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Greens could now benefit from more radical co-operation with other parties

The Brecon and Radnorshire deal has worked, but if the Greens want to get in a position to avert climate disaster, they need to get far bolder.

Stephen Clark
2 August 2019
Climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg meeting party leaders earlier this year
Climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg meeting party leaders earlier this year. The Conservative leader was invited but did not attend.
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Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

The last year has been an encouraging one for the Green movement. Greta Thunberg's campaign and the school strikes, the publicity attracting to David Attenborough's Blue Planet - and increasing numbers of adverse-weather-related events - appear finally to have had some impact on public awareness of the climate emergency. The emergence of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the effect of direct action on the public consciousness has also added to a change of sentiment. We have seen an increasing number of local authorities declaring Climate Emergencies followed more recently by Parliament. We've yet to see a lot of substance to these bold statements, but it’s a start.

The Green Party itself has benefited in the polls from this change of mood, and its consistent stance on Brexit in sharp contrast to the Labour Party. The Greens have more than doubled their number of local councillors and increased their representation in Europe at the recent elections. Their polling has held up well against other progressive parties and they are enjoying a membership surge. The European elections and recent gains by Greens across, at least, western Europe - especially Germany - suggests that the breakdown of traditional voting patterns in post-industrial democracies may well favour more environmentally conscious parties. Does this mean that the potential for a parliamentary breakthrough for the Green Party has finally arrived? In this article I argue that this isn't the case and can't be while the UK remains wedded to a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system for Westminster elections. The Green Party may well need to review its political strategy.

Under FPTP a party can poll in excess of 20% - and the Greens are well short of this - and still not add to its parliamentary representation. A party polling 35% against divided opposition (Johnson's Tories?) can end up with a landslide victory. A similar situation operates at local authority level. The two ‘main’ parties benefit disproportionately from this blatantly unfair system. It would require the wholehearted commitment of at least one of the two to make a change. This seems unlikely in the near future. As it is, if there was an election in the autumn, the Green Party would be most likely to be left with their one MP. In the European elections the party benefited from left-leaning Labour supporters (and members), lending their votes to make a point to Jeremy Corbyn. Some will stay with the Green Party, but most will return to Labour in another polarising Brexit General Election as in 2017.

This is difficult for the Greens. They quite rightly argue for a zero-carbon Britain by 2030 (and frustratingly are a lone voice following the science), but they must also be aware that under the current rules of the game they can realistically only hope to have won a local authority or two and perhaps another MP over that same period. This doesn't look like a movement that is going to be in a position to have much influence over the fundamental change that is required to avoid climate disaster. It is also the case that the introduction of radical green policies doesn't depend on the electoral success of the Green Party, although that would clearly help. There are people in other parties that are equally committed to the action necessary for change. They may not yet share fully the understanding of the Greens that achieving zero carbon requires a fundamental change to our personal and economic value systems and way we currently live, and - perhaps more importantly - that this will actually make us healthier and happier both physically and mentally. But they are allies in the fight. Equally, direct action is going to play a major part in all this and not everybody currently working, for example, with XR are paid up members of the Greens. Something has to give.

With the exception of the Women’s Equality Party, the Green Party is the most open of the main parties, and the most practised in the new politics. The Greens demonstrated in 2017 that they were the only party fully prepared to sacrifice their own vote share to prevent a Tory government. They stepped aside in some 60 seats to help other parties, mainly Labour, to get elected. But for their efforts, Theresa May could have won the majority she required and still be in Downing Street; if Labour had co-operated in a similar fashion with the Greens and Lib Dems, Corbyn would be Prime Minister.

The Green Party was bruised by the 2017 experience and there was an understandable backlash from its membership. Despite that, the party has returned to the issue of co-operation with other parties. A deal was struck with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru for the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, and the Greens are undergoing a pre-conference sounding of their members as to how far they might go on electoral pacts at the next General Election. A currently less than ambitious draft motion is in preparation for their Autumn Conference. In the meantime, the other progressive parties will be working on guarding any voting advantage they currently hold ahead of possibly a very tight election. I am arguing that if the Green Party's main objective is to get early and decisive action on the climate emergency, it needs a much more radical strategy.

The party should declare itself an open, and porous, organisation working for itself, with other like-minded political parties and other non-parliamentary, direct action and campaign organisations and individuals. It should allow membership or supporter status to individuals from other progressive political parties. It should declare its parliamentary candidate selections and hustings to be entirely open to nominations from all. If, for example, a Labour Party or Lib Dem candidate (at either parliament or local level) wants also to be the Green Party nomination, they should be able to apply and be subject to scrutiny against others. If selected, these candidates would describe themselves as Green candidates in addition to their existing allegiance. They would be expected to be accountable to their local Green Party for their support for climate emergency initiatives, in addition to advocating electoral reform. This may appear idealistic nonsense. The Labour Party for one wouldn't allow their members to join other political parties, and certainly wouldn't allow their candidates to put themselves forward for Green Party endorsement. But some of the membership may feel otherwise.

And while it is one thing to expel Alastair Campbell for voting Lib Dem in the European elections; it is another to expel 10-20,000 members, perhaps more, who publicly state they have taken out joint membership, or have registered as Green Party supporters. If they did, it could spark a mass migration of Labour Party members to the Greens. But ideally, it could instead have the effect of driving the Labour Party into a politics of the 21st century.

The process could have other significant advantage for the Greens. The green movement desperately needs more national leaders. Caroline Lucas can't do everything, and the media go out of their way to avoid giving sufficient airtime to Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley. The use of jointly endorsed Labour/Lib Dem/Green MPs could help fill this gap and take some of the parliamentary load. Also, other parties may be more willing to accept Green Party criticism and initiatives if it isn't taken to be directly politically inspired for electoral advantage. Finally, it opens the Green Party to a wide range of friendly but constructive challenge and brings them to the centre of debate in a broader political field.

These are early thoughts and others may like to join the debate and start fleshing them out. The Green Party could really begin to point the way to a radical change in the way politics is done in this country.

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