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How Labour can see off the Greens

2r5uue9Political parties are always coalitions of interests, and nowhere is that truer than in our dear old Westminster parliament: practically the last bastion of winner-takes-all parliamentary elections in the world. All it takes to form a majority government is 325 seats, a feat that can be managed without winning an absolute majority of votes. And so to win our parties have to build up blocs of support, and do so by appealing to certain interests.

The Tories traditionally cornered the market in business, big and small, a managerial section of the middle class and a smattering of working class voters for whom individual, not collective self-interest mattered most. Labour’s core coalition was always a key section of the professional and public sector-oriented middle class, as well as the bedrock of the labour movement. And the smaller parties, the Liberals, the nationalists, they’ve had to get by on those left outside.

Now the coalitions comprising the two main parties are fragmenting. The process is quite advanced regards the Tories as UKIP gobbles up the rural reactionaries and anti-Labour working class voters. But Labour is also vulnerable and has to start paying proper attentionto its sociological roots. A nod in this direction, albeit only on the level of electoral competition, is the announcement that Sadiq Khan is heading up Labour’s anti-Green Party strategy. Complementing a similar initiative looking at the UKIP threat, this is a smart move. However, given the policy menu Labour has so far revealed it’s probable any recommendations Sadiq and co come up with will not stymie the Greens permanently. The best we can hope for is a rearguard action before May next year.

Reasons to be pessimistic? There’s plenty. Firstly, the Greens are part of a rising constituency Labour needs to win. Historically, it has been able to do just that. But the party’s continuing commitment to austerity-lite and softer market fundamentalism in health, public transport and education imperils this. Far, far too many on the front bench have either forgotten or do not know that markets are not a technocratic mechanism for delivering public services. Markets are fields of power. Every private provider makes profit by skimming off a margin for its shareholders, and does this by driving down costs in the service they deliver.

There are more than one ways to skin a cat, but usually it’s done by reducing the staffing bill by redundancy, wage reductions and/or imposition of new terms. In other words our people in public services, from professionals to support staff find themselves bearing the costs of so-called “efficiencies” So immediately you have a chunk of more-or-less loyal Labour support who have a material interest in not supporting the party that supposedly represents them, but will find their hopes and concerns expressed in Green Party policy. The Tories have never made the mistake of hammering their core business constituency. It’s about time Labour learned a similar lesson.

Second, as noted by the Graun, Green voters tend to be among the most engaged of Britain’s electorate. This echoes findings of 30-odd years worth of research on Green Parties across the world. For example, Paul Lichterman‘s 1996 classic The Search of Political Community found Green activists and supporters tended to be or have been involved in a variety of political causes. The consistent feature of their activism was something he called ‘personalism’. This was an individuated (but not individualist) approach to politics in which a Green activist undertook party activism as one commitment amongst many.

What mattered most was not so much party or movement building, as per labour movement traditions, but the diffusion of a values frame among wider layers of people. What you might call consciousness raising. Filtered through to electorates, there’s long been a section of relatively affluent, well-educated voters who have a similar personalist approach to conventional politics. This so-called post-materialist bloc are likely to pick and choose support on the basis of values and beliefs any socialist would find progressive. Putting Labour and the Greens side-by-side, whose programme appears more appealing to this layer of people?

Lastly, because the social landscape has been reshaped before our very eyes, the terrain on which every election battle is fought differs greatly from the previous skirmish. Political scientists generally make great play of the difference between first and second order elections. The latter, comprising of local, European, assembly and by-elections “don’t matter” because the only one that does is the one election that decides who governs every four or five years.

In Britain this usually manifests itself in higher turnouts and a solidification of support around one of the two natural parties of government. That will be no different next year, albeit with one major caveat. First order elections are starting to look like second order elections. In 1979 Labour and the Tories had 80.8% of votes cast between them. In 1997 it was 73.9% and at 2010 it was 65.1%. Voters increasingly aren’t playing by the rules, and there’s no reason to believe next year will be any different. 

