The big political news in Britain this week is that the Left are about to form another political party. As if by way of the ultimate irony, it is named Left Unity. Many of us regard this as an ideal and a contradiction of practical terms. If Unity was what was really sought, we would all join one party, not maintain dozens of them. Hm… The established media is awash with speculation that this party will become Labour’s UKIP. In other words, that both our two main parties will suffer substantial voter loss, sufficient to prevent them from winning power. That creates an even bigger irony: despite the widespread expectation of a political apocalypse for the Liberal Democrats, it could be that they retain the balance of of power in the House of Commons. Assuming this scenario is correct, that will lead to overwhelming demands for the reform of our democracy. First past the post works with a two party system. With a five party system, it does not.
What then, for the Green Party? With minority control of one local authority and one MP, it is currently the most successful of the apparently left-wing parties in the country. Caroline Lucas has become the voice of the conscience of the nations in the United Kingdom and, simultaneously, has become, in only half a Parliamentary term, an elder stateswoman of our political life. Quite an achievement. However, neither she alone nor the Greens’ local councillors around the country have managed to forge sufficient support to break through the glass ceiling of the two party system. We can see the neighbours upstairs but we can’t evict them. They have far too much power. They have all the resources of the corporate state at their disposal.
But that’s not the only reason the Greens are failing to capitalise on their apparent success in the last local elections. The main reason is that, despite their membership being predominantly working class, their voters remain almost exclusively in the middle class. It’s worth remembering that those people who are sociologically defined as being middle class are increasingly being throttled by our economic arrangements. Ever since Thatcher came to power, their mode of existence has been under threat. We haven’t reached the point where they have been killed off but, with each passing year, Marx’s prediction that they would be eventually extinguished, looks more like a prophecy. For the Greens to become the party of the Left, they have to reach out to ordinary working people and speak for them in a way that no party with elected representatives has done for a very long time.
For this to happen, the behaviour of Brighton & Hove Council’s Green administration in the coming financial year is critical. For all the arguments about the exact meaning of that local Green Party’s 2011 manifesto commitment to resist the cuts “the greatest extent possible”, the Greens in England’s grooviest city will be judged on whether they deliver austerity or not. In the two years their minority administration has held power there, they have achieved much and prevented savage cuts by a series of efficiency savings so effective that the thieving Tory bastards probably have wet dreams about them. Well, they would, if the Greens hadn’t also built state of the art cycle lanes, prevented the bedroom tax, prioritised one planet living and so on. The list of achievements is as impressive as it is lengthy. Did I mention introducing the Living Wage, reducing pay ratios and introducing gender pay equality? There’s so much to report that it would completely derail this post. Suffice it to say, that thus far the Greens have fine form for getting the job done and showing that another way is possible.
Unfortunately, all this is about to turn to shit. The space for efficiency savings is exhausted and the government is expected to cut a further £20,000,000 from the Brighton & Hove City Council’s budget, which has already been punished with the most severe cuts in the South-East. It is difficult not to see austerity being applied in a punitive way because of our political beliefs. Without any further wriggle room, the minority Green administration in Brighton & Hove is now urgently discussing what to do, well in advance of the budget.
Essentially there are two choices. Either the Greens remain in power and administer the cuts or they walk away from power and declare that austerity will not be ‘in their name’.
There is an enterprising Left within the Greens who are creating various solutions to square the circle of financial pain. Being modern folk who like to laugh at themselves, these people don’t call themselves socialists, they call themselves Watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside ~ a mocking title reclaimed by them). They have proved themselves a powerhouse of ideas about how to avoid austerity. Witness the recent debate about the so-called Progressive Council Tax, Councillor Ben Duncan’s call for a posh hotel room levy or speculation about the possibility of taxing supermarket chains in the city. Whatever the merits of these ideas, none of them appear likely to get off the ground because the majority of the Green Party councillors are not Watermelons.
The majority ~ a slim majority but a clear and consistent majority nonetheless ~ are the sort of Greens who regard handing a petition in at Downing Street as hardcore political activism and consistent mentions in The Daily Telegraph as a political triumph. They can’t be called right-wing. Plainly, they are not. There is another word for their political philosophy. It’s an ugly word but the time has come to use it: Liberals, with a capital L. If they named themselves after a fruit, it would be a new scientific discovery because they are Green on the outside and Blue on the inside. They don’t recognise capitalism as causing our economic crisis, creating crises in our communities or raping the planet. For them, our economic system can be reformed through hard work and an honest approach to life.
Unfortunately, they haven’t produced a single idea for how to challenge austerity. It is more than obvious that they intend to oversee it because they have fiercely resisted every attempt to overcome it. Their political game is to hold onto power at all costs. Even if the costs kill people, which the coming cuts undoubtedly will. They argue that it is better that they oversee it than Labour or the Tories because they are nicer people and more caring. Whether that’s true or not rests on personal knowledge of all the individual councillors, not which party they are in.
The point of a political party is to offer a choice. Presently, both Labour and the Tories are pitching for austerity. There is so little to choose between them, in all areas of policy, that most people now regard them as indistinguishable. If the Greens also fall into the austerity trap, the public will rightly pigeon hole them with the established parties but the votes won’t be shared out equally between all the parties in that hole. It will go to the established parties because people like to vote for the devils they know.
Some Green councillors in Brighton & Hove cannot stomach the austerity dish. For them, resisting the cuts to the greatest extent possible means not dishing them up in their name. ‘Let the Tories do their own dirty work,’ they say. For them, the point about winning power in this glorious city was to show the country at large what Greens were capable of and, in so doing, win power on a national stage. Their political goals are to challenge capitalism by winning power where it counts. They regard local governance in England and Wales as a creature of central government, one which can be hunted down and killed at its masters will. It’s worth mentioning that not all of these councillors are Watermelons in the formal sense of the word. It’s complicated. Some are, some aren’t. One or two could more properly be described as Figs (Green on the outside, anarchist Black on the inside).
Whatever their fruity label, it is these people who will decide the future of the Green administration in Brighton and Hove. They are currently wrestling with their consciences. Do they stick with the party in power or do they walk away? Sticking together appears to keep the holy grail of Leftist politics: unity. Walking away allows the possibility that the Greens remain a cogent alternative in British politics, with a future in the national and international debate.
It’s no secret that the Green Party in Brighton & Hove is very divided. The debates between the Watermelons and the Liberal Greens have spilled out into the public arena and, become very personal, largely because the numbers of councillors are so small that individuals were being held responsible. Luckily, members have now begun to rally. They are coming together again, slowly but surely. On the personal front.
But the fact is that the ideological divide remains as strong as ever and it’s all about austerity. When all the froth on the top of the argument is scraped off the boiling pot of ideas, the cauldron contains just two ingredients. It’s an old recipe. There are the revolutionaries and the evolutionaries. These two groups are now acting like an old married couple who probably should get divorced. In public their marriage is strong, founded on true love and fidelity. In private, they sleep in separate beds, do not really talk to one another in any meaningful way and sometimes sleep around with people who shouldn’t be in the marriage at all. They’ve organised a mediation process for themselves but keep postponing it. Seriously. That last bit wasn’t a metaphor!
This weekend the national Green Party’s conference comes to Brighton. Although the debates will be arranged around various topics, all eyes and ears will be focused on the local arguments. The tension is at an all time high. If the national party can give a clear and consistent steer to the local party, there is a chance that they won’t have had their last supper and won’t lose their precious shared cup. However it is only a slim chance because another factor comes into play, which does not exist in other political parties.
That factor is the Greens worship of independence of thought. From its inception to the present day, a refusal to adopt any decent system of party discipline has been axiomatic for the Greens. Thus, they have consistently attracted and championed people whose individual consciences are more important to them than party policy. Witness, the debacle of Councillor Christina Summers, who has been expelled from the local Green Group of councillors for campaigning against gay marriage and the right to abortion but who is allowed to remain in the party and even gets a vote on who leads the Green Group on the city council! Others would cite your not so humble correspondent as further proof of the madness of this system. Conference isn’t about to suddenly adopt a more disciplined structure, it just isn’t in the members’ blood.
