Green vs Labour Part 2: Progressives need a Party for Social Movements

This is the second of a four-part debate on the subject of whether left-wing activists should participate in the Labour Party or the Green Party. This first part argued for the Labour Party and was written by James McAsh, a member of the London Young Labour Executive Committee. This response makes the case for the Green Party. It is written by Peter McColl, Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Edinburgh East.

Green politics is the greatest threat to capitalism in the 21st Century. The attack on Green politics reflects this status. Capitalist elites, having captured social democratic parties over the past 25 years, need to find ways to capture or neutralise Green politics and the parties that it represents. The arguments about how capitalism has destroyed people’s lives and the environment that are required to sustain them have little to refute them. So instead, we see corporate funded climate conspiracies, attempts to turn green concerns into another mode of consumption and the promotion of middle class environmentalism. Sadly the Green Party hasn’t been immune to this.

It is important to note that Green politics is not just about the environmental issues that Green Parties have focused on more recently. The founding principles of the Green movement include commitments to Equality and Social Justice, for many Greens it is vital that these principles drive the direction of Green politics as much as environmentalism. Over the past 10 years there has been a fundamental shift towards a broad Green politics, rather than narrow environmentalism. The shift has been the work of a relatively small number of people. With more support in the party this shift will continue, and be strengthened. The adoption of policies such as the one allowing workers to make a compulsory purchase of private businesses and allowing them to be run as cooperatives shows Greens prioritising workers’ control. Greens in the UK have always opposed wars and are increasingly the only party opposing privatisation in England.

If you are on the left in the UK, there are many things you could do to change our politics. Street politics as practiced by UK Uncut, social movement politics like the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland and trade union activity are all important. Working in communities to politicise people through creating new community spaces and defending those that exist is equally important. And this pluralism should extend to party politics. In the UK, almost uniquely, the left has historically pinned its hopes on one electoral party, the Labour party. While there was serious Communist organisation in Trade Unions, this did something to hold the Labour party to the left. But since the collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1990s, the rigour behind the Labour Party’s ideological positions has diminished.

The New Labour project has substantially gutted the Labour Party, fundamentally undermining its internal democracy. This means that while left wing policies may enjoy support on conference floor, it is near-impossible to get a Labour Government to implement these policies. It is also difficult to get left-wing candidates selected, because of a vetting system that has greatly reduced the strength of the left. This means the efforts of leftists in the Labour party are always likely to be confounded. Whereas the left in the Green party is able to win arguments on conference floor, and have them implemented by parliamentarians.

For all of the talk of ‘winning the Labour party for the left’ it is hard to see how someone on the left could actually make a difference. And if Tony Benn and Nye Bevan failed in winning the Labour party for the left while the structures existed to do so, what chance do we have today?

It is important that there are leftists in all the progressive parties. But for too long the left has misunderstood that solidarity should mean conformism within mass parties. As at each election the number of left wing Labour MPs diminishes, the argument that the Labour party can be won back diminishes. As the Labour party chases UKIP voters with anti-immigration policies, and follows the Tory attack on those who rely on benefits by supporting caps on social security spending it is ever clearer that the left should seek to influence the Labour party from outside.

To contrast this with the progress made by radicals in the Green Party, where a significant and substantial shift to the left has been achieved in only 10 years with a relatively small number of activists. And when you see the impact this has on the Labour party, it becomes clear that the best way to promote left-wing politics is by  putting pressure on from outside.

Two examples demonstrate how effective this has been: the candidates chosen by Labour in Brighton Pavilion for 2010 and 2015 are much closer to the left than other candidates would be allowed to be. Nancy Platts, the 2010 candidate beaten by Caroline Lucas was identifiably left wing, anti-trident, pro-immigrant and much more progressive than other candidates. The threat of Greens taking a seat is one of the few circumstances where Labour will select left wing candidates, rather than the assorted Blairites chosen elsewhere. Similarly, Caroline Lucas’ vital work on rail renationalisation has pushed Labour into a watered-down commitment to allow the public sector to bid to run rail franchises. Having a force to the left of Labour in Parliament creates political space for those in the Labour Party and labour movement to push the Labour Party back to the left.

In his piece, James sets out a number of reasons to join Labour. If you can’t join the Green for whatever reason, these may give some comfort, but for a whole variety of reasons they’re flawed. If you want to elect left wing MPs, join the Greens and fight for their candidates. You will make Labour chose leftists. If you think Greens are a party of the intelligentsia, join and change that: a democratic party allows change in a way Labour never can. If you think Greens need a link to the Trade Union movement, then join our Trade Union Group and argue for that link – there are many who will agree with you and, more importantly, with Unions.

Lastly, if you are concerned by Greens’ record in office, then look at the record of others. Of course there are things that could have been improved about the Green administrations James highlights. But it is worth noting that the German Greens did what they did in coalition with the Labour party’s German equivalent, the SPD. Any criticism of the Greens also applies to social democrats. In Ireland, the Irish Labour Party has made almost every mistake the Irish Greens did, and look set to be rightly punished by the electorate, just as the Irish Greens were rightly punished. In Brighton the Labour group on the Council could have helped Greens prevent cuts by supporting the Green budget aiming to reduce the impact of cuts. Instead they voted with the Tories to defeat the minority Green administration. I am no defender of the Greens actions here, but the comparison with what Labour or their sister-parties have done suggests there is no place for claiming Labour are any better.

UKIP have shown just how effective a party can be when it articulates a clear ideological position. Greens need to do this on the left, and in doing so pull Labour away from its pro-austerity, anti-immigrant, welfare bashing and create again a party that represents the interests of the working class. Given the lack of internal democracy in the Labour party, the most effective way to do this is through external pressure. That must mean that the Greens are the best home for those who want to pull Labour to the left.

The 2015 election will be the Greens best in nearly 25 years. The opportunity to create a real Parliamentary force to the left of the Labour Party is a vital chance to win Labour back and to ensure that we have action on social justice, environment and equality.

Read Part 3

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