Saturday, June 05, 2010

Those right-wing Greens

There's nothing particularly left-wing about caring about the environment. I know plenty of Tories who are passionate about tackling climate change for instance. And when I say plenty I mean two, but I've no reason to doubt their sincerity. In fact conservationism, the movements to preserve the lesser spotted voles of Dingle Wood and chums, has often been the preserve of the more conservative elements of society.

The Charter of the Global Greens sees Green Party politics as something far wider than simply caring about the environment. The six core strands are "Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Participatory Democracy, Nonviolence, Sustainability, Respect for Diversity" which looks to four movements; "the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the labour movement."

In other words the politics of the Green Parties around the world are not just about single issue campaigning, there is a specific and integrated political philosophy even if, like all parties, this is often realised in very different ways in different countries.

Internationally each Green Party has a unique history as well as common political ground.

In Holland the franchise is called the Green Left and was formed in 1989 by a merger of the Communist Party of the Netherlands, Pacifist Socialist Party, the Political Party of Radicals and the Evangelical People's Party. In Denmark the Green sister party is the Socialistisk Folkeparti, or Socialist People's Party, a party formed decades ago by leading Communist Party members who'd been expelled for opposing the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

These are left parties very comfortably nestled in the international brotherhood of tree huggers.

Ireland: Green suicide

Other parties have a more "deep green" history. The Irish Greens tell us that they were the brainchild, in 1981, of Christopher Fettes (right) who was "[a]ctive in the Vegetarian Society, the Esperanto movement and Friends of the Earth".

It's just speculation on my part but it may be that this eclectic collection of nice interests were not a strong enough foundation on which to stand when they were given the opportunity to prop up a discredited right-wing government without gaining any significant policy concessions.

Indeed the fact that they got into bed with Fianna Fáil at all when their leader at the time had gone into the election saying that he would not lead the party into such a coalition (he resigned in order to keep his word) was not just an electoral error of judgment it was, in my view, an unprincipled placing of seats at the table of government before the political purpose of the Green Party.

They placed the interests of the party above fighting for what they believed in. As one ex-member put it;
It has been painful, then, to observe the conduct of the Greens since they joined a coalition government with Fianna Fáil, Ireland's largest party, in 2007. Principles once regarded as sacrosanct have been abandoned, as the Greens have morphed from the party of education and equality into one that accepts cutbacks for schools, bailouts for feckless bankers and "civil partnerships" that deny gays and lesbians the same rights as heterosexuals.
That is not to say that the Irish Greens leap on each and every opportunity to steer right, far from it. John Gormley's Parliamentary speech on the Gaza flotilla this week is powerful stuff, for example, but you can't ignore the fact that the Irish Greens have embraced the kind of right-wing economic policies of cuts and privatisation that would make any self-respecting socialist's hair curl.

By seperating its own interests from the movements in which it should have been based the Greens in Ireland not only threw away their own political compass they discarded any reason for people to actually vote for them. They were heftily punished in last year's European and council elections more than halving their vote and seeing their representation slashed. You can't posture as a progressive force while selling your soul for a seat at the big man's table.

Czech mates chosen poorly

The Irish Greens are not alone in finding themselves out in the cold after unwise coalitions with the right. Czech Green leader Ondrej Liska, right, must know how they feel.

The Czech Greens had just started to make electoral headway achieving 6.3% in the 2006 elections, winning 6 of 200 Parliamentary seats. However, they used those votes to go into government with two right-wing parties, the Civic Democrats and the Christian Democrats, taking the education and environment ministries.

This year, after three years of association with corruption, mismanagement and instability, the Greens received just over a third of their previous vote and didn't win a single seat. In a year when all the parties of the establishment were being punished new and radical parties made great headway - the Greens found themselves on the wrong side of that division crashing and burning as a party of the stale elites rather than rising like the new political stars offering a new political direction, sadly further to the right.

For a party that's meant to be looking to the long term rather than the short termist PR approach of the old politics these are poor decisions. The argument may be that you have to take these opportunities in order to be 'influential' but in reality if you want to be an influential political force for the next twenty years going into the first coalition that comes your way and getting completely wiped out isn't wise.

In fairness to these parties it's not that they are natural parties of the right but that they weren't politically astute enough to see the traps and too opportunist to care that they were committing to fatally compromise a radical vision to a conservative ungreen future where a few Ministers wear sandals.

German examples

My last example, for sake of brevity (!) will be from Germany. Die Grünen is one of the largest Green Parties in the world and has its roots in the environmental, anti-nuclear and peace movements. Just to show that Green parties do not always go into coalition with the centre right in 1998 they went into a Red-Green coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Certainly this is not unusual. In France the coalition partners of choice are the Socialist Party, in Italy the Greens were an ultra-left part of the Prodi cabinet and when the coalition fell apart they joined forces with the hard left to contest the next elections, just as in Portugal the Greens there are all but merged with ex-Communist Party types.

