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Greens - the UKIP of the left?

We already have a radical left alternative to UKIP's unpleasant populism, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to learn from them.

Over the past 12 months, there have been repeated calls for a ' UKIP of the left'. Including from prominent voices such as John Harris in the Guardian, from the New Statesman, and more. The latest is Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian. His article (Jan 24) supportive of the Brighton Green administration's referendum on increasing Council Tax (to preserve vital services that government cuts are endlessly squeezing) is welcome. His claim that the Greens are 'the UKIP of the left' however requires further examination.

Jenkins makes the claim on the purported basis that the Greens are in the pockets of big renewables tycoons. This claim is very odd, not least because the main renewable-energy-based ethical companies are still just minute Davids compared to the Goliaths of the Big Six. It is true that Good Energy and Ecotricity, because their energy sources are not finite fossil fuels but on the contrary are becoming cheaper to harness all the time, have been able to freeze their prices this winter, unlike the Big Six; but they are still so small in comparison that words like 'tycoon' are absurd misrepresentations of them.

Moreover, there are extremely striking and basic differences in style and nature between UKIP and the Green Party. For example, unlike us, UKIP are an anti-scientific party in denial about basic realities of our time such as the limits to growth of which global over-heat is only the most pressing example; UKIP even want to ban the teaching of climate science in schools. Moreover, unlike us, UKIP lack internal party democracy. And they actually are rather beholden to tycoons: the few rich men who fund them.

Nevertheless, despite these profound differences, and a diametric opposition in fact between the values and policies of UKIP and the Greens, there is something intriguing and attractive about Jenkins's characterisation. UKIP and the Greens share in common that we are both outsiders to the political establishment, that we are gaining support because people are fed up with the inauthenticity of business-as-usual politicians from the old parties, and that we want to see a radical shake-up of the current political settlement.  

But it is of course UKIP who have leaped ahead of us in the polls over the last year, pressing their simple messages of blaming the EU and blaming immigrants for problems fundamentally due to neo-liberalism. Perhaps Jenkins is even more correct in his assertion than he realises: perhaps the Green Party needs to find ways of simplifying and streamlining its popular appeal, rather than sticking closer to a softly-softly rational approach of intelligent policy-based and evidence-based discourse. Perhaps we Greens need to find better ways of connecting with people where they are, while offering steady leadership and a confident assertion of a better future. A better life, with greater quality, that can replace the problems that currently envelop our world and the dire future that looms on business-as-usual scenarios.

A start might be for the Greens to make more starkly clear than we have been doing recently that the only way you can truly care for your kids is by thinking much more long term, as Green policies do. A 'UKIP of the left', in the age of dangerous climate change - the 'anthropocene age' - might then start by asserting that we hold this simple truth to be self-evident: that all human beings are equal, including the countless humans of generations to come. Such that climate-denial, fracking, coal, and going nuclear are all nothing less than crimes against humanity - crimes against your children.

But here is also where it gets complicated. For thinking of our responsibility to generations other than our own is hardly the preserve uniquely of the left. In making the suggestion that a popular appeal (with a values base that will work for us) to taking the future seriously--an appeal based in the simple but profound point that in order to take our love for our children seriously we must act so as not to compromise the future of their children, and so on, ad infinitum---I have leant on the fundamental egalitarianism and 'societarianism' of the left, historically. On the thought that, having absorbed ideas such as material equality and gender equality, we next need to take on board and actually practice the idea of inter-generational equality. But I might just as easily have leant on the fundamental long-duree thinking of the right. On (say) Burke's idea that society is not literally a contract of any kind, but rather a taking seriously of our responsibility to both uphold the past and allow and create the future; on the care and communitarianism that the right has traditionally upheld.

Now, this legacy of the right has been utterly compromised, both by the right's apologia usually for inherited privilege and inequality, and by the displacement of conservatism as a philosophy by neo-liberalism. But the legacy of the left has been profoundly compromised too: by an unworkable obsession with planning, by its presentism and productivism (which has radically curtailed its potential greenery), and by its sellout to neoliberalism.

Socialism and conservatism have become outmoded and have been replaced by neoliberalism. But socialism and conservatism still have something important to teach us, as I've indicated, while neoliberalism faces terminal crisis, with its bankruptcy, its utter vulnerability to shocks, its antipathy to any true democracy, and above all its systematic breaching of planetary limits. (And neoliberalism is the bastard child of liberalism; this is partly why some are now talking of our age as that of ‘post-liberalism’: see for some examples here and here.

So: should the Greens seek to become more of a UKIP of the left than we already are? My answer, on balance, is yes. But if someone were to ask me, should the Greens seek also to appeal to the Right--to voters who actually want to preserve our green and pleasant land, to voters who actually wish to conserve things (nature, institutions), who want to oppose 'development' (sic) where it is no longer needed ( e.g. most of the south of Britain ), to those who want to express their care for the future as well as their desire to preserve the best of the past--then my answer would also be: yes.

Ecologism, our philosophy as greens, is the true alternative to neoliberalism. Synthesising the best of socialism, conservatism and what is salvageable from liberalism (for example: the importance of civil liberties), it is the ideology our time demands: See here for detail on this.

Has what I am saying become very remote to the aspiration above, of simple messages, a more popular emotional appeal? Not necessarily. The straightforward values-proposition of UKIP too is based in an underlying philosophy that combines economic libertarianism with reactionary social values, appeals to little-Englanderism and to anger and fear. UKIP are this country's 'Tea Party'. As I've already suggested, we too can generate straightforward values-propositions, straightforward messages, and resonant emotional appeals. Care for people, for humans, whenever they will live, is the most obvious place to start. The Greens are the true people's party. Thus:

  • - Generosity and decency towards refugees and asylum-seekers and those immigrants who have joined our society as an absolute (but: not an open door to immigration / an ‘open borders’ approach, because of the value that we attribute to stable and coherent societies/communities, both here and abroad, and because of our recognition of ecological constraints. Compare here the Green Party’s excellent policies on migration and on population.
  • - Implacable opposition to the inhumanity of corporate power and corporate 'personality': limited-liability corporations are psychopaths.
  • - Passionate advocacy of public space and public services: no compromise on health and banking and more as the common property of all, rather than as privileges.
  • - Implacable opposition to energies and industries that compromise the common home of our children, this country and this good   Earth.
  • - A post-materialistic outlook that treats people as neighbours, as citizens, as equals: not as 'consumers'.

Thus, in terms of some simple slogans:

  • - Bankers? Banksters!
  • - Over-heating the Earth = crime against humanity.
  • - Enough is enough: no more 'developing' over of our countryside.
  • - You want to frack around here? Frack off!
  • - Keep our NHS public!
  • - Our children don't want to eat your chemicals.
  • - Immigrants are people too!
  • - Stop polluting kids' brains: ban advertising that's targeted at kids. And, once again:
  • - Climate-denial = sh**ting on kids from a great height.

And then, perhaps, UKIP would meet its match, Labour would face a stronger competitor that was actually on the Left, and the true conservatives out there would finally perhaps have someone to vote for again.

That sounds to me like a start.

About the author

Rupert Read was a Green Party councillor in Norwich and a candidate in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. He is Chair of the Green House thinktank.


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