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The Green surge: explaining it and countering it

green_surgeThis week, with 5000 new members, it is reported that the Green parties of Britain (the Scottish Green Party is wholly independent of that in England and Wales) overtook both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats in membership.

In many ways, the surge in Green Party membership is more significant and remarkable than the rise of UKIP. Consider the people bleaters for a moment. Since about 2011 this has been the anti-establishment party the establishment can’t get enough of. Every advantage has been afforded them. The backing of certain papers, wall-to-wall rolling news coverage, loads of slots on Question Time. Fair or foul, the media lit a rocket under UKIP’s arse and hundreds of thousands of people have taken notice.

The Greens have had none of this. Their media profile is lower, they have no army of pub bores exclaiming their merits down the old spit ‘n’ sawdust, and yet this week the Green Party’s membership across the UK has overtaken UKIP’s and the Liberal Democrats’. Who knows where the Greens would be if they had the kind of exposure UKIP now take for granted?

Is this purely because of the extra coverage received by the Greens after Dave’s chicken refusal to participate in the leaders’ debates unless Natalie Bennett is given a slot? No. As Adam Ramsey points out in a handy graph, there has effectively been a two-step increase in Green membership during 2014. A modest surge – as you might expect – around the time of the European elections, and then a second beginning around the time of the Scottish independence referendum and Labour conference and snowballing from there.

Part of this is reactive. For many people who’ve signed up, UKIP is the very worst of British politics. Everything that is stupid and racist, Farage and co have that market cornered. One way to hit back is to not fall behind Stand Up to UKIP, the SWP’s latest exercise in guilty liberalism and bandwagon jumping, but to sign up for a party that is the antithesis of the purples’ dumb bigotry. Whatever one thinks of the Green Party’s programme, they make a virtue of being evidence-led. Be it climate change, anti-austerity, renationalisation, and so on they have a stronger case than any of the other parties – and that includes Labour – that they have adopted policies not just because they’re popular, but because they fit the needs of the moment. That the to tell the truth is somehow a radical thing speaks volumes of the state official politics is in.

The Green surge can be seen as an aftershock of the Scottish referendum rumble. As we know, the pro-independence parties did very well out of their “defeat”. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) put on a thousand members, the Scottish Greens a few thousand, and the SNP surged to 90,000 plus. In the main, the joiners were people politicised and, in some cases, radicalised by the campaign. These are left folks fed up with austerity, fed up with having policies imposed on them they didn’t vote for, and appalled by the way official politics in the rest of the UK is always happy to wallow in the gutter. In England and Wales, it’s people with very similar attitudes who are swelling the Greens’ ranks. They’ve looked beyond the border and have seen that a viable alternative to austerity and austerity-lite is politically possible and electorally viable, and they want to see some of that here.

The Greens are successively filling the political space that exists for a small left alternative on the political spectrum. The far left, unlike elsewhere, have completely failed to live up to the opportunities that exist. They’re either hopeless, as per the case of Left Unity and their fixation on getting procedure right and passing resolutions no one cares about, or useless as per the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, who approach class politics as if it’s the 1970s and persist seeing workers as economistic robots solely concerned with wages and cuts to public services. Their ingrained dismalism is a boon to the Greens.

While at the same time there are people – usually on the right of Labour – saying that we must “understand” the “genuine concerns” UKIP voters have, no such leeway is afforded the Greens. Many are the times I’ve been told that they’re “not socialists”; are “misanthropic”, caring more about badgers than people; as well as swear words like “Brighton City Council” and “sandals”. I think we need to get a grip. Horror stories are good pub fodder but seldom the basis for sensible political strategy. Are there some deep Green types still in the party? Undoubtedly. Are they the majority? No, and they haven’t been significant as a factional attractor for a long time. Nor are they appealing to misfits, oddballs and, for want of a better phrase, the ‘socially dislocated’. They articulate the interests of a growing, rising strata whose emergence is deeply embedded in thedevelopment and contradictions of all advanced capitalist countries. To win elections Labour has to speak to, respond, and win over this increasingly important constituency.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The Greens represent a threat to Labour’s electoral prospects, yet the party can see them off, but only if it seriously wants to. Whereas UKIP offers backward-looking nostalgia for a Britain that never existed, the Greens offer the hope of something better. Labour, unfortunately, does not. Ed Miliband talks frequently of under-promising and over-delivering yet this is still managerial politics, of running things slightly more efficiently and fairly than the Tories. Such is electoral politics, that’s where most of the voters are at. And this is Labour’s biggest strength when facing any of the minor parties. In seats where a Green vote pulls many potential voters away from Labour it is the Tories who will benefit, and that can be stated boldly between now and election day.

Green voters aren’t stupid, either. As the most politically engaged and literate of all the various parties’ voters, they know this too. Large numbers of them, perhaps just enough, are amenable to this lesser evil argument and come May will vote Labour in the tight marginals. This trick, however, can only be done once. Supposing Labour does win and implements the policies so far unveiled, but nothing else, that will not be a sufficiently high bar to neutralise the Greens come 2020 or whenever the next election comes round.

To permanently eliminate them as a contender, Labour must redouble its efforts on climate change and education, and crucially – most crucially of all in fact – pursue policies that tackle insecurity and eliminate the blight of social anxiety. Hardly the stuff of which Winter Palace storming is made of, but by acting in the general interest, the interest of the overwhelming majority of people (or the ‘Common Good’ as the Greens put it) Labour can ensure the Greens, as well as UKIP and the SNP, are put in a box. The prize may be even as great as a permanent majority. But again, only if Labour wants it.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image by Left Futures with thanks to Green Surge dietary supplements

3 Comments

  1. A good article! If Labour has started taking these ideas seriously three years ago they would have been able to see off the Green threat (if ‘threat’ is the right word) – but they were too committed to the Slightly Better Than The Tories strategy to even consider it. It’s a shame, but at least it’ll make for a genuinely interesting election!

  2. Green Chris says:

    I’m glad to see some in the Labour Party are more comfortable with the rise of the greens than others. But you loose me on the last paragraph. One party cannot be everything to the majority. It goes against everything we know about human nature. Those within labour need to understand that greens are not the enemy. Your leadership who inprisons you within the two party system are. All the Labour leadership offer so a ‘we will be a more caring version of the conservative’. NO, Labour should be free to be labour, what you it’s members want it to be, not what you think you can convince the electorate is palatable. Free yourself from being the ‘not Tory’ party, and let us bring the uk into the 21st century.

  3. David Ellis says:

    The Greens are even less anti-establishment than UKIP and they are not anti-establishment at all. The Greens are re-badged Lib Dems and their surge in membership is due to the refugees from that exploded illusion looking for another pseudo radical home.

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