That does not mean all went well, as before the ink was dry on the coalition deal we saw the launch of the Kosovan war courtesy of Mr Blair and Mr Clinton. The German government, including its bright and shiny Green Ministers supported the bombing. Understandably many previous supporters were disgusted and left the party. However whilst their vote dipped temporarily in the long term they were able to balance pragmatism with gaining electoral support.

The Greens also found the coalition difficult terrain to negotiate and many critics feel they were too ready to concede to the pro-business agenda of the SPD and could have, or should have, pushed for the dismantling of nuclear power stations more vigorously - it's difficult to know what was possible within the confines of the alliance but what is clear is that the experience has left the German Greens with burned fingers and on a local level some areas have begun to consider center-right coalition partners.

This is a process that's still in motion and hotly contested within the German party. Just as the leftist Die Linke has its different wings, the Greens have not become entirely consumed by either the respectability of government nor the logic of compromise that define the Irish and Czech experience, which may account for their record breaking representation in the Bundestag (right), but these tendencies exist and have real influence.

Green shoots and roots

The three very different examples I've given of Green Parties that leaned to the right share a number of factors. First, they were all in a strong enough position to become national players. Second, that they took the right fork in the road in a way that the Greens in Finland, Italy and Australia, for example, have not in similar situations. Third, these coalitions tend to be marriages of convenience rather than love. Fourth, that in each case it threw the party in question into a turmoil that only the Germans were able to survive meaningfully.

This could be because Green voters will forgive coalitions with Labour but not the Tories. Whatever the views of specific Green politicians the voting demographic of the Green Party is overwhelming to the left, pro-immigration, anti-war, and anti-privatisation.

While I'm not against coalitions in principle I do think there are two questions that should be considered. Are you strong enough to win concessions and do your partners share enough political ground with you. If the answer to either of these questions are no then you're better off fighting to build political support for your ideas outside the cabinet than trying to win ground inside of it.

I think it's a reasonable conclusion to say that in none of these cases were the Greens parties of the right, but the choices that they made in order to win government power made them indistinguishable from the parties of the right. It's also reasonable to say that all Green Parties have the same tendencies and currents within them that could pull them to the left or right.

That means that in Leeds when the Green councillors were in a position to forge alliances they have got into bed with the Tories and are now sleeping with Labour, the trollops. In other areas, like Lewisham, when offered a coalition with Labour in 2006 they refused in order to maintain political independence.

My tentative conclusions

In each of these cases I believe the fatal flaw was an inadequate relationship to the movements on which Green politics is supposed to be based which allowed party bigwigs to see their political decisions as boardroom maneuvers rather than a battle for a sustainable future. In other words they took a managerial approach to politics and this naturally pulled them to the right.

It's not an inevitable condition of government, but it is an ever present force. The Scottish Greens, for example, were right to keep an arms length approach to the SNP while refusing to pull the government down. Taking the decision to support or oppose on a case by case basis may not always reap rewards but over time the ability to take an independent line at least allows for the possibility of growth regardless of the fortunes of the ruling party.

In short all parties are effected by both the specific circumstances of the country they are based in and the repercussions of the decisions that they take. There is no such thing as an abstract political philosophy immune from the trials and tribulations of the world. The best we can do is arm ourselves with the facts and ensure we learn from them.


Dave Riley said...

We could add that this applies equally to any socialist outfit:"There is no such thing as an abstract political philosophy immune from the trials and tribulations of the world."

However, you sidestep one key element in your mix, Jim: the question of capitalism. That perhaps hAS some relevance don't you think?

Unless you consciously recognize that capitalism is a barrier to environmental sustainability and whatever, your advocacy and your strategy are always going to be contained within the confines of capitalism.

Thats' the green parties political myopia which sets them up to find accommodations within coalition manoevres and draws them away from movement campaigning into a electoral political preferences. In fact thats' the green parties' burden and their fatal flaw.

Because while parliament rules your activity, the green party right is always going to have a case for conservative politics.

Beniex said...

Well Jim, quite an interesting post, but some more information needs to be added to this picture, especially regarding the Czech Greens.

