time for greens to abandon ‘leftwing populism’?

The debate about the future direction of the Greens continues. Much of the post-election discussion was preoccupied with the pros and cons of the progressive alliance strategy (all with the benefit of hindsight, of course). But what about the policies? Was the Green manifesto too leftwing? Not radical enough? Big questions, especially with local elections on the not-so-distant horizon.

It’s tempting to say that the biggest challenge facing Greens is a Labour Party that under Corbyn has rediscovered a taste for socialism and adopted aspects of Green environment policy. But while Corbyn’s Labour has clearly stolen some thunder from the 2015 Green Surge, the deeper, enduring problem remains the same: an unrepresentative electoral system that punishes smaller parties. As we know from the General Election campaign, there were many people who would have liked to vote Green but were either (a) convinced it would be a wasted vote and/or (b) desperate to unseat the Tories (and if we’re honest, can we blame them?) So given that we’re stuck, for now, with the current electoral system, how should Greens respond?

One interesting contribution to the debate argues that Greens should step up their campaign to end the unsustainable economic growth pursued by both capitalism and socialism — a position I definitely share. However, the article also identifies a ‘malaise of traditional leftwing populism’ coursing through the Greens at the expense of distinctly green, environmental policies. According to the article, Greens have ‘absolutely no future’ in advocating a leftwing agenda given Labour’s current reacquaintance with socialism. Curing this left-wing ‘malaise’ would also mean broadening appeal beyond the left; the article therefore suggests Green support could include Conservative (and small-‘c’ conservative) voters increasingly concerned about environmental issues. On the face of it, an attractive idea? I’m not so sure.

To shed a little light on this unease, let’s turn to this month’s General Election in Germany. The Greens appear content in their role as a party for the better off, leaving social justice to the Left Party (Die Linke). Having renewed their focus on core environmental policies, the Greens are casting their net wide as they seek and form alliances with the centre-right. A Green election poster I saw the other day declared ’There’s no “or” between environment and economy’. Quite fitting, really, as the party (assuming it clears the 5% barrier) could be doing business with Merkel’s conservative CDU and possibly the free-market liberal FDP after 24 September. It’s not an example I’d like Greens to follow in England and Wales.         

There’s no reason why Greens shouldn’t welcome conservative voters genuinely worried about threats such as climate change and fracking. But while environmentally-minded conservatives and leftwing voters might share common concerns regarding renewable energy, air pollution and airport expansion, it’s more difficult to envisage a reconciliation of the socio-economic tension; the basic values and positions on social housing, welfare, public services and immigration. My fear is that by actively targeting conservative-minded voters, the Greens’ strong — and often unashamedly leftwing — policies to fight many kinds of inequality risk being diminished, or even abandoned.

does Labour really have the final word on social justice?

Of course the purpose of the Green Party isn’t to keep Labour in check. But even under Corbyn’s leadership (which won’t last forever), does Labour really have the final word on social justice? The party is unconvincing in several policy areas, from social and affordable housing, welfare and tuition fees, through to taxation, universal basic income and of course nuclear power and weapons (let’s not get started with Brexit). So there is still plenty of space for Green policies that are distinctly ecologist and distinctly leftwing in their approach to overcoming inequalities.

What’s more, I dispute the claim that Green policies are mired in ’leftwing populism’. Far from being a series of slogan-friendly, opportunist easy fixes, the manifesto is rooted in the party’s Philosophical Basis. This clearly explains the indivisibility of social and environmental justice. For example:

A sustainable society can be prosperous, but it cannot have continually rising affluence. We accept that there is a limit to the wealth each person can receive, and this is true no matter how much or how little work needs to be done to produce that wealth. Some redistribution of income will be required. What wealth there is must be shared in such a way that everyone has a guarantee of economic security, otherwise people will not heed ecological restraints in their daily lives. (PB413)

This relationship — socio-economic security as a prerequisite for environmental justice — must continue to lie at the heart of Green Party policy. Unequivocally. What’s more, Greens shouldn’t shy away from explicitly holding capitalism and the pursuit of economic growth as accountable for environmental degradation and its impact on the wellbeing of communities and individuals. It’s not likely to win over conservative voters, but neither is it a message we can afford to dilute.

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image credit: emilyralston @ pixabay

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