Unfortunately for us that means attacks along the lines of “vote green get blue” and playing the lesser evil card is unlikely to sway nearly as many progressive-but-peed-off voters as on previous occasions. When they perceive a Labour Party responding to UKIP’s rise by tacking right on immigration and social security, now the Greens are an increasingly credible proposition electorally speaking, they might well vote for something they do want rather than something they don’t.

But all is not lost. The challenge posed by the Greens is nowhere near that currently rending the Tories. It’s rather a problem storing up big trouble for the future. It might damage our chances in 17 seats now, but that will be much bigger come 2020. The thing is winning over Green voters permanently doesn’t even entail a lurch into electorally whiffy ultra-leftism. Tackling marketised chaos and insecurity in the public sector is hardly storming the Winter Palace. And putting front and centre realisable social democratic policies with cross constituency appeal would be a massive help. Such as abolishing tuition fees, for example.

Labour has to move from the propaganda of the word to the propaganda of the deed if it is to win, win, and win again. That’s the choice. Change tack, stop attacking our base and developing a popular programme of social democratic transformation. Or carry on with a programmatic mix of the good, the bad and the ugly and see a section of our coalition melt away to the Greens. What’s it to be?

This article first appeared in All that is Solid


  1. David Ellis says:

    The Greens are the Lib Dems re-marketed. They are devoid of principles and in Germany have all but disappeared. The Tories like to call them Melons i.e. green on the outside but if you look a little deeper red to the core. This is rubbish and designed to ensure that it is Labour votes that the Greens opportunistically nick. But of course it is New Labour who are making it very easy for the Greens with the help of the Tories to undermine their vote. There is only one way to prevent this and it is to tell the truth. The only way to save the environment for human habitation is by ending capitalism and establishing socialism. The Labour Party needs to be red on the outside and green on the inside. The opposite of a melon. I can’t think of an analagous fruit or object to fit that bill at the moment. But of course we all know that the chances of New Labour being principled are zero. For the Lib Dems power is far more important than principles. For New Labour power without principles is an absolute necessity.

  2. swatantra says:

    The Greens are potentially more of a threat to Lbaoiur than UKIP are. True some unreconstructed working class will veer towards UKIP, but many of the socially conscious and caring will move towards the Green as a 2nd choice, particularly if we have PR. Its those 2nd choice votes that will begin to mount upnand possibly push the Greens to the fore; they could end up holding the balance of power, just like the Lib Dems or UKIP in future Parliaments.
    Som its wiser to steal some the Greens thunder and go all out to protect the environment.

  3. Phil says:

    Echoing both of these comments, the Greens are undoubtedly a) a second vehicle for protest-politics Lib Dems and b) far, far more of a threat to Labour’s base than UKIP (the ‘traditional’ working class that the nastier policies are mistakenly aiming to please, as well as the more substantial new working classes and left-leaning middle classes).

    Labour should take the Greens as an opportunity to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask itself (and ourselves) what the party stands for. If we can’t back a public NHS, public railways, social equality and a living wage (not to mention a loudly espoused environmental policy), what’s the point of Labour as a party?

    Sadly, the only fruit that is mostly red with a hint of green is as far as I’m aware the slightly obscure dragon fruit…though a bit of fire is exactly what Labour needs.

  4. James Martin says:

    What a depressingly right-wing article this is – who said New Labour was dead!

    If you see social progress as a cynical exercise at ‘triangulating’ policies and votes only then Phil has done a wonderful job.

    But let’s talk about wider issues and how they can be pushed forward. So for example, has it been a good or a bad thing that Caroline Lucas has been an MP or not? Would it have been better to have a probably invisible Labour one in her place? Has her presence helped the remaining left-Labour MPs in parliament with whom she has worked closely on a number of key issues? And has she been able to give a wider publicity to some of those key issues (opposing imperialist interventions, opposing Trident, defending public services, renationalising railways etc.)?

