Sunday, October 11, 2009

For God's sake Germany, what at are you thinking?

Alright I'm annoyed now, the bloody German Greens are mucking about. In Saarland, a German region of over a million people, there have been crucial coalition negotiations taking place between all five Parliamentary parties.

Due to the close nature of the vote the Greens, who got just less than 6% regionally and have just three representatives on the state Parliament, had become the power brokers deciding whether there would be a left-wing SPD / Die Linke / Green coalition or a right-wing CDU / FDP / Green block (pictured) to rule the area. A choice between what was called the red, red, green option or the Jamaican coalition (after the colours of the parties).

Oskar Lafontaine even stood down as national party leader of Die Linke and from national Parliament a few days ago in order to pay more specific attention to the area. This surprise move was greeted by Greens as more of a hindrance than a help and it's clear there is some personal animosity between the Greens and Lafontaine who was a government minister during the SPD/Green national coalition a few year ago. Green regional leader Hubert Ulrich said of the man and his party "I don't trust this man or this party at all".

The Green Party voted today by 117 to 32 to enter the right-wing coalition where they will take the education and environment ministries. I will go on record here and now that this is a really stupid decision which I suspect the party will come to regret at a national level if not a local one. It's not as stupid as the equivalent Irish decision, where they linked themselves to a corrupt and tarnished right-wing government, but it's still short term thinking and, frankly, distasteful.

I understand why they might be hesitant to form the 'red-red-green' coalition as they are suspicious of Die Linke's connections with the old regime in the East, which are not inconsiderable. Add to this the fact that the SPD is a failing organisation that is hemorrhaging support and a left coalition does not look that tasty.

To my mind refusing the one does not mean embracing the other. It's one thing to say you don't want to work with a mash up between New Labour and the apparatchiks of a dead Stalinist state but since when were the Tories and a neo-con version of the Liberals a better alternative?

Haven't they heard of Scotland? Make them work for your support but don't get married to the buggers. A couple of government posts will never make up for the fact that you'll be dancing to their tune, not the other way round.


James Mackenzie said...

Jim, I'm going to have to object to this on a couple of grounds.

First, this kind of backseat driving is the downside of being a global movement, frequently exhibited even by people formerly in leadership roles in GPEW. The Saarland Greens had a vote (just as the Irish Greens did) and they know their own circumstances better than you or I do.

Second, there are no good coalitions - all other parties have their problems, and none are ever likely to be easy to work with. In Scotland we went straight into what would have been coalition talks in 2007. If the Liberals had played ball we'd be in a three-party coalition with them and the SNP.

You can probably imagine where the difficulties would have flowed from that too. But we didn't get into this to spend our lives in opposition, and we're unlikely to get a majority any time soon - a PR system makes that almost impossible.

As you say, though, the Germans have it worse than most. Their Liberals are even more right-wing than ours, and many amongst their socialists had close ties to the Stasi. Maybe not allowing a majority of either side is the best outcome, as you suggest, but I really would argue against either of us knowing better.

Jim Jay said...

Our first row! :)

I think my first point is that I comment on events all over the world so unless all reporting on international affairs is backseat driving I don't think this is.

The fact that what the German Greens do directly effects the kinds of discussions I have just means I'm more interested in that than whether the Finnish Liberals have gone into coalition with someone or other.

At the Europeans I had to field questions about the German and Irish Greens with voters on the doorstep so I think it's only fair that if they do something irritating then I should be allowed to comment on it. Not that this was the number one topic obviously, but it did come up and it does effect our standing.

Second point is that although they certainly have a closer understanding of the players concerned I've been following this and entering into a coalition with the very right-wing FDP is not acceptable.

We ran on a platform of greater regulation of the financial sector, for example, they are down the line laissez faire capitalists. We have no say in the financial dealings of Saarland and they do.

We have a very weak hand here and my reaction might have been mollified if they were the junior partner but they aren't and our influence here is minimal. It's also being seen as a prelude to a potential national coalition. That spells bad news.

Lastly on your point about no good coalitions. I disagree. There are good coalitions and there are parties with which we share a good portion of ideals, although not all obviously as they'd be no need for separate parties.

I'm in no way opposed to coalitions, even with parties I don't like. However, they are one of the trickiest parts of politics and it's important for us to examine the tactics and the strategy around them so that should we be put in this position (not impossible on Lewisham council for example) we're prepared.

So my defense is this;

a) it's news. I discuss news.
b) it effects the political discussions I have whether I raise it or not.
c) I want them to do well.
d) discussing the issues around coalitions helps prepare us if we are ever in the position of being offered a seat at the coalition table.
e) the example of Ireland shows that a Green Party can destroy itself by making the wrong decision - I would seek to prevent my own party repeating such errors by learning from them.

Matt Sellwood said...

I agree with Jim, though my position is even more extreme. I believe that it is extremely dificult to push forward really effective Green politics in *most* coalitions, because our assumptions are (or at least should be) so completely different from status quo politics.

It is clearly impossible to push forward Green politics (big g) in coalition with parties like the FDP and CDU, because their assumptions about the nature of happiness, wealth, progress etc are totally opposite to ours. Unless you think that the apotheosis of Green politics is bunging some solar panels on roofs while leaving the underlying economic system untouched, in which case we shouldn't be in the same party.

I still think we should seriously be considering leaving the EGP, because so many of its member parties make decisions like this - not just decisions with which I politically disagree....but decisions which reveal them to have a fundamentally different understanding of the scale of the change required to get to a sustainable society.

Just my tuppence.


Red Green Nick said...

The experience of Greens in coalition with the right hasn't been a happy one, look at the Republic of Ireland or the Czech Republic recently.
I agree with Matt we should consider if EGP membership is right for us.

Jim Jay said...

Good piece in DS here.

Also should add chatted to a German Green about this this morning... not happy at all.

ModernityBlog said...

Good piece Jim, I think you hit the nail on the head with "but it's still short term thinking and, frankly, distasteful."

That *is* the problem with politics, it often involves short term partisan thinking, it is unavoidable.

All it shows is that Greens are as fragile as others in that respect, the lure of power normally beats chest beating principles when push comes to shove.

PS: Keep covering international issues, ignore any stupidity about "backseat driving", you have a every right and a duty to make valid political criticism of your own comrades.

Mark said...

Have to agree with James here. The context, don't forget, is that Bündnis 90/Die Grünen would much prefer to work with the SPD than the CDU/FDP. However they don't have the choice to work solely with the social democrats due to the electoral maths.

Jim says the Greens are "suspicious of Die Linke's connections with the old regime in the East, which are not inconsiderable". I think both ‘suspicious’ and ‘not inconsiderable’ are fairly major understatements. Lothar Bisky, the co-chair of the Die Linke is a former Stasi informer, and the party infrastructure largely comes from the old Socialist unity party that ran the GDR. Don’t forget as well that the Bündnis 90 party of the German party’s name refers to the fact the current party came from a merger between the West German Greens and the East German Alliance 90, which was formed of groups campaigning aginst the East German regime. These people don’t have fond memories of the Stasi and Socialist Unity Party! Many in the German Greens therefore view the Linke as inheritors of the worst traditions of repressive Stalinism.

In terms of Matt’s comments. when I have talked to German greens about die linke, a paraphrase of their response would be “It is clearly impossible to push forward Green politics (big g or small g) in coalition with Die Linke, because their assumptions about the nature of happiness, wealth, progress etc are totally opposite to ours”. However, they did see a deal as being possible with the SPD, and claim that the successes of SPD/Green Coalitions, from the first one in 1985 onwards, have delivered successes and help make sure Germany is further down the track than the UK towards the kind of changes we need.

But, as James said, there are no 100% good coalitions because otherwise we wouldn’t be standing as separate parties. But by standing at all you lay yourself open to being part of a coalition. The New Zealand and Swedish Greens both went for the option of supporting minority government, rather than taking Ministries – they regarded this as in some ways the worst of both worlds.

I don’t think there are easy answers, I don’t envy the Saar Greens for the situation they are in, but I do value being in the European Greens so that at the very least we can learn from other, similar parties what works and what doesn’t.


Jim Jay said...

My impression from New Zealand was that it had worked quite well, but I don't follow it very closely so may be wrong.

I think it's one thing to say that they could not have formed the red-red-green coalition (which is a shame, but I see the factors as to why that might be the case) it's quite another to enter into a coalition with the right - particularly when the Saarland Green leader seems to be being ostentatiously smug about the whole thing.

My concern is that in the longer term this will undermine both the membership of the Greens nationally (who are bitterly opposed to the liberals) and our vote more generally.

However, unlike the Irish at least they seem to be getting something out of the deal, but for me that's a small crumb of comfort.

I've always been open about the fact that if I lived in a different country I would not automatically be a member of the Greens there. Germany is one of those places where, whilst still having some very good people in their ranks, I'd be far less likely to actually join them.

Jim Jay said...

RE: membership of the European Greens, this probably deserves it's own post but I'll do it here for now...

Chatted to Jean Lambert tonight about this and I found her thoughts very useful.

Leaving the EGP means one of two things for our MEPs. Either we become independent which means we lose all ability to influence, write and amend what the EU is doing as so much of the action takes place in the committees, etc. which, as we'd be sitting with the BNP et al we would not be on.

Or find another group to be part of. The nearest thing to us is the United Left which involves people like the Greek Communist Party, French Communists, Sinn Fein etc.

There's two problems. Firstly their politics. It would mean affiliating ourselves to groups that are, for example, for nuclear power. Ditching one set of problem policies for a different set isn't a recipe for happiness. The second problem is their approach.

The GPEW does what's called critical engagement. We're not fans of the institution but we work to make things less bad when they're bad, more good when they're good and try to democratise the thing in general. It's an attractive approach that I admired long before I joined the Greens. The United Left oppose everything, which is more satisfying but ultimately a very sterile approach.

Red Green Nick said...

you are right that there isn't an obvious home for the GPEW if we leave the EGP. Perhaps the best we can do is co-operate across the shifting groups in the European, where we can find like minded people ,whether they are European Greens, or part of the more "traditional" left.

The Leveller said...


