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Are the Greens Still Relevant in the UK?

By Chris Jarvis

On June 8, the UK went to the polls to elect its parliament in a snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May. That election saw a squeezing of votes for smaller parties, including the Green Parties of the UK. The Labour Party saw its vote share increase substantially and was successful enough to starve the Conservatives of their Parliamentary majority, having stood on a manifesto incorporating many Green Party policies. In light of this, what role is there for the Greens in the UK?

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked by people why I haven’t jumped ship and left the Greens. At its most basic level, the question is understandable. Labour has the most left wing leader for a generation – a leader who has reshaped the party away from its Blairite past, towards adopting a radical policy platform placing the transformation of our economy away from free market dogma towards social justice at its heart,  recognising the need for urgent action on climate change through proposals to ban the fracking, and pushing for a foreign policy based fundamentally on principles of peace. Having adopted so many Green values, principles, and policies, popularised them and put them as the objective of a growing and burgeoning movement, what use is there arguing these positions from the fringes of UK politics?

This question has become all the more pressing after the outcome of the UK General Election on June 8th. After a disappointing set of results for Green Parties across the UK, the election gives us much to reflect on and has triggered much soul searching.  Having seen their vote share halve and failed to make breakthroughs in key seats where hopes were high – Bristol West and Isle of Wight in particular – what space do the Greens now occupy in UK politics? What is the relevance of Green Parties and Green politics?

Disappointment, not disaster

Before we delve in to trying to answer those questions, it’s important to first understand the election results achieved by the Greens. At a first glance, the situation looks dire. Falling to just 1.6% of the vote, only successfully having one MP elected, and seeing vote shares fall in key target seats, including Sheffield Central and the aforementioned Bristol West, it’s easy to assume that 2017 will long be seen as a nadir of Green Party electoral performance. Between 1997 and 2015, the Greens received more votes than before at every single election. 2017 was the first time that trend has been reversed.

That notwithstanding, the picture is a little more complex. Firstly, last week’s election was the second best Green result in a UK General Election in history. 2017 was only the second time ever that the Greens received more than 500,000 votes, and only the third time their vote share stood at over 1%. Caroline Lucas – the party’s co-leader and now twice re-elected Member of Parliament – held her Brighton Pavilion seat, and almost doubled her majority. In the context of an election in which the electorate coalesced around the two largest political parties, with every smaller party outside of Northern Ireland falling back by between 0.1 and 10.8 percentage points, the future for the Greens looks a little less bleak, especially in light of an antiquated electoral system which is designed to benefit parties of the historical establishment.

Similarly, Green members, Green supporters, and Green minded voters are unlikely to be disappointed by the overall picture. Although Labour did not win the election, they starved a rabidly right-wing Conservative government pushing an extreme Brexit based on building tighter borders, rolling back environmental regulations, and revoking workers’ rights, making their pursuit of aggressive austerity, little-Englander isolationism, and social conservativism all the more difficult. This was achieved under a relentless character assassination and orchestrated condemnatory propaganda from the right-wing media as well as the machinations of a conspiratorial and reactionary portion of the Parliamentary Labour Party who have attempted to stop the Corbyn project from ever taking flight. When Theresa May called the General Election, Labour were some 20 points behind in the polls, a gap they narrowed to just 2 points on polling day.

In spite of all this, there is no denying that we had all wished for a better result.

A setback in a longer journey

Politics comes in ebbs and flows. No party, no programme, no social movement, no political ideology, no campaign has seen itself rise on an uninterrupted upward trajectory. They all experience setbacks, periods of consolidation, and points of reflection. June 8, for the Greens, is one  of those moments.

Nobody joins one of the UK’s three Green Parties expecting to see radical political change overnight. They certainly don’t expect to see Green parliamentarians entering Government in the immediate future either. The very nature of our politics is long-term, recognising there are no quick fix solutions to recalibrating the relationship between humans and our environment, understanding that shifting our society towards participatory, engaged democracy will take time and that reorganising our economy to place social justice first will not happen at the click of a finger. Likewise, building a political movement to achieve those aims and convince the wider public of their worth is a long-term project.

If we take it as a given that these objectives are still undeniably relevant to the UK, the real question is whether or not Green Parties remain relevant as vehicles for achieving these objectives.

Aren’t Labour the future?

The UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has adopted vast swathes of the Green Party policy programme, including nationalisation of key industries, a commitment to a real living wage for all, the introduction of free university education, and reversing the privatisation of the National Health Service. On all of these issues, Labour have not only brought these policies into the mainstream of public discourse for the first time in a generation, but also made them suitably popular for them to be endorsed by more than 40% of the popular vote. While that has not been enough to allow Labour to form a Government, it is no mean feat.

In light of this, it is clear that a successful left-wing Labour Party in the coming years is in the interests of those of us who seek a fairer and more equitable society, including Greens. While it is true that this Labour Party has been damaging to our short-term electoral interests, and will likely continue to be so, the success of central planks of Green policies is also, in the immediate future, contingent on the success of that Labour Party.

So what then for the purpose of the Greens?