Consequently, there are now a number of Green Party councillors in Brighton & Hove who will walk away from the administration and thereby collapse it, if it chooses to oversee austerity. Whether they be Watermelons or Figs or others who don’t neatly fit into any convenient fruity nomenclature, there are sufficient numbers of them to guarantee that the Green Party will not be connected with austerity. Whether there are enough of them to form a separate group with official recognition on the council remains to be seen but there are definitely enough to cancel the party’s grasp on power. They are not slavish toadies for whom power is more important than anything. If I were a betting man, I’d be down at the bookies betting the farmland I don’t own on this outcome. The current Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, Councillor Jason Kitcat, cannot oversee any form of austerity because of these people. They just won’t let him.
The real debate at this weekend’s Green Party conference won’t be about policy, it will be about the consequences of this political fact of life. The Liberal Greens will argue that such disunity in the party will destroy its political credibility permanently, that walking away from power when it became truly tough will forever be thrown in Green candidates’ faces. They’ll talk about that age old euphemism, ‘difficult choices’. The fruity brigade will talk about political purpose, idealism and their consciences. They’ll point to the Irish Green Party which committed electoral suicide by adopting austerity. Reaching a consensus at conference seems unlikely. These debates have been raging for years. Where is the messianic leadership figure, the killer argument or the sudden change of events which will sweep away all this disagreement? A week might be a long time in politics but conference is less than a week away. The next Green Party conference will be too late to deal with next year’s local budget.
To conclude the story of the Green Party now is terribly sad. Many of us have spent major portions of our lives on it. In my case, it is only a decade or so. Plenty others have devoted a lifetime to it. No-one wants to see our hopes and dreams die but, being free thinkers, none of us are in the party because we want to be in a tribe more than anything.
Luckily the story isn’t ended yet. Brighton Pavilion’s MP, Saint Caroline as even the local Labour Party members affectionately call her, has a very real chance of retaining her seat in the House of Commons. Voters in the recent Hanover and Elm Grove council by-election consistently told both Green and Labour canvassers that whilst they no longer supported the council which had provoked a bin strike, they would definitely vote for Caroline Lucas. With a very educated population ~ one-third of Brighton and Hove has a degree ~ we have a sophisticated electorate here. Caroline Lucas is expected to retain her seat. Her reputation might even get Davey Jones elected in Kemptown; he’s an excellent candidate and could well benefit by association with her.
However, the central problem of connecting Green Party politics with the lives of most people remains. Brighton & Hove has poverty but feels itself to be a couple of very middle class towns. The Greens have not managed to appeal to large numbers of working class voters around the country. When the split in the council comes ~ make no mistake, it will come ~ the chances of the Greens appealing to other communities gets farther out of reach. Who wants to vote for a party which doesn’t just fail to do what it says on the tin but doesn’t even have one particular product inside the tin? For all the complaints about parties being too powerful, people don’t want to vote for a random collection of people masquerading as a party. To be fair on the Greens, they have fallen into the trap of almost all new groups. They made assumptions about what united them. When tested, these assumptions proved to be false.
Whether the party can survive the coming bust up is very much in doubt. Make no mistake, there will be a bust up. If it doesn’t survive, Britain desperately needs a strong, disciplined and principled party of the Left to make good the case against capitalism.
Whether Left Unity will become that party, only time will tell. If the Green Party imposes austerity, many members will leave. With their number, the Greens will lose most of their activists, most of their ideas merchants and their best candidates. If these people choose to join Left Unity, it will gain a sudden boost in highly experienced activists and the possibility of a serious challenge to Blue Labour.
If the Green Party doesn’t impose austerity and can unite around that decision, it will prove itself to the people as a political force providing an alternative vision. It will still have something worth saying. Something that the majority of people want to hear. It will find that its traditional slogan, ‘fair is worth fighting for’, resonates with radical thinkers and reasonable people everywhere, rather than becoming just another another cheesy soundbite.