I agree with your criticisms of the German Greens, of course,. While it is true that some leading members of Die Linke are have rather unsavoury political backgrounds (though not, I would have thought, in the Saarland), the Green leadership is happy to get into bed with right wing parties who want to attack welfare rights, attack immigrants and who support the war in Afghanistan. Oh, I forgot, unlike Die Linke, the Greens also support the war! To see the only anti capitalist party around as an irreconcilable enemy and all three of the right wing parties (including the extreme neo-liberal FDP) as potential allies speaks volumes about the Greens’ opportunist politics. And it is that rootless opportunism that has determined their attitude to Die Linke, as they obviously see it – with some justification – as a serious rival for the niche in the political ecology which they currently seek to inhabit; the default home for dissidents and radicals. I suspect that the leadership of the Greens are worried that were to ally themselves to Die Linke they would be in grave danger of having much of their activist base leaching away to the left.

As far as the EGP is concerned, if our MEPs were to sit as ‘unattached’ they would lose a significant amount of funding, which is only given to members of groups of a certain size and composition. While it is true the EUL-NGL is a coalition including a number of ex Stalinist (and one or two pretty unreconstructed stalinist) parties, it also includes a number of much more interesting groups, including the Dutch Socialist Party, the Portugese Left Bloc and the parties that constitute the Nordic Green Left and – yes – Sinn Fein. Remember, the EGP bloc is also a coalition that includes several nationalist parties (some better than others) and a number of Green parties with which we have nothing at all in common, apart from the name. While I am not suggesting a switch of groups, if the Danish Socialist Peoples Party can be a member of the Green group, I can’t see any reason why a Green party couldn’t be a member of the left Socialist group. Personally, I would like to see a coming together of the two groups, as in practice they work pretty closely together already.


David Cox said...

Aren’t you seeing politics in one dimensional left/right economic terms? What ever happen to slogan ‘The Green Party is not Left or Right, but out in front’.

The German Greens may be further apart from the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei) in economic terms than they are from the SPD and even the CDU. However they share almost identical policies on freedom, civil liberties, and even citizens’ income and gay rights.

Jim you had a link to a leaflet Croydon Greens gave out at a Co-op party event, featuring a chart from (Tories picket Green Party meeting 6th October) the closest party to the GPEW on the economic left/right axis was the BNP! Needless to say the GPEW is the furthest away from the BNP on the authoritarianism/freedom axis. I suspect the German Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) view Die Linkspartei in the same terms as GPEW see the BNP. As Mark has said, Alliance 90 (Bündnis 90) have had personal experience of an authoritarian left regime.

But it isn’t just Die Linkspartei co-chair Lothar Bisky’s links to the Stasi, Oskar Lafontaine is a red rag (please forgive the pun) in Saarland. As the German Ecology Party (Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei, ÖDP) have pointed out from a small ‘g’ green prospective, Oskar Lafontain is not someone anyone claiming to be an environmentalist would want to be associated with. From 1985 to 1998 he served as SPD prime minister of the Saarland; supporting the smokestack, big polluting industries of the state with large subsidies whilst the FDP and Greens were arguing for investment in diversification into ‘cleaner’ industries.

David Cox said...

Erich Honecker came from Saarland, and Oskar Lafontaine has been seen as an apologist for Honecker’s crimes.

Jim Jay said...

Personally I'm not arguing for a red-red-green coalition. It would have been an interesting development if the Greens had gone for it but I can see why they are hesitant for the reasons outlined by various people here. On this I'm happy to defer to their judgment.

However, the slogan ‘The Green Party is not Left or Right, but out in front’ is not one I've ever subscribed to and the terms left and right do have meaning - although politics is obviously more complex than an abstract linear axis.

I don't think the GPEW and the BNP share an economic analysis and the limitations of these axis' is that when you have a unique paradigm like the Greens it's hard to represent accurately.

The SPD certainly are not in any position to criticise forming a block with the CDU that they themselves were in partnership with until the election - but the FDP are a very different kettle of fish.

The CDU/FDP are committed to some things we'd all agree with, for example the continued rolling back of nuclear power, but the economic policies are just too problematic. These are not parties of social justice and I'd argue that the Greens have to be in order to deserve support.

By going into coalition with them, rather than remaining independent, as the German Young Greens are arguing, we are tied to an economic framework that we should be vigorously opposing and, in more electoral terms will taint us.

That doesn't necessarily mean a coalition with SPD/Die Linke but that doesn't mean the Greens should not be a party of the left.

DarrenJ said...

What would I have done had I been a Green member in the Saarland State Parliament rather than the London Assembly?

I can understand the Greens' relucantance to cosy up to Die Linke but in terms of political positioning and long-term strategy I think it's madness to get in bed with the right-of-centre CDU and FDP. Therefore, I would have voted in favour of an SPD/DL Government but argued against Greens actually taking seats in the Government. Instead, I would have wanted to use the very considerable negotiating muscle inherent in the arithmetic to get the SPD/DL government to support key Green Party demands, while leaving the party to support or oppose the Government on an issue by issue basis.

Easy really.

Darren Johnson AM

Matt Sellwood said...


Going to go have a lie down. :)