Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge

Shouts of "you'll let the Tories in!" are again doing the rounds, will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn't Labour?

Ian Sinclair
29 January 2015

The Green's Natalie Bennett. Flickr/jonanamary. Some rights reserved.

The ongoing Green Surge – the Green Party of England and Wales now has over 50,000 members – has produced some illogical and politically blinkered responses from progressives both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

In December, before they increased their membership by nearly 25,000 people, the bizarre advice from The Guardian’s Richard Seymour to the Green Party was “to discover their dark side.” Bafflingly, he explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Tweeting at Green MP Caroline Lucas, feminist writer and Labour supporter Julie Bindel demanded to know “will the Greens hold its policy of legalising and legitimising the international sex trade? This is a deal breaker for many.” Apparently the Labour leadership’s direct responsibly for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children, it’s pro-austerity policies – which, incidentally, would push women into prostitution – and, er, the future of humanity, are not deal breakers for Bindel.

Finally, there is left-wing Labourite Owen Jones. In his latest Guardian blog Jones sets out some of his arguments for not voting Green, before explaining that Labour should not base its anti-Green strategy on these arguments. By feigning sympathy for their position at the same time as bashing potential Green voters Jones is very much attempting to have his cake and eat it.

Before I get into the detail of Jones’s arguments, I want to make it clear my criticism is not personal – Jones is simply the most prominent, and therefore most influential, figure on the Labour Left. I think Jones does magnificent work in and out of the media spotlight. As I’ve noted previously “Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.” However, on the topic of electoral politics the inescapable fact is Jones is currently acting as a conservative force, attempting to hold back the progressive, arguably radical, surge coming at Labour from the left. Jones wants to increase the number of people voting Labour and decrease the number of people voting Green.

All this leads to some bizarre political contortions. For example, Jones desperately wants Labour to back rail nationalisation to take votes away from Greens – the party that actually backs rail nationalisation.

Talking about Green voters, Jones also snidely comments that “Few of those who claim there is no meaningful difference between a Labour and Tory government are being hammered by the bedroom tax.” This, of course, plays into the popular, though questionable, stereotype of the Green Party as a haven for the middle-class (the Green Surge will likely change the composition of the Green Party). And it also hides the blindingly obvious fact the Greens are attracting support, including many former Labour voters, precisely because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.

Echoing the age-old Labour fear-mongering, Jones notes that Green voters could well wake up the day after the election with “buyer’s remorse” when they realise their principled vote has helped another Tory Government into power. Jones, of course, fails to mention the “buyer’s remorse” hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters have felt since 1997 when they realised they helped to elected a New Labour government – again, a key reason many people are switching their vote from Labour to the Greens.

More importantly, Jones seems to be unaware of the history of his own party. Circa 1900 there were two main political parties in the UK. The Tories who, as now, commanded the support of much of the ruling class, and the Liberal Party, whose establishment reformism received substantial support from recently enfranchised working-class voters. The newly born Labour Party – then known as the Labour Representation Committee – won just two MPs in the 1900 election. The Owen Jones’s of the day would have argued that voting for the nascent Labour Party, however unhappy you were with the Liberals, would have split the anti-Tory vote. Luckily for us today, millions of voters ignored such pleas, and voted for the Labour Party, eventually leading to the watershed 1945 election victory. In short, the Labour Party is only a serious contender for power today because people ignored Owen Jones’s argument about not splitting the anti-Tory vote.

But it’s not just early twentieth century history that people wearing their specially-fitted Labour Party blinkers are unable to see and comprehend. Last weekend Jones travelled to Athens to support Syriza’s astonishing election victory. However, Syriza received just 4.7% of the vote in the 2009 Greek election. PASOK, Greece’s equivalent of the British Labour Party, received 43.9% of the vote, winning the election. Following PASOK’s support for the savage austerity agenda, by the June 2012 election Syriza had become the second party in Greece with 26.9% of the vote, while PASOK had slipped to third place, gaining just 12.3% of the vote. So, again, it needs to be emphasised that if Syriza supporters had followed Jones’s logic and voted for Greece’s Labour Party, PASOK, then Syriza would never have been in a position to win the last week’s election.

There is an obvious question for those who scream “You’ll let the Tories in!” at any progressives who vote for anyone other than Labour: When, exactly, will it be safe for people to vote for a left-wing party other than Labour? The answer for those keen to protect the political status quo, of course, is never. Luckily many people are ignoring this conservative argument and joining and voting for the Green Party in increasing numbers.

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