the constituency I lived at the time two years previously. Now being one of the people bearing the brunt of Con-Dem austerity I was determined to not be fooled again, and I decided to think a bit more critically of the Greens – considering their previous form in Leeds, and alarming portents from Ireland(6) and Germany.
Then the Greens took control of Brighton council – only to then put through a cuts budget.
This was a sign that the naysayers in different organisations which make up the left in the UK were right all along regarding the Greens. Anyway, it’s important to know that this budget was unanimously voted for by all but one Green councillor in Brighton(7). A total capitulation by the Green Party to central government. Of course they said that they “had no choice” – like councillors in Clay Cross in the 70s and Liverpool in the 80s supposedly had no choice but fought on anyway. Of course they instructed people to read the manifesto which would debunk the “haters” – unaware that by selling out that renders that manifesto not worth the paper (or hard disk space, this is the Greens we are talking about here) it’s printed on.
Of course they tried to spin it as if it was actually a good thing since the Greens were in power anyway, regardless of the fact they were behaving just like Labour or the Lib Dems would in their situation. Some Greens, to their credit, resigned amid this betrayal of everything they stood for.(8) Most tried to make the best of a bad job (much like the “Labour left” do within their party for the good it does them). Others, including the leading figures in Brighton & Hove City Council, willingly embraced their new roles as enablers of Con-Dem austerity. So Brighton has suffered as much as anywhere else in the country when it comes to its people having to struggle against the cruel austerity measures pushed upon them in order to pay for mistakes made in the City of London.
The following year, the council wanted to cut wages to its refuse collectors – again spinning it as something progressive, in this case equalising the gender gap in pay. The GMB union were not having any of it, and went on strike for nearly a month between June and July 2013. Whilst the council did their best to turn the public against the strikers, a poll in the local newspaper website stated the public were generally sympathetic towards the striking workers.(9) As the strike progressed, rubbish piled in the streets, making the council even less popular with its people. At the beginning, the party’s sole MP, Caroline Lucas came out in support of them and condemned the actions of the council that had lead to this situation. Unfortunately, she then participated in a so-called “community clean up” to clear up the rubbish that was not being collected by the striking binmen. Now even though Lucas didn’t fit the stereotype of a scab as one of a bunch of greedy class traitors in a minibus being driven through a picket line, doing the work of a striking worker, no matter how well-intentioned, is still scabbing.(10)
Now, in spite of the lip service paid to opposing privatisation, the Green Party in Brighton have now voted for the privatisation of the Integrated Community Equipment Services (ICES) – which provides daily living and nursing equipment for people being cared for in the community in the city.(11) Also, as I write this, the binmen are going back on strike,(12) – so much for the Green Party being pro-unions.
Overall the sorry saga of Brighton Council, which is still being played out at the time of writing, is clear evidence of where we will end up should we place our faith in the Green Party.
What do the Greens really offer the working class? (Less then you think, actually)
Whilst the Brighton situation is most definitely a stain on the pro-union image the Greens love to project, it is pertinent to point to a statement in their 2010 election manifesto, where the Greens propose to “end the corrupting effects of big private and Trade Union donations to political parties, and bring in a fair system of state funding.”(13) As they say, the devil is in the detail.
Also, with some exceptions, they do poorly in working class areas – in local elections in Manchester in 2012 they polled lower than the Tories and UKIP (and in some cases, the BNP) in the following wards: Baguley (a mostly working-class ward where the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition also finished ahead of the Greens, proving that traditional leftism for all its faults is potentially still more appealing than middle-class pseudo-leftism), Bradford, Brooklands, Charlestown, Crumpsall, Harpurhey (home of some the the worst deprivation in England and Wales), Higher Blackley, Longsight, Moston, Northenden, Sharston (which covers some more areas of the city which are considered among the most deprived in the country) and Woodhouse Park – whilst in Gorton South they finished ahead of the Tories but were beaten by UKIP.(14)
Whilst it is tempting to think the Greens’ failure to succeed in working class areas is due to an image problem, the issue goes much deeper than that. Organising the working class as the working class (a term one can happily interchange with “ordinary people” or the “99%”) to fight for their interests just simply isn’t the Green Party way of doing politics, instead they will see issues of social injustice and then state how they will magically sort them out if you give them a chance, and then turn up to the relevant meetings, rallies and protests with their banners, placards and leaflets to show everyone how much “on their side” the Greens are, without investing energy into what actually needs to be done in order to bring about positive change – partially since most of the party have made up their own minds and have no need to engage with the grassroots other than to persuade them to vote Green. Their stance on trade unions exemplifies this – whilst they agree with them on principle, they would rather they were not able to do anything to rock the boat and instead be reassured that a Green government would listen to their concerns and still have their best interest at heart. The ongoing dispute with the Brighton bin workers proves that this is far from the case.