    The point here is that often left groups and parties (or in this case a party that finds itself on the left due to the extreme rightward move of Labour over the past couple of decades) can help rather than hinder the fight for socialist ideas inside the Labour Party and in wider society (which is after all why we are all here, isn’t it Phil?), due to the pull they can exert and the fact that the Party then either tracks further right or it needs to take on the issues and ideas that are attracting significant sections of voters (particularly among younger voters).

    And that’s a good thing, not bad. So rather than this New Labour approach from Phil I would argue that the way to beat the Greens is very simple and bleeding obvious – adopt socialist policies!

  5. David Melvin says:

    So the Labour party is to set a unit headed by Sadiq Khan not to take on the Tories, LibDems or UKIP; but the Greens – the only credible party to the left of Labour. As in the Scottish referendum showed the Labour party leadership appear more comfortable with the right.

    We all know that New Labour never went away under Ed Miliband, it was simply rebranded as One Nation Labour. This is why the opinion polls today put the Greens on 8% above the LibDems 7% and why socialists are joining the Greens rather than the neo-liberal led Labour party.

    As James Martin rightly says Caroline Lucas has an excellent track record in Parliament in supporting left causes and has worked closely with Left Labour MP’s: yet Labour have targeted her Brighton seat with a Progress faction candidate!

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      David: I sympathise with your objections, as a Labour Party member who finds little to disagree with in the programme of the Green Party and who would be very sorry to see Westminster lose Caroline Lucas who has indeed “an excellent track record in Parliament in supporting left causes and has worked closely with Left Labour MP’s“. And I’m never pleased by the selection of a Progress-supporting Labour candidate.

      I don’t especially disagree with your analysis of what’s wrong with Labour. The difference between us is the I think that trying to change Labour into a vehicle for socialism is a better strategy for actually bring about socialist transformation than joining the Greens – at the moment anyway. But that does require Labour to win, including against Green candidates which is what the article was about though actually neither Phil BC nor I are especially confident that Labour is yet close to being able to win Green supporters back.

  6. swatantra says:

    The clue is in the name ‘Greens’. If Lucas were standing as a Labour candidate then we’ed all be behind her; but she’s opposing an official Labour candidate and thats why she’s fair game.

  7. Frank Turner says:

    Please visit or research what’s going on in Brighton & Hove before commenting on our experience of the hopeless and wasteful Green-Tory administration here. NB: this is a factual comment – the Greens have relied on Tory votes to, for example, just last week, privatise our award-winning NHS Substance Misuse Service, as well as to push through the reorganisation plan which continues to cause chaos with rubbish & recycling services. Even the most basic of green aspirations remain unfulfilled as local recycling rates have actually fallen while the Council has been under Green control. If B&H didn’t have to wait 4 years for elections, the Greens would have been long gone by now.

    Caroline Lucas may be a good campaigner – if she’s interested in your issue, otherwise you won’t hear a thing – but she is not a good constituency MP as local people have found out to their cost. She has been the MP for Caroline Lucas and no one else.

    Before endorsing Lucas as a socialist bear in mind her encouragement for “community clean-ups” during the local bin strikes; ie, strike-breaking by any other name given that the refuse workers had issued a request for local people not to do this. After all, what point workers withdrawing their labour if others come along and undertake the work voluntarily?

    Labour’s candidate for 2015, Purna Sen, is not Progress, has the support of the Labour Left including Jeremy Corbyn MP who she previously worked with, and has made policy commitments which all socialists would applaud. People should also recall that Nancy Platts, who Lucas stopped from becoming our MP in 2010, is a committed socialist and has led the call for rail renationalisation among Labour MPs and PPCs.

    We hope to elect two committed socialists to parliament from Brighton in 2015 – Purna Sen in Pavilion and Nancy Platts in Kemp Town. We wish people from outside the town, who hear nothing but media spin – which the Greens are highly skilled at manipulating – would stop undermining our efforts.

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