I am really sad to see their defeat - a result of a bad coalition, resulting in a flat tax, US radar plans etc. but regarding corruption they retained their image as the only party immune to that problem. The biggest problem for green politics in Central and Eastern Europe is that after years of Communism people and the media are far more to the right than in the West. In 2006, the electiorate of the Greens was far different than that in Germany - it was right-wing, pro-market, in fact the party policies were more to the left than the opinions of their electorate! The knowledge of living under Real Communism (or state capitalism, as some would say) makes thinking about abandoning capitalism quite, let's say, extraordinary and any policies other than "mending the system" are recalled as political suicide. The Greens in Poland are considered ofted radical, althoug we just question the failures of the market, ie. in public services.

I would also not say that every single coalition with the right is evil. In Finland the Greens are now in a centr-right coalition and it doesn't mean that the welfare state is crumbling there. Of course, nothing's perfect (nuclear station is being built there, but everey other party is for this investment to procede, so it's hard if not impossible to stop it), but I think it's more a question of the consistency of the party, it's alligment to the core, green values than simply a question of not going to bed with the right. As You could see, also the coalitions with the left can have sad moments (ie. SPD and Jugoslavia). But it's not to say that coalition possibilities as such should be ruled out. In Saarland, Greens made CDU and FDP to abandon tuition fees at universities and halt building any new coal mines - I think that's quite an achievement in pushing green policies.

Of course this doesn't mean that I urge You to aid the Conservatives, luckily in the UK You have better option (including building a strong party) than in Poland ;)

Wishing You all the best

Unknown said...

There's an interesting discussion here as to whether the Aust Greens are a party of the left

A new member once said at his first meeting of my old local party 'I'm not really sure if I'm too left wing for the Greens' to which someone answered 'You can't really be too left wing here!'.

Joe Otten said...

Oh, interesting, but the roots of the UK (or EW) Green Party are not at all left wing. Judging by Derek Wall's history, they are clearly right-wing.

And before around the early 90's the UKGP didn't identify with the left. Neither left, right nor centre, but in front was a slogan you would still sometimes hear.

So when you want a party to be true to its founding movements, be careful what you wish for.


The other point is that if you would only ever contemplate deals with Labour, and no other party, then you might as well all join Labour. There really is little point being a separate party.

And as it is now, there is nothing out there for the voter who wants to save the planet, but it happy for the peace, civil rights and labour movements to look after themselves for the time being. That surely is the niche that a green party - as opposed to a socialist party - ought to be filling.

Forget your cobbled together ideology of errors, and sell your MP's vote for the biggest carbon reduction it can buy! Anything less is a betrayal of your voters.

weggis said...

Joe Otten,
What has the history of one individual, viz Derek Wall, to do with the roots of the Green Party?

Joe Otten said...

I mean the history of the Green Party written by Derek Wall. I link to it here:

Red Green Nick said...

I wonder if a similar fate to that of the Irish Greens awaits the Lib Dems?

How comfortable will Greenish and Leftish Lib Dems feel when the massive public sector cuts hit?

Joe Otten said...

Why wouldn't they blame Labour like everybody else - for spending £160bn a year above what they raised in taxes.

Labour may be speaking as if they had a magic pot of money to use if they won the election, but their actual plans were £80bn of cuts just like everybody else.

The Greens of course would have to cut even more, because economic growth is an essential part of reducing the deficit.

Jim Jepps said...

Dave: I agree capitalism is key to how these things turned out - I was just trying to draw out different strands. It may not look like it but I was trying to keep the post short!

I organised a great fringe a couple of years ago at GP conf on 'is the green party anti-capitalist' and I think it's something well worth revisiting (write up from an independent here)

However, I actually think it's electoralism that is the Green myopia rather than creating party line on capitalism though.

That said our MP is an an anti-capitalist as are many of the members, but as the write up indicates there are large numbers of essentially social democrats among our numbers (and a few deep greens et al in boot)

Jim Jepps said...

Bart: thanks for the extra info. Very useful.

Joe: agree the roots of the Greens in UK not to the left and certainly in the eighties they were widely seen as a right-wing party. Those days are behind though thankfully.

I think the four founding movements in the charter (quoted at the start of the article) are good ones, I think being true to them would be a good thing, rather than seeing ourselves as separate with separate interests.

Joe2: I'm not sure I'd only ever consider deals with labour, I'm saying that you need to be strong enough to get what you want and that your coalition partners have to have some common ground. This could include Plaid, SNP, the left or others - or it might not depending on the circumstances.

Our voters voted for a very different economic policy and are overwhelmingly pro-immigration - I don't think they'd appreciate chucking all our policies for a concession that we wont get.

Joe3: Our manifesto was very clear that we are opposed to the cuts and that we want to spend, spend, spend our way out the economic crisis.

This zero growth stuff is some sort of philosophical ephemera rather than current policy. I also think it's more nuanced than you say - but still don't personally agree with it.

Matt Sellwood said...