Quacks and cranks – conspiracy theories and anti-science within the party
The Green movement has its fair share of people who distrust anything to do with modern technology and put their faith in pesudo-scientific beliefs, mistakenly believing that every scientific development since the Industrial Revolution is intrinsically part of the problem whilst happily adopting double standards when scientists warn of the imminent danger of rising greenhouse gas emissions and the resultant climate change. This is reflected in the Green Party too. For starters, this is in their health policy: “The safety and regulation of medicines will be controled(sic) by a single agency… The agency will cover existing synthetic medicines as well as those considered as natural or alternative medicines.”(15)
So, in other words, they are “keeping an open mind” regarding treatments where scientific evidence supporting their efficacy is sketchy to non-existent. However this is a marked improvement to what their health policy stated in 2009:
“The Green Party will set up within legislation the practice of patient empowerment, with the right of individuals… to have full and detailed knowledge as to their condition and the range of treatments available, both conventional and complementary/alternative… [The Green Party] oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields… [The Green Party will] encourage the development of a wider and more relevant range of research techniques, including methods appropriate to the assessment of complementary therapies.”(16)
However whoever wrote up the older draft of health policy is probably still around in the party, along with like minded people and influencing policy today. Indeed there are Green councillors who have promoted dangerous scaremongering regarding vaccinations.(17) Green Party leader Natalie Bennett had stated that homeopathy has a very small and limited place in the NHS, by virtue of its placebo effect.(18) Caroline Lucas signed an Early Day Motion backing homeopathy in 2010, although to give her credit she later withdrew her signature. However she has stated that she welcomed the recommendations by NICE to allow more “complementary” treatments on the NHS.(19)
As can be expected from a party which has its roots in the environmental movement, the Greens are anti-nuclear power (as are many on the left in general). However the Greens often go beyond making reasonable arguments against nuclear, and shoot themselves in the foot by resorting to unverified research and scaremongering. Their former science adviser, Chris Busby, made claims – oft repeated by environmental campaigners, of “leukaemia clusters” in north Wales – which are not peer-reviewed and have been refuted by credible scientists. Even worse still, Busby implies that the Japanese have deliberately spread radioactive waste throughout Japan after the Fukushima accident. The reason? Busby assumes that “when” clusters of childhood cancer start appearing in Fukushima, the parents of the victims will want to sue the Japanese government. To prevent this, Busby stated that the government plan to raise background levels of cancer throughout the country in order to mask any elevated incidence of cancer in Fukushima.(20) Busby provided no evidence for this – a typical problem with conspiracy theorists, and regardless of where you stand on the nuclear debate it can only be solved by calm and rational discussion, not emotive scaremongering, resorting to gross distortion of facts and unsubstantiated claims. Such dishonest behaviour will quickly be discredited. Unfortunately Busby is far from the only conspiracy theorist in the Green Party.
The Green Party has in recent years been under pressure from the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement – and it’s no surprise that some “truthers” are among the party’s rank and file. Even it has been 23 years since the party’s most infamous member, David Icke, left the party, there are still plenty of people who hold frighteningly similar views. These include:
• a former Green local candidate who kept an “open mind” on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an anti-Semitic screed produced in Tsarist Russia to justify the pogroms against Jews in the 19th Century, which also acts as inspiration for the aforementioned David Icke), and believes that 9/11 and 7/7 were the work of the respective governments and were “false flag” operations, who was eventually expelled for making homophobic remarks,(21,22)
• a currently active party member and former local candidate who stated that: “at the very least there is culpable US government complicity in the events of 9/11.”,(23)
• someone who gave a presentation about the 9/11 “Truth” campaign at the 2005 party conference(24) and a staunch defender of the now discredited Icke who quit the party after 15 years after the party didn’t take Icke’s wild claims about lizards seriously.(25)
With such people and fellow travellers involved in the party, it seems unsurprising that in 2006 that a resolution calling for an investigation into 9/11 nearly got passed(26) – it failed by a margin of two votes.(27) Thankfully even within the Green Party there are people there who are not seduced by conspiracy theories, including former Principal Speaker Derek Wall, and a contributor to the excellent 9/11 CultWatch website, Larry O’Hara.
