The 2010 election is the most significant election for greens in the UK. It comes at the pinnacle of a series of important elections. The outstanding performance of 1989 where Greens got 15% on the basis of Chernobyl put Greens on the political map. The European and Scottish elections in 1999 put Greens in Parliament. 2010 promises to be the year in which Greens become formally part of the central political institution in the UK: the House of Commons.
The 2010 election won’t be a 1989 style over performance. It will be the capture of at least one, if not three or four seats through long term hard work. Caroline Lucas was chosen to fight the seat of Brighton Pavilion, where Greens are most likely to be successful. As an MEP since 1999, she has shown a determined ability to campaign, she has a good profile and has enabled the campaign to be taken even more seriously. In last year’s European election Greens won a majority in the whole of Brighton and Hove. An opinion poll at the end of last year showed Greens with a sizeable majority in the Pavilion constituency. All this builds on the record 2005 election result of 21% in Brighton Pavilion.
The sitting Labour MP is standing down at the election, and it is interesting that both the Labour and Conservative candidates are on the very most progressive wings of their parties (not that that means being terribly progressive in the case of Tory candidate Charlotte Vere). The Labour candidate Nancy Platts is anti-nuclear, anti-war and has a long record as a consumer and union rep. This shows that a strong Green presence has the ability to drive the other parties to the left.
Norwich South may also return a Green MP. Here the Party’s deputy leader Adrian Ramsay has overseen a meteoric rise in the fortunes of Greens in the city. The opportunity to unseat the hard right New Labour cheerleader Charles Clarke adds a certain piquancy to the competition. Again, in Norwich the Greens finished first across the city in the 2009 election.
The chances of Green gains in other constituencies are less, but a strong campaign in Lancaster and Fleetwood, Cambridge, or Hackney North and Stoke Newington could return another MP. The combination of a retiring MP and a strong support base in Lancaster and Fleetwood and Cambridge (where high profile former Friends of the Earth Chief Executive Tony Juniper is the candidate) make these a great opportunity. Formidable campaigning in Hackney North and Stoke Newington from a high natural level support may mean an excellent result.
The breakthrough to Westminster is important because it will change the political and media profile of the Greens. By having articulate spokespeople on the national stage it will become harder to ignore Greens. It will be easier to communicate the fullness of Green politics. This is important in Scotland because of the lead much of the Scottish media and political establishment takes from London.
Increased exposure is, though, only significant if the politics are right. The Green Party of England and Wales is moving rapidly in the right direction on this. The sight of Caroline Lucas on a picket line with striking CWU workers shows that Greens are now taking social justice much more seriously as part of the holistic package of Green politics. Only Greens will campaign in the forthcoming election against public sector cuts. Only Greens will be promoting a Green New Deal that delivers a million new jobs in decoupling economic growth from environmental and social destruction.
The need to ensure that the young and the poor do not suffer as a result of the recession can be solved by a massive investment in decarbonising the economy and rebuilding the social infrastructure that was stripped out by the Thatcherite attack on society. We need to move to communities that are better able to help themselves. Communities that are more resilient. Greens must ensure that this transformation happens without handing power to elites. It must be participative. The opportunity to showcase this in Norwich is one that must not be missed and is of great importance to local government throughout the UK.
There’s still more to do. Greens should be much more vocal in supporting an end to the imperial adventure in Afghanistan. This is both popular and too uncomfortable for other parties (including the SNP) to support. It is a huge opportunity for Greens. There still needs to be more work on promoting a citizen’s income for all, but the work done by Greens in the London Assembly in creating and protecting the Low Wage Unit shows a commitment to social justice for the working poor.
Importantly the Green Party of England and Wales is removing some of the policy artefacts from the earlier era of political naiveté. The most gratuitous anti-rational elements of policy were removed at the recent conference. These policies lost the party votes in the European election, and may have meant the party was unable to prevent Nick Griffin being elected in the North West (where Peter Crainie was only 5000 votes behind Griffin in last place, in an electorate of over 4 million).