"This zero growth stuff is some sort of philosophical ephemera rather than current policy. I also think it's more nuanced than you say - but still don't personally agree with it."

Blimey. Really?

Jim Jepps said...

It's all true Matt. I don't believe in zero growth economics.

I certainly do believe in a low carbon economy and that we should reassess how we measure economic success.

Growth for its own sake is meaningless, but to fetishise an anti-growth economic metric seems to me to be a rather blunt instrument.

As ever I am open to persuasion of course.

Joe Otten said...

Wow. Philosophical ephemera. The fireworks are going off now. Excellent.

But without it, what clearly distinguishes you from, say, the Socialist Labour Party (if that is still going)?

Reassessing how we measure success is a good idea, but it is something of a straw man to say that we judge everything in terms of growth already. We spend highly on pensions and care for the elderly already, which is a dead loss in terms of growth. (Rather than education and science). Baby boomers have fetishised house prices at the expense of life chances for the next generation and therefore economic growth.

And it seems to me that you are in danger of "fetishising" public spending to the extent that you necessarily implicitly fetishise the growth necessary to sustain it.

Rupert said...

Nice try Joe at distracting us from the central fact of British politics at this time - that the LibDems, your party, have jumped into bed with the Tories in order to bring in savage cuts that will be bad for our society and probably bad for our economy too.
On zero-growth: this is absolutely central. Jim, have you read Herman Daly's work? If not, then please do. Green ecological economics requires zero-growth.
Apart from that, this is a great piece, Jim! Well written.

Joe Otten said...

Rupert I'm happy to talk about the coalition, but this is the first time it has come up.

Anyway, I can see the consistency of Jim's position of sticking with the left and supporting public spending.

But how do you do that, without growth? You could default on the national debt, perhaps, but that would still leave £110bn per year cuts to be found, which is about the amount (off the top of my head) borrowing exceeds interest.

The logic of a stable zero growth economy surely demands that the government pays its way and doesn't borrow excessively or throughout the economic cycle. You should be condemning Labour even more than I do.

Jim Jepps said...

Speaking personally at this particular election it would have been difficult for the Greens to go into a coalition with Labour (not that it was going to happen anyway) because we'd be far too small to be influential and Labour's economic plans were essentially very different from ours - although less different than Libs or Cons.

Whether or not the party recognises the contradiction but the economic policy we went into the election with was a rejection of zero growth economics, although I could see that someone could draw out a difference between short term and long term planning.

I do think we should avoid conflating the economy as a whole and government spending though. Although connected clearly spending could go up while GDP goes down and vice verse.

Part of the deficit problem is the declining amount of tax revenue we're receiving and I think undermining the 'real' economy risks making that side of the equation worse as does rising unemployment more generally.

The last Tory government was determined to reduce the benefits burden, much to the misery for many people, but it still rose year on year and I think we may see some parallel effects this time around.

Simon13 said...

Thanks for this Jim, interesting. I also liked the 'is the Green Party anti-capitalist?' post.

Anonymous said...

Jim just seen your comment as follows "agree the roots of the Greens in UK not to the left and certainly in the eighties they were widely seen as a right-wing party."

I've just gone back to take a look at the party's 1983 GE manifesto (which was what led me to joining the party in the first place!) and while it's fair to characterise it as a bit woolly and eccentric in places it's totally incorrect to suggest it is right wing. There are clear commitments to nuclear disarmament, ending the arms trade, redistribution of wealth, tackling crime through eliminating poverty and inequality, bringing in strict controls on multi-national corporations and retaining public services in public ownership (ie this was before the Thatcherite privatisation era really got going!).

The 1987 GE manifesto took a similar stance. Although in the 1970s and 1980s positioning was dessed up in "neither left nor right" rhetoric, the actual policy platforms were firmly planted on the non-marxist left.

Darren Johnson AM

Jim Jepps said...

Hi Darren,

I tried to choose my words carefully there, although didn't expand. I deliberately chose to say "seen as" rather than "was" right-wing because, as you say, there were clear commitments against nukes, arms trade etc. but the public perception (I think) was that while labour was committed to trade union and collective struggles, the Greens were individualist and possibly for abstaining from conflicts like the miners strike.

But I should make clear that this is about perceptions, albiet ones with some basis.

However the other part, about the basis of the party, I think it is fair to say that the founders of the party had a more right-wing vision than the founders of the danish or dutch party who stand on pretty solid/traditional left ground.

I'd like to look at the 83 manifesto though - just out of curiosity.

weggis said...

@ Darren Johnson Thursday, June 17, 2010 1:22:00 PM

"..the actual policy platforms were firmly planted on the non-marxist left.

That's "right" to me. It all depends on where you perceive the "centre" to be......