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Why the future of progressive politics relies on the Greens

As the Green Party prepares for its conference this weekend, Neal Lawson of Compass offers a refocused electoral, campaigning and organisational strategy to build on strengths and win hearts and minds.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party. Image: Underclassrising, Flickr, some rights reserved.

The general election brought mixed results for the Green Party. For the country the result was better than expected. The Tories lost ground and with it the prospects for hard Brexit and austerity. The Green Party, through the Progressive Alliance (PA), played a big part in this. But the Party saw its vote share drop. Hence a real feeling of ambivalence about the result. The country needs a thriving, confident and influential Green Party. So the next few months of debate really matter. Here I want to set out the achievements of the Party, the role of the progressive alliance and ideas about future strategy.

First though a bit of context. I’m a member of the Labour Party and chair of Compass, the good society pressure group. Compass has been greatly influenced by the Greens. We started out as a Labour orientated group but the involvement of Caroline Lucas and other Greens made us change our constitution so that anyone could join us if they shared our good society values. Many Greens have and its made us a much richer organisation. Today we have members of all progressive parties and none that share our good society goals of much greater equality, democracy and sustainability. This pluralism has made us so much stronger.

We had to learn fast

After Brexit and Trump the idea of a progressive alliance, which we had been quietly pushing, took off. And in a defensive environment, where everyone presumed politics was all about stopping a Tory landslide and the hardest possible Brexit the idea of the PA took off again when the snap election was called.

Like the Green Party, Compass wasn’t ready for the election. We presumed we had until 2020 to build relationships, ideas and organisation for a project that felt to us more cultural than electoral. We had to decide quickly whether to sit the election out or do what we could to minimise the threat of the regressive alliance in the shape of the Tories and UKIP. As an ideas and campaigning organisation we had never been involved with electoral politics. We had to learn fast.

The rest you know.  Theresa May was stopped in her tracks. Her slender majority with the DUP reduces the chances of a hard Brexit and destroys the possibilities of further draconian right-wing legislation. It is the Tories that are now in crisis – hanging on until something or someone turns up. This is a better outcome than anyone could have expected when the election was called on 18th April.

The Greens were instrumental in this huge political turn around. By putting the common good before party interest in some seats they did two things; they had a major impact on stopping the Tory juggernaut and they showed what a plural and mature form of politics looks like. It may not feel like it, but the country owes them a huge debt and a tremendous amount of goodwill now exists out there towards the party.

But the pluralism and big hearts of the Green Party were not the only factor in the result. Much to everyone’s surprise, even his, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour offer struck a real chord. Labour appealed to the young as never before and Momentum helped unprecedented numbers campaign effectively for the Party. The offer and the organisation combined with the fear of a Tory landslide to produce a remarkable vote share for Labour. By securing wins in unlikely places such as Canterbury and Kensington Labour has held the Tories back and put itself within shouting distance of power. 

Voters switch parties like they do 'apps'

The downside of course was the effect on the Green Party vote, with hope in seats such as Bristol West evaporating. ‘First past the post’ (FPTP) piled up votes for the two main parties in a way few saw coming. I don’t think anyone understands it yet – but social media seems to be allowing the re-aggregation of support around Labour and the Tories just when we thought we were in the era of multi-party politics. At one level its looks like a return to the two-party politics of the past. But below the surface things can and will keep shifting. In a networked society loyalties can move far and fast and are unlikely to stick. Just as people move from one platform to the next in the rest of their lives; from Instagram to WhatsApp, so the surges in politics to and from the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens, Brexit and now Labour will continue to ebb and flow. One in five electors voted tactically last June according to a study from the ERS. And 68% of votes didn’t count. Both the volatility of our politics and the unfairness of the voting system are for all to see. In this world no party owns the voters – there is no ‘our vote’ to be won or lost. For the Greens and everyone – this is both a curse and a blessing.

So what next for the Greens?

Participating in and endorsing the idea of a progressive alliance was the right thing for the Party to do. Non-tribalism now paves the only way to a create a non-tribal politics in which Greens are fairly represented. The road will be long to achieve this goal – but it is the only path the Greens can go down.

The rise in support for proportional representation (PR) in Labour, even given the ‘one more heave’ mentality of some, is because Labour people increasingly know it is the right thing to do. That building networks and alliances is the only way to win elections and sustain a radical government. Labour CLPs are passing pro-PR resolutions and the number of Labour MPs backing PR is at an all-time high. Some CLPs, such as Richmond, have passed motions saying the local party should be able to decide not to stand a candidate where it can’t win. Old opponents of PR are changing their minds. The unions are opening to it. Labour might embrace PR not through electoral necessity but in recognition that a new plural politics is the only way to really transform society. The Greens have a key role in showing the way.

Of course the progressive alliance could have handled things better. Compass could and possibly should have judged to take a more partisan role to help the Greens in some seats. The Green Party itself needn’t have stood down in some constituencies and could have done so in others with better effect, for example in Southampton West where Labour lost by a few dozen votes. With a few more wins from the 60-odd constituencies in which the progressive vote was bigger than the Tory vote, Jeremy Corbyn would be Prime Minister and Caroline Lucas, in a progressive alliance Government, could have been Secretary of State for Transport or some other high-level post. We could have been following Scotland’s lead and banning fracking in the UK, we could have been re-nationalising the railways - if the progressive alliance had worked even more effectively.

