Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A way forward: Greens and the environment

It's been said many times, but it's worth repeating, the Green Party does not have exclusive territorial rights to environmental issues, just as the Tories don't have exclusive rights over caviar supplies, Labour over bomb manufacturing or the Lib Dems over jelly.

However, there's no getting away from the fact that the Green Party places at the center of its politics the attempt to build a more ecologically sustainable world. This is a strength and a weakness. Climate change is the most pressing issue facing the human race today, and you only have to look at the news to see that literally millions of people are currently facing very personal tragedies as a result of extreme weather conditions. Not in theory but in fact.

The Green Party takes this seriously in a way that the politicians who only regard environmental issues as an add on part of their electoral strategy do not.

However, it's been clear for some time that this deep association with environmental issues can also become a way of obscuring the fact that the Greens are a political party with policy on a whole range of issues, not a single issue campaign group. For this reason during the election we placed an emphasis on our social policy, and where we did talk about traditional green issues it was always fused with housing or jobs to keep 'on message'. While everyone knows where we stand on environmental issues, well, at least roughly, they may not always associate us with trade unions, Afghanistan, renationalisation or a whole host of other issues.

That danger of being seen as a single issue party is a real one and, in my view, highlighting our lesser known policies has been really important. The Greens are not looking for one off protest votes but long term support for a unique political project. If people believed we only talk about climate change (and green issues are not just this particular, global problem of course) we'd never have won over a hundred councillors, two London Assembly Members, two MSPs, two MEPs and an MP.

There is a problem though.

Political parties are not just a collection of policies to be put before the electorate and endorsed (or not). Parties do day to day campaigning, fighting to influence debate and decision making. It is not enough to have policies, we have to act on them too.

That means what we campaign on, the content of our leaflets, letters, door to door work and the job of our elected representatives matters. While it's been right, for the election, to steer people towards our social and economic policy if we end up neglecting our core purpose to do that we turn ourselves into an electoral machine, not a political party with principles and purpose.

If you look at the work Caroline Lucas is doing in the House of Commons the first thing you will notice is how damn hard she is working and the second thing is that she is doing plenty of work on environmental issues that is not necessarily reflected in the way the party has been marketing itself. Obviously we need to get better at publicising what she's doing, and boost the support we give her, but this also helps illustrate something important.

If someone wants to do "something useful" about the environment then they have a whole host of choices before them. They could join excellent NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc. They could get involved in direct action with climate camp types. They could set up a local transition towns group and get local in their activism. They could also join the Green Party.

The thing is if we've become a little bit allergic to talking about environmental issues we both neglect that core constituency and, more importantly, we cease to fulfill one of our most important functions. Fighting for an ecologically sustainable world.

Climate change is almost entirely off the agenda of our political class, are we pushing hard enough to get it back on? I don't want to exaggerate, it's not as if the Greens never talk about their core issues, but we're not bellowing from the roof tops either. We're a broad left party, and members join for a number of different reasons. We need to make sure we're serving their needs as well as putting out a clever electoral message.

For me one of the reasons I joined the Green Party was to help myself learn about and understand environmental issues, and take part in a project for a cleaner, safer, fairer world. I'm not entirely sure the Party has fulfilled the former for me. I know why it has been necessary to highlight other manifesto areas, that are just as important, but I do worry that we're verging on taking our green policies almost entirely off the menu.

Yes, voters will always assume that the Greens are beavering away on many of these issues but we can't be too scared of saying it out loud, even when it risks unpopularity. There are a whole number of winnable battles that we need to fight and a number of crucial discussions that we need to influence - but we're not going to do that if we're too worried about the single issue label.


Joe Otten said...

Is the problem perhaps that it can be difficult to say much that is very original on the environment.

Jim Jepps said...

I don't think so Joe - although I can see why you say it. There are quite a few Greens who say that we should ditch the word 'environment' altogether as it's too abstract and always use specifics - so if we're talking about CO2 or air pollution or conserving a patch of woodland or investing in housing insulation it becomes more real.

I think that restating philosophical or over-arching beliefs about the environment could get boring *very* quickly, but a new story every day on different topics, solutions, developments, stories is very do-able. I think.

Sam Coates said...

This is starting to play on my mind a bit as well. I've just editted a press release of Jake's about his new solar panels to make a point about Green jobs, I didn't think it focused enough on jobs to tweak it around. His final draft keeps my changes but tacks climate change onto the end of my sentences, including pointing out that climate change is slipping down the agenda of the other parties.

Now these days my instinct is that doing that is slightly off message, but if even us have stopped talking about it, who will?

It's a real mental tug of war.

Sam C said...

What has convinced me to support the Greens is precisely their divergence from concentrating mainly on environmental issues. Not that these are unimportant, but the overt commitment to social justice, support of policies that will help bring it about and, crucially, abandonment of support for homeopathy (which was a sticking point for a lot of people I know) have convinced me that not only are they a serious party, they are the most serious party. New Labour's drift to the right has left a fearsome void that the Greens should aim to fill.

Greensen said...

Agree absolutely. The Green Party must place "green" at the centre of everything it does. "Single-issue party"? So what? Many detractors said similar things about the Labour party in the early 20thc.
Greens must also be vocal - especially in times like these - in supporting Labour on common centre-left values.

Jim Jepps said...

Sam C (I assume it's the same Sam, but I could be wrong). I totally agree, although obviously I joined before we started addressing some of the policies you allude to - but I'm very happy we've made a start.

I'm certainly not arguing that we tone down our lefty policies but do think it's worth ensuring we don't stop pulling away at those core 'green' values.

As the slogan goes 'no jobs on a dead planet'