It will be important that Greens, once elected, take forward a positive vision. While it is intrinsic to Green politics that prevention is better than cure, too often Green become fixated with the symptoms of our economic system, rather than their cause. Too often Greens campaign against bridges, roads and consumerism, rather than making the much more important and fundamental criticisms of a system that requires these excesses. It is important to stop projects that cause climate change. But it is surely both more important and more Green to tackle the cause of both climate change and social injustice than it is to rail against its symptoms.
Green politics must be about a radical transformation of the structure of power. Where the Labour project has, with the best intentions, dis-empowered people through centralisation and municipalism, Greens would empower communities. This will put common reources back in common control. It will mean that communities, not capital is where power is located.
The ravages of neo-liberalism since the early 1970s have too often created an expectation that the individual should be sovereign. This has become hegemonic in UK politics. Greens reject this as a damaging atomisation that fundamentally only supports a consumerist economy. Instead Greens will reinvigorate places for people.
There is a tradition in UK politics that has been abandoned by the Labour movement in its move to authoritarianism. It is hard to see the continued backing of the Labour party by Unions as anything other than an endorsement of a surveillance state that prioritises imperialist war warmongering over workers’ welfare. Greens seek to empower collective approaches to creating a better society. This means support for aims that have never been contrary to those of the Labour movement, but have merely been sidelined. Support for Union rights – including a repeal of Thatcher’s anti-Union laws, more and better workers’ control through genuine cooperatives and mutuals are all long term aims of the Labour movement. But Greens seem much more likely to deliver them through the political system.
Further to this Greens would empower communities by ensuring common control of common resources. This is particularly important in the development of an economy based on renewables, which require access to a range of common goods, including wind and water. There must be moves to community ownership, a form of control that has proved very successful in regenerating crofting communities through the Community Right to Buy. This should be extended to all communities, allowing control of assets by communities. A move to participatory budgeting for communities, and endowments for the poorest communities would help to address the problems of social justice that seem to have been exacerbated under 13 years of Labour government.
The book of the moment must be “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This points to a range of measures that show that the key determinant of successful societies in equality. By contesting the neo-liberal maxim of growth at all cost that is accepted by all the other parties in the Scottish Parliament, this reflects the long standing Green belief that quality of life is more important than economic growth. States that have high levels of growth, but low levels of equality have higher levels of early mortality, imprisonment and lower levels of educational attainment and well being.
Green politics is at heart about challenging the notion that politics has to be about promoting crude economic growth. The point of politics is to create better lives for people. And better lives for people means having better communities with more chance to support individuals.
This is important for Scotland as having Greens at the top table in UK politics will mean more exposure in Scotland. The next Holyrood election will be a year or less from Westminster, and it is vital for progressive politics in Scotland that there is a return to a more politically heterogeneous parliament. More Green MSPs will help this to happen. And a presence in Westminster makes this all the more likely.
What must be avoided is a repetition of the mistakes of Comhaontas Glas/Green Party in Ireland. Here, Greens were too keen to get into government with a neo-liberal party with no interest in pursuing a progressive agenda. Fianna Fail had engineered the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy where, while incomes rose massively, so inequality increased. For the sake of a cycle to work scheme and a grow your own vegetables initiative, the Irish Greens have propped up a government whose response to the economic collapse has been to retain the lowest corporation tax in Europe while halving benefits for under-25s. Having voted for these measures it is not surprising that Comhaontas Glas seem unlikely to survive the next election.
The lesson here is that Green politics must be about social justice combined with environmental justice. Not one or the other. And that reducing inequality must be vital to a successful Green involvement in Government. The role of strong Green Parties in Scotland as well as England and Wales should be both to push for change by getting elected and where that’s not possible to make other parties do the right thing by putting pressure on them. The progressive nature of the Labour, and even Tory candidates in Brighton Pavilion is testament to the power of a strong Green campaign to make other parties support green policies.
The cartoon above says “What if climate change is a big hoax and we create liveable cities, clean air and water and improved our children’s health. We’ll have created a better world for nothing!” This is at the heart of Green politics. The solution to our environmental crisis is the same as what must be done to create a better society. A Green MP or two will help promote this agenda – and that’s why electing Greens in 2010 is vital for the UK, for Scotland and for the world.
– A version of this article appeared in Perspectives, the magazine of Democratic Left Scotland. www.democraticleftscotland.org.uk.