Green vs Labour Part 3: The Green Party can never be a party of the labour movement

This is the third of a four-part debate on whether the left should participate in Labour or the Green Party. James McAsh, a member of the London Young Labour Executive Committee, argues for Labour and Peter McColl Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Edinburgh East, argues for the Greens.

Part 1 outlined McAsh’s argument for the Labour Party.

Part 2 gave McColl’s pro-Green position.

This third part, by McAsh, offers a rebuttal to McColl. 

The greatest threat to capital – in this century or any other – is working class power. Social movements play a crucial role in building this power and in wielding it for social change. Electoral activity too can fulfil a useful function in augmenting class power and strengthening these movements. However, electing the ‘right people’ is no substitute for building our own power and our own movements.

Our most significant movement is the labour movement: the most powerful movement in contemporary society, and a representation of the potential of working class power. Thanks to the Labour Party’s organic link to the trade unions, participation in the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, they are often two sides of the same coin: the politics, structure and activity of the Labour Party will be shaped in part by the dominant ideas in the labour movement. When socialists argue for better ideas in the labour movement, or put pressure on the trade union leaderships to fight for their members, they cannot help but influence the Labour Party. Explicit and co-ordinated participation in both the party and the wider movement lubricates this process.

The Labour Party is the only political party in the UK where this relationship exists. Participation in all other parties is something that activists do in addition to their activity in other social movements. In the Labour Party the two merge: fighting for a strong, democratic, socialist labour movement is a fight for a strong, democratic, socialist Labour Party.

With no roots in the labour movement, the options open to the Green Party are more limited. In his piece, Peter puts forward two ways in which participation in the Green Party can achieve social change. The first is through direct implementation of Green Party policy. The second is by putting pressure on the Labour Party. I remain unconvinced that either method will be as effective as participation in the Labour Party.

Implementation of Green Party policy

Peter draws a stark contrast between an undemocratic Labour Party where left-wing conference policy is ignored, and a Green Party where arguments won at conference result in their implementation by parliamentarians. There is truth in his depiction of the former: a key task of Labour activists should be to fight for party democracy. But his portrayal of the Green Party bears no resemblance to reality: Green parliamentarians are insufficient in number to implement almost anything, and certainly not the more radical party policy.

Of course, this could change: over time many more Green parliamentarians could be elected. But there is nothing to guarantee a Green Party in this strengthened position would be any more left-wing than the Labour Party is today. In fact, as I argued in my first piece, the record of green parties abroad suggests that it would be no improvement whatsoever.

Peter’s response to this is to point to the record of Labour which, as I acknowledged before, includes much that is worthy of criticism. But this is an insufficient response. Left-wingers in both parties have two tasks: to put left-wing pressure on the leadership, and to win power for the party. The first task is bound to be easier in a small party like the Greens. However, a Green Party with more parliamentarians would presumably have a larger membership with more members close to the political centre. Thanks to Labour’s relationship with the trade unions pressure on its leadership would probably be more effective than on a comparably sized Green Party. The left-wing party member’s second task – of winning power for the party – is again easier for those in the Labour Party: left-wingers in the UK green parties have to slog endlessly before they are rewarded with the kind of betrayal their peers experienced in Ireland and Germany.

 

Putting pressure on Labour

Peter argues that external electoral pressure from the Green Party is the best way to promote left-wing politics in Labour. It is almost certainly true that this will have some impact, but I believe that Peter has grossly overstated it. He gives two examples to support his claim, one concerning candidate selection in Brighton Pavilion and the other concerning rail renationalisation. Neither example stands up to much scrutiny.

It is true that Labour’s 2010 and 2015 candidates for Brighton Pavilion, Nancy Platts and Purna Sen, are on the left of the party. But the strength of the Greens in the constituency is not the sole or even decisive factor in Labour Party selections. For instance, Platts has now been selected to contest the neighbouring seat, Brighton Kemptown, where in 2010 the Greens polled a mere 5%. Other winnable seats where Labour has selected socialist candidates include Salford & Eccles and St. Helen’s South, neither of which were even contested by the Greens last time. It is plausible that electoral pressure from the Greens can have an effect on Labour selections but there no reason to think that this is more significant than internal factors.

Similarly, it is true that the Labour leadership’s baby-steps towards rail renationalisation have followed Caroline Lucas’s election to parliament. It has also followed the policy’s rise in public support, and endorsement by the trade unions and a range of other party affiliates, for instance Labour Students and the Co-operative Party. There is no good reason to single out Lucas’s work for the change in Labour policy.

Transforming the party

All of my arguments rely on the Labour Party, and not the Green Party, being a party of the working class and the labour movement. Peter’s response is that Green Party democracy allows members to change that. Sadly, I cannot agree. In theory it may be possible to argue for a link to the trade unions similar to that which exists in Labour. But in practice, there is no sign that the Greens could forge a link to the unions that is anything like as strong as the Labour link is today, even after decades of it being attenuated by the right-wing of the party. The Green Party Trade Union Group, which Peter encourages us to join, proposes nothing like it.

This points to a broader weakness in Peter’s argument: democracy is essential but not enough. A party cannot escape its ideological and material constraints. If Green Party Conference passed a resolution to become a party of the working class and the labour movement, this would change nothing. It would still be a party of the middle-class intelligentsia. It would simply have become more delusional.

The labour movement and the working class need political representation. For all its flaws, the Labour Party fulfils this function. The Green Party does not and never will.

Read Part 4

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