Firstly, understanding Jeremy Corbyn as a political phenomenon within the Labour Party is to understand that the Labour Party as we know it today is an aberration, rather than a norm. There is no guarantee that the shifts in political positions we’ve witnessed since September 2015 will be maintained for any sustained length of time. Since the Labour Party was founded, it has drifted across many points on a political spectrum, and there is no reason to believe that its changes are permanent, especially given the ideologies held by many of their elected representatives, both in Parliament and in local government across the country. In light of that, it’s crucial that we continue to build institutions and infrastructure outside of the Labour Party that advocate for this kind of politics. Some of those will be civil society groups, some will be social movements, and, crucially, some will be other political parties.

Additionally, the Labour Party’s programme is far from perfect. Leaving aside the areas in which the Labour and Green policy programmes are at odds – on the economic indicators which are most important to be pursued or on the question of nuclear power – the Labour manifesto falls short in four key areas – migration, welfare, defence, and climate change.

In the interests of appealing to broad swathes of the electorate, left behind by neoliberalism and fed repeated scapegoat stories from right-wing politicians and the media establishment, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has capitulated on the question of migration. Corbyn’s policy on Brexit has been to accept the misguided notion that at the point in which the UK leaves the European Union, the free movement of people must end. The migration policy within the Labour Party manifesto called on the adoption of a migration based on the needs of the economy and of business, rather than the needs of people, either migrants or domestic citizens. Additionally, the Party platform advocated tighter border controls and additional border staff.

Labour’s policy on welfare is equally cautious. Since 2010, Conservative led Governments have overseen economic violence upon on nation’s poorest, most vulnerable, and most in need people, from disabled people to the unemployed. While Labour pledged to overturn flagship Conservative welfare changes including the Bedroom Tax – where social housing residents with a spare room are penalised through benefit reductions – and restoring Housing Benefits for the under-21s, it went into the General Election with a manifesto which would have maintained £7 billion of cuts to welfare, particularly those given to low income working families.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn himself being a life-long advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Labour Party adopted a platform which called for the retention of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system. A continued commitment to NATO was also embedded within the Party’s policy on defence, again in contravention of Corbyn’s long-standing beliefs.

Finally, on climate change, Labour’s policy left much to be desired. Significant movement from the past can be found in their proposals to nationalise the energy supply, support for the introduction of local energy cooperatives and community owned renewable energy schemes, and the abolition of fracking. But the manifesto simultaneously contained no roadmap for a rapid, but just, transition away from dependence on fossil fuels, including North Sea oil and gas. As expansion of the Heathrow Airport and aviation continues to be a hot topic of debate in UK politics, Labour pledged to expand aviation in the South East of England, despite the urgency of the need to curb air travel in order to meet climate objectives. The manifesto was unclear as to what strategy would be adopted under a Labour Government to reduce the environmental impacts of industry and agriculture.

Enter the Greens

Recognising the inadequacies of Labour’s platform is the first step in understanding where the Greens fit into the new political landscape. The position of the Greens now ought to be to commend the Labour Party where they get things right, acknowledging that in these instances, the success of the Labour Party is perhaps necessary for the success of our politics, if certainly not sufficient. But it ought also to be clear when they get things wrong and when they fall short.

In doing so, we will not only be able to give greater public airing to those issues, policy propositions, and proposals, helping to bring yet more people round to our way of thinking, but also to place external pressure on the Labour Party to move closer towards them. Labour know that their election result was helped along the way through Green voters putting their faith in the Labour Party, either through voting tactically to keep the Tories out, or because Corbyn embodied many of the reasons they voted Green in the first place. Going further than Labour on these key issues will push it to match or exceed Green positions, or else risk losing votes to their left.

What that means is having the political courage to take brave positions and be staunch in our defence of them. It means being unwavering in our analysis of why the status quo is destructive to both society and the environment, but also in our analysis of Labour’s failures and why they are insufficient to address society’s ills. It means being clear that the free movement of people should not only be kept for citizens of EU Member States post-Brexit, but also for citizens across the globe too, as border policies designed to keep migrants out cannot be enforced without violence and without being built on the premise of a xenophobic or racialised understanding of which people are worthy of citizenship. It means being steadfast in making the case that since 2010, and even prior to that, our welfare system has been inherently punitive, as opposed to being built upon the idea of support to those in need. It means being unashamed in arguing that a defence policy based on an outdated nuclear deterrent and an archaic cold-war era military alliance cannot address the threats we face today and makes the world a far more dangerous place to live. It means being anchored to the need to rapidly shift to a low-carbon future in a way which is socially just, but that recognises an economy built on fossil fuels, expansion of air travel, and polluting industries and agriculture is incompatible with tackling climate change. And most importantly, it means weaving a compelling and enticing narrative about what an alternative future with these policies enacted could look like.

Jeremy Corbyn has demonstrated that a progressive platform can pick up mass popular support, we now need to push them to go further, or else show the popularity of a yet more radical platform in terms of support for the Greens. Going forward, the Greens are as relevant as they ever have been in the UK. The political landscape has shifted, and so must we. When in the past we have been Labour’s adversaries – at times when their leadership was divorced from the needs of both people and planet – now we must be critical allies, supporting them where they are on the right side of the argument, and being their pacemaker when they falter at pushing hard enough. In the era of Corbynism, that is where the Greens will find their role.

Are the Greens Still Relevant in the UK?