The decision, taken locally but heavily influenced by the Green Party leadership, of the party not standing a candidate in this Thursday’s Richmond Park by-election, appears to signal a change in the political priorities for the English Greens.
To recap, the by-election has been called because the sitting Tory MP, Zac Goldsmith, resigned from his party and is standing as an independent, anti-Heathrow Airport expansion candidate. Goldsmith, although having something of an ecological viewpoint, is not necessarily against airport expansion in general, but he is against it in his own back yard.
The Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney, also backs airport expansion, but not at Heathrow, whilst the Labour candidate, Christian Wolmar takes the same position, preferring Gatwick Airport for an extra runway.
One might have thought that the Greens would seize on this opportunity to differentiate themselves from the other parties and use the by-election to publicise the urgency of action on climate change, and the part that air travel plays in exacerbating the problem.
The first indications were that this was indeed going to be the case, with a candidate selected to stand, but a change of heart by that candidate, and some other activists locally, saw the decision reversed. This was after representations were made by the Green Party co-leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley.
There has been more emphasis in recent years on the Green Party’s social as well as environmental policies, but I can’t ever remember environmental policy, and in particular those policies around climate change, being relegated to a subordinate status like has happened with this by-election.
The Lib Dems, hardly surprisingly given their modus operandi, are using the Heathrow expansion issue in the classic nimbyist way, but they have also tried desperately to make the by-election about a completely different subject. Brexit.
I suppose this should come as no great surprise to seasoned Lib Dem watchers, as trying to thwart the Brexit process is now their flag-ship policy, as they try to recover from their near wipe out at last year’s general election. They see an opportunity to tempt some of the 16 million Remain voters into supporting the Lib Dems, particularly as the Tories (and probably Labour too, although it is not clear yet), do not want to re-run the referendum on our membership of the EU.
Green Party members and voters were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, as I was, but there was a minority who wanted to leave. Green Left comrade, Larry O’Hara made the case for Greens to vote to leave the EU eloquently on this blog prior to the referendum. Larry makes a strong case for Greens to abide by their principles and take the opportunity to bring democratic decision making to its lowest, local level. But as I say, most Greens, in some cases reluctantly, voted to stay.
This was pretty much my view, seeing staying as the lesser of evils, rather than let the Tories dismantle environmental and employment protection policies.
I wonder how many Green remainers though, put EU membership or some kind of associate membership above the issue of airport expansion and climate change? I dare say that some Greens will say that staying in the EU will better enable us to deal with climate issues, but that is a matter of opinion.
Of course the decision not to stand in Richmond Park is all bound up with the idea, promoted by the Green Party’s new co-leaders, to make a start on the formation of a progressive alliance, of political parties vaguely to the left of the Tories. Labour are standing though in Richmond Park, and a progressive alliance does not yet exist in any real way.
I am broadly in favour of an anti-Tory alliance for the next general election, but I do think that we Greens have missed an opportunity to trumpet our distinctive position on airport expansion and the issues surrounding it, in this by-election.
Not all Green Party members are happy about the position we have taken in Richmond Park, and I must admit that I am uneasy about using this by-election as a referendum on Brexit, or the terms of it. I also have the feeling that we may be being used as the Lib Dem's useful idiots.