The Green Party should help build a progressive alliance

Greens in the United Kingdom should ally with others to elect a progressive government capable of changing British democracy for good.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
13 June 2016

imeage: Wandsworth Green Party

The British state is crumbling. Our economy's been stuck back together with duct tape and accelerated towards a brick wall. We're living through a vast communications revolution, species are dying by the day and the climate clock is ticking fast. The old, as someone else once said, is dying. It is the role of radicals to be midwives to the new. And we don't have much time.

In this context, if Jeremy Corbyn or one of his allies is the Labour candidate for prime minister in the next election, Greens should try to help him win. To say as much is not to say that the Green Party and Corbynite Labour are the same. It is not to argue that the Green Party ought to be subsumed into Labour. It is simply to stand, as Tom Nairn once put it, "on the terrain of reality and the future".

What this means in practice is not simple. Greens are democratically decentralised, and so national electoral pacts would be mighty difficult to co-ordinate. Most seats which Greens might hope to gain within the next decade are held by Labour, and so the two parties can reasonably leave it to voters to decide who they would rather have as their MP. But I must confess, I struggle to see a case for the parties standing against each other in weak Tory seats, particularly where the candidates are people both sides can get behind.

For Greens, I think the attempt to construct such a pact must rest on three things. First, serious potential for electoral gains; second, a commitment to enact the outcome of a constitutional convention, to be held from opposition, and third, some other clear policy red lines. 

Filling in the detail to each of these outlines is, of course, the hard part. And doing so democratically within both the Greens and Labour is perhaps impossible. And that is before we consider the potential role of any other parties in such a conversation: I'll write another time about the SNP, Plaid Cymru and others. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up. It means we need to start that conversation now. This is my attempt.

On the nature of an electoral pact, there is a spectrum of options. At one end lies the de-facto position that the Greens adopted in the 1997 UK general election, when the party quietly chose to focus its resources on seats which weren’t Labour/Tory marginals. At the other end, it would be possible to have formal agreements somewhat akin to those between Labour and the Liberals in the early 20th century, with both parties standing down for each other across the country. My preference is something in the middle.

Specifically, political activist and electoral statistics geek Elliot Folan conveniently outlined what such a deal might look like a number of months ago. They highlighted a list of seats in which it might be sensible for Labour to stand down for the Greens and vice versa, without going the whole hog and withdrawing candidates en mass. How many each party stood aside in would have to be the result of a tricky negotiation between respective central and national parties, and I think Greens should be willing to ask for quite a lot: after all, it would be Labour who would get to be in government. Ultimately, for Greens, such a deal could offer a serious chance to elect two or three more MPs. Let's be honest: that's unlikely otherwise.

In the last few days, since Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley announced their support for such a position, many friends in the Greens have argued against it. “Who are we,” as one excellent party comrade put it, “to decide that the voters of Brighton Pavilion shouldn’t have a Labour candidate to vote for?” It’s an important question. But the reality is that voters are not presented with every option at each election. I have never had the opportunity to try to elect a Communist Party candidate, nor one from the Animal Welfare party. The people of Northern Ireland aren’t permitted to vote for Labour candidates. If the party chooses not to stand in Pavilion on the basis that Caroline Lucas has committed to vote for their leader to be the prime minister, then that is the nature of a first-past-the-post election – a situation which such a deal would aim to abolish.

This leads to my second requirement: a constitutional convention. It is clear that the British state is crumbling: from an electoral system unfit for modern, multiparty democracy, to the possible break-up of the union, to the ludicrous House of Lords, to our mini-empire of tax havens, the British constitution has never been fit-for-purpose, unless the purpose is an ancient aristocracy ruling a 19th century empire. 

The case for Greens requiring proportional representation from such a convention as a condition for a pact is fairly clear. But I would hope for more than that too: a clear, democratic model to replace the House of Lords, serious devolution to assemblies and parliaments across the UK and an agreement that Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) can go our own way if we wish, without depending on the say-so of Westminster. Now is not the time for tinkering, but for boldness.

Of course, if a constitutional convention took place, it’s likely that Greens wouldn’t agree with all of its proposals. You can’t prejudge the outcomes of a process which needs to hear a broad range of voices. And if the results were too conservative, then the party would have every right to walk away.

If, though, a convention took place, as with the Scottish constitutional convention in the 1990s, and Greens, Labour and perhaps others were happy to get behind it, then this could form the spine of a programme for a radical progressive government, building a democracy fit for the 21st century. My preference would be that, once a constitution had been agreed – perhaps after a year or two, parliament would be dissolved, the pact would end, and each party would run against each other with a fair election system (which, by the way, is the agreement I hoped for in 2010).

If the re-founding of the British state was the backbone of such a deal, what should be its flesh? During the Greek election last year, I interviewed one of the members of the leadership team of the Greek Greens. He described how they had been surprised to realise that Syriza had adopted most of their manifesto. And when they issued a further list of policy demands as a requirement for joining the coalition, Tsipras essentially said "oh, those are good ideas", and immediately accepted them all. The Greens ran on a joint ticket with Syriza, and secured their first MP and minister.

In reality, if the Corbyn wing of the Labour party keeps the leadership and secures control of policy making processes, then it seems likely that much of what they will suggest will be closely aligned to Green ideas – witness the recent commitement from John McDonnell to consider Universal Basic Income or Jeremy Corbyn speaking alongside Naomi Klein at the Paris climate conference. All across Europe, where old radicals have looked at the world afresh, they have adopted large chunks of the Green manifesto. 

For me, as conditions for a pact, I’d want to see an economic plan which shifted the UK away from its dependence on finance and fossil fuels, clear steps towards a more democratic economy and an end to the punishment of those with less power, including migrants and people on social security. But I would also have to accept, ultimately, that there will still be differences; that Labour won’t simply adopt the Green manifesto wholesale, and that this doesn’t mean that some kind of collaboration is impossible.

For the Green Party to allow itself to be subsumed within others would be to abdicate our responsibility to speak our truth, and Labour will never be entirely Green. Corbyn and his friends are a minute minority in the parliamentary Labour party, and it may well be that the establishment has reasserted itself by 2020. But in the last two years, the old British state has lost control of one of its two main parties and one of its two main countries. For Greens simply to pretend that this hasn’t happened would be to stand aside from history, rather than standing on the right side of it.

In recent years, the Green parties of the UK have grown in strength, size, influence and intellect. We should focus that newfound energy on replacing an elitist, brutal establishment which is ripping society apart and trashing the planet, and to do that, we must be willing to work out how best to focus our energy. It’d be easier to carry on as before. But that hasn't worked so far. And time, as they say, is running out. Stepping into the future is always tough, and Labour will find it harder than we will. But it's time to take that leap.

Adam is a member of the Green Party.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData