During the Blair years the party started to break out of the old Ecology Party niche, with its emphasis on lifestyle choices, and opposed not only the Iraq war but New Labour`s economic policies. After the 2008 financial crash and the election of Caroline Lucas as the first Green Party MP, this process accelerated and attracted many who had been politically homeless in the face of the New Labour/Tory/LibDem consensus for globalisation, privatisation and austerity. Many were former Labour Party activists and by 2015 the party had its best ever general election result – fought on a social justice and anti-austerity agenda and membership peaked at 68,000.
Obviously Labour had the potential to be more effective, but only if the left won the battle in the party and its green policies were to be extended, prioritised and implemented. In spite of these caveats many did decide to join Labour (some saying they did so with a heavy heart). Nearly 40,000 left the Green Party during 2017/18 including many experienced activists and people who had held key positions on leading bodies. The current membership of around 36,000 reflects a more recent influx – mostly people attracted by the Peoples Vote on Brexit stance of the Green Party leadership.
The leadership were in a bind, unsure of how to position the party and it was clear that a difficult period lay ahead. This was to be amply confirmed at the 2017 general election when the Greens lost 700,000 votes, mostly to Labour. But in 2016, with Caroline Lucas back again as leader, the party concentrated its efforts on a “Yes to the EU” campaign for the Brexit referendum. This was a shift from the historical position of favouring localism “think global, act local” over ceding control to centralised, unaccountable blocs. In fact the party was largely eurosceptic from its foundation – until 2016!
So no big surprise that the party piled onto the “Peoples Vote” bandwagon with enthusiasm, making it a top policy priority. This call for a second referendum confirmed the widely held view that the establishment wanted endless votes until the people “voted the right way” - as had happened with EU votes in several countries in the past.
Countless people have been inspired by Caroline Lucas who never seemed to put a foot wrong in her approach, her media appearances or her analysis. She still has wide public respect and will probably become a “national treasure” but the shock of Brexit resulted in a series of missteps and strategic errors. The Green Party seemed locked into a period of panic reactions to events – backing the divisive “Peoples Vote” campaign; panicking over anti-semitic allegations; not defending party democracy in the face of attacks by “identity politics” militants - and moving heaven and earth to make sure the Urgent Holistic Review (HR) proposals to change the Green Party structure took effect.
The 2018 Autumn conference spent more time wrangling over internal party organisation than debating the political challenges facing the party. The membership at large had little or no interest in the HR rigmarole or the referendum to agree the changes. Party staff and resources had to be fully mobilised to harvest enough votes for a 16% turnout and avoid an “egg on face” outcome.
A review to make the party more efficient and member friendly would be a good idea but the HR is almost the exact opposite. Decisions on political activities will be centralised in an 11 member Political Executive (PEX) and the Board of Directors of a limited company will deal with staff, finance and day to day functions. A 45 member Council will take on all the work done by committees currently dealing with policy development, conferences, publications and campaigning and international affairs.
Only a dozen of these 61 posts will be directly elected. This adds up to centralisation of control by the party leadership and bureaucracy. Members have described the abolition of the International Committee as “Our Very Own Brexit” as the changes do not accord with the rules of the European Green Party.
A new Green Party Political Strategy document says “research on the 2017 general election has shown that the party does not “own” an important and popular policy in the eyes of the electorate. We will undertake further research to help us identify which of our policies might fill this gap”. If only we had George Orwell to comment on these immortal lines! A Green Objectives section defines the key objectives as environmentalism and “social liberalism” - a slippery term to replace “social justice”.
Then we have the Strategic Objectives which include overtaking the LibDems to become the third most popular party; increasing councillors to 300 (out of 14,000 !); retain the Green MP; poll 1,000,000 at the next general election and reach 80,000 members by 2022. This wish list puts the party only slightly ahead of where it was in 2015, yet by 2022, on worst case scenarios, we will be only 8 years away from unstoppable climate breakdown.
All members have had an appeal from HQ assuring them that they would have to do nothing more than sign their name to become a “paper candidate”. The hope must be to contest enough seats to keep up the appearance of still ranking as a player. More generally the party is concentrating on “green thinking” people who are really concerned about climate change issues – anti-fracking campaigners, Extinction Rebellion etc.
Taken together with the “Peoples Vote” axis, this denotes a distinct middle class orientation which inevitably moves the party in a rightward direction. No longer a social democratic anti-austerity party, but “eco-lib.dem” with councillors morphing into a band of LibDem lookalikes with a green streak.
The Irish Greens are only starting to recover from their wipe out after entering Coalition with austerity parties. In the 2018 Swedish general election the Green party lost 10 seats (down to 15) whilst the Left party gained 7 seats (up to 28). Where the Greens and the Left are united, substantial gains have been made. In the Netherlands local elections the Green Left topped the poll in several cities and came second in Amsterdam.
Personally, I voted Remain, mainly in disgust at the xenophobia whipped up by the Leave campaign and sections of the media. There is another side of the story though. I have an old friend who lives on a large ex-council estate where austerity has inflicted an almost Dickensian level of poverty, where people are literally starving and where little kids rummage in bins for food before they go to school.
He told me that he had never seen such solidarity and community spirit on the estate, as the residents turned out to vote Leave. After being ignored for years, with nothing left to lose, here was a chance to “stick it to the man”. A pretty well heeled crowd of people, draped in EU flags, later told them they were wrong, illustrating both the divisive nature of Brexit and the distraction it has been from the real issues.
This is truer than ever. The climate crisis can be only be tackled at government level and with countries working together on a global scale and, if humanity is to have a future, an end to the capitalist model of never ending exploitation of resources to maintain constant growth. Bearing in mind the timescale this seems a tall order but we can only do what we can.
For now this must include supporting the election of a Corbyn led progressive government while working with those such as Red Green Labour who are raising the profile of climate change and economic growth issues within the Labour Party, and demand that a future Labour led government will lead the move towards green policies.