Labour's response is frustrating

Of course Labour’s response to the progressive alliance is hugely frustrating. The national leadership have little sense, fairness or solidarity when it comes to tactical voting or candidates generously standing aside. But turning around the Labour juggernaut on pluralism was always going to be a long and difficult task. Class and tribalism are burned deep into Labour’s psyche. But things are changing – albeit slowly. Labour must be won over to PR and pluralism. Many Labour MPs know they owe their seat to the Greens. Momentum has a spirit of openness and pluralism that challenges the old tribalism. This is the door we need to push at, not to join them in their tribalism, but keep on doing the right thing in the right way.

The Greens have many attributes. Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley are impressive party leaders. Other politicians such as Molly Scott Cato, Sian Berry and Amelia Womack are real assets. But a strategy of believing that the unique success of Caroline in the unique seat of Brighton Pavilion can be repeated elsewhere is setting a benchmark of success that FPTP makes it very difficult to meet. Especially against a revived Labour Party that is appealing to many party members, let alone supporters. So what should the Party do?

As I’ve written before here, the Greens can learn a lot from the influencing strategy of UKIP while totally rejecting its policies. UKIP changed the country but never relied or focused on winning at Westminster. This suggests three areas to think about.

First, electoral strategy. Votes and electoral pressure are the currency of politics but there was only ever a limited influence Greens can exert in this way. Support for UKIP was big enough and dense enough to threaten Tory and Labour seats in ways the Greens can’t. So target one or two constituencies and one or two councils. Or maybe better still focus on mayoral votes, police commissioners – and anywhere there is PR. Dig deep in the right places, in the cosmopolitan cities where sustainability, cultural and democratic issues are going to be more commonly held. Build on the good result in South Belfast and start organising now.  This pits Greens against Labour – but that’s okay – they will be seats where only a progressive party can win and the Tories are a long way behind. In so doing the Greens can force Labour onto their terrain.

In the seats where there is little or no chance of exerting electoral influence, the party will have more time to focus on the second element of the strategy – campaigning. My advice would be to pick one national issue on each of the environment, equality and democracy – where Greens, and only Greens, can make the headway. The Green Party must ‘weaponise’ climate change. Rising water levels and falling air standards, the mass movement of people because of climate change, increases in food and energy prices – these issues and more, as you know, have raced up the political agenda and need to be capitalised on. Maybe the Party should make more of the Green New Deal. Whatever the issues it needs national and sustained effort, and focus.

In terms of democracy the Green Party should be leading the fight for PR for the Commons, for local government and a second chamber. ‘First past the post’ no longer delivers strong and stable government. With support for PR in Labour rising – we all have to help run an overwhelming campaign for change.

A shorter working week

The third and final element of the strategy is the most exciting. In terms of equality the party could run a campaign on the case for a basic income and tie that in with a shorter working week. Such polices could be massively popular and support for both is rising. But again there must be focus.

It is the role of the Greens to prefigure the future both in terms of policy and political culture. Yes, the Party manifesto was good and they practice internal democracy. But, in all fairness, the Greens are hardly setting the world alight in terms of an exciting vision of the good society and coherent policy agenda that gets us there. Joining up work insecurity, basic income and a shorter working week into a popular and compelling narrative should be possible. Owning the future in this way will appeal to many voters. Again this is what UKIP did so well around insecurity - told relentlessly through the lens of immigration and the EU. The Greens need to find their own lens - and then stick with it.

Be the change you want to see in the world

And – though they are better than the rest – the Green Party hardly looks like a 21st century organisation. It employs a clunky form of democracy when it should be making participation deeper and more responsive. The fact that it takes so long to change policy, in a digital age, holds the Party and its leadership back. The Greens must learn from the likes of Podemos in Spain and the Alternative in Denmark and transform the thing they can most easily – themselves and the Party.

The trick is to get the balance between electoral politics, campaigning and prefiguring right. If the party spent a third of its time and resources on each then that would feel about right.

Of course, it’s not just about what the Green Party does. It’s also up to people like me and others to help run successful campaigns for PR in Labour and to boost the pluralists and the environmentalists. And it is up to Compass to think hard about how any progressive alliance in the future could ensure fairer outcomes.

The Greens are amazing people in what can be an amazing Party. It’s a party blessed with strong leadership. They believe the right things and have passion for them. So I say to the Greens - build on all these strengths. Your job, under FPTP, is to lead by example – which is a role that is as joyous as it is frustrating. It means you mustn’t conflate being in office with being in power. It is about the right change being made. Neither Farage nor Gandhi held high office – but they made change happen. If you can only win so many votes because of the injustice of the voting system – then focus on winning hearts and minds.

The Party has a choice – to go into tighter and tighter circles of tribalism or be the pluralist change you wish to see in the world. While it felt bad, the 2017 was the second-best result in vote share the party has ever had in a general election. Build on it. The future of progressive politics relies so much on you.

This is one of the contributions to a new pamphlet, 'The Progressive Alliance - Revisited' - with contributions from Caroline Lucas, Sarah Parkin, Jonathan Essex, Rupert Read, and Victor Anderson - available to download hereIt'.

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 


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