Anti-Semitism: the elephant in the room
Whilst one can be a “9/11 Truther” and worry about the danger of the “New World Order” without resorting to anti-Semitism, it is a fact that anti-Semitic tropes are often embedded within the fabric of conspiracy theories. As mentioned, a lot of conspiracies are derived from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a basis. In addition, anti-Semitism can also fester among people who support the legitimate cause of freedom of the Palestinians from Israeli occupation. In 2012, leadership candidate Pippa Bartolotti made this comment:
“I questioned the wisdom of having a Jewish Zionist ambassador in Israel and stated that their loyalty was a matter for the FCO to investigate. The vice-consul was called Levi. From the university of life I have learned that Jews often have a conflict of interest in matters relating to Palestine.”(28)
So the UK’s ambassador to Israel is subject to criticism and his loyalty questioned… due to him having a Jewish-sounding name, and worst still it is implied that the loyalties of any Jew to his or her country can be brought into question (just imagine the outrage if “Jew” was replaced with “Muslim”). Regardless of what he actually believes regarding the Israel/Palestine issue or regarding his personal religious beliefs, such behaviour goes beyond the pale. Worst still, back in 2010 Bartolotti posed with the flag of the fascist Syrian Socialist National Party – and claimed to only fully researched them after she was questioned regarding why she did so, initially assuming they were a “a secular and socialist party – as are the Greens”.(29)
The Green Party’s failure to tackle the issue of anti-Semtism lead to one member to resign after witnessing a senior figure recommending an article by a known Holocaust denier on his blog and a new member posted emails to a list confirming that the epithet of “squealing Zionist” was justified – as well as the statement about the UK’s ambassador to Israel made by Bartolotti. In spite of attempts by the Green Party Regional Council (a powerful body within the party) to implement a concrete policy on anti-Semitism – this was eventually shelved in spite of repeated reports of anti-Semitic incidents coming in from concerned members.(30) This is not a encouraging sign for a party that on the surface claims to be anti-racist, and it can be argued that the stance that until recently taken by the party of being “beyond left and right” leaves them exposed to people that espouse reactionary beliefs which would not gain any traction within any other “left” group.
Where does this leave us?
The fact that the Green Party is becoming a more and more desirable option for people disillusioned with mainstream politics cannot be dismissed – and in spite of their actions not meeting their promises, many on the left still call for a vote for the Greens – if only tactically, such as was the case with Left Unity branches in the North West at the 2014 European elections when it was considered possible that a swing in the Green vote would allow a principled trade unionist to be elected in place of then-leader of the fascist BNP, Nick Griffin.
A sizeable Green contingent in the council chamber can mean that the local Labour Party cannot take people’s votes for granted. However when push comes to shove, the Greens become just as much of a disappointment as the mainstream parties. In Brighton, they did a U-turn and implemented a cuts budget, whilst stoking up a dispute with the refuse workers over pay which has boiled over into further industrial action in September 2014.
In Bristol, Green councillors are part of a “rainbow coalition” which includes pro-cuts parties.(31) In Leeds, the Greens went into coalition with the Lib Dems and Tories, even though even complementing such a thing should be anathema to anyone who is genuinely dedicated to standing up for the people. Overseas the Irish Greens paid the price for being in coalition which imposed vicious austerity measures when the financial crisis first started, and last decade German Greens were part of a coalition with the Social Democrats (Germany’s version of the UK’s Labour Party) which voted in favour of supporting the war in Afghanistan. Overall, it is safe to say that anyone who fully invests their faith in the Green Party of England and Wales (or indeed Scotland) is in for a major disappointment.
So the message from this is quite simply this: don’t believe the hype. By all means support a vote for the Greens if the individual candidate in your area can be trusted to stick by their principles and to genuinely have the best interests of ordinary people at heart (unlike Jason Kitcat and his cronies in Brighton) – although this form of tactical voting will probably have diminishing value as the Greens subsequently prove that their proposals do not match up with their actions. The Green Party offer no long term solution to the crises which affect the ordinary people in this country – so we cannot abandon efforts to build a real alternative left-of-Labour party just because the Greens are presently doing a good job of spinning themselves as that.
When the Greens let people down, Left Unity should stand against them if the local branch have the resources to do so. We should be aware that should the Greens continue to gain support from those disillusioned by mainstream politicians, eventually genuine socialists will end up on a collision course with them as they subsequently repeat the betrayals seen in Brighton, Bristol and Leeds.
Additionally whenever Green Party members act in unacceptable ways by espousing reactionary attitudes or sharing a platform with reactionary organisations they need to be called on it – and should their local Green Party branch not take appropriate action they too should be criticised.
This is why we need to continue to work to make Left Unity a genuine party of the left, and not rely on the Greens or any of the mainstream parties to oppose austerity and the erosion of workers’ rights. In the long term we need to make sure that should Left Unity come anywhere near controlling a council that we avoid the pitfalls the Brighton Greens were all too eager to sleepwalk into, and when the Greens prove they are no better than any of the other mainstream parties, all bets are off. Left Unity’s rallying cry should be that when we say we stand for the people, we mean it.
24. http://www.greenparty.org.uk/files/conference/2005/1provisional timetable for Lancaster 05.htm
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