Across the media and online, the Green Party of England and Wales have drawn comparisons to the unusual weather we’ve experienced over the past fortnight: a welcome ray of sunlight, during a period of dismal turbulence that has been inspiring nobody. While basking in the warmth of their highest ever membership figures – now a reported 59,000, higher than the Liberal Democrats or UKIP – the party have released their most radical manifesto to date, positioning themselves firmly to the left of all the other major parties; and, in doing so, providing a further pole of attraction for those disillusioned by the various shades of austerity promised by the Tories, Lib Dems, UKIP, and the Labour leaders.
“A new kind of politics”
The manifesto is described by the Green Party leadership as a recipe book for a “peaceful political revolution”, to change today’s austerity-ridden society into one of fairness and equality – one that is, as the manifesto’s title suggests, “for the common good”. The Greens call for the creation of one million new jobs, the reclaiming of the railways into public hands, abolition of tuition fees with all previous student debt to be wiped, a massive-scale programme of social housing construction, and a £10 minimum (living) wage, amongst other policies - all genuine and much-needed reforms.
Most importantly, as Natalie Bennett, the Green Party leader emphasised in her manifesto launch speech, the Greens would end austerity and fund this programme of progressive reforms through cutting Trident and taxing the rich, with a “Robin Hood” (financial transactions) tax, a 2% wealth tax on the richest 1%, and higher taxes on corporations and those in the top income bracket. In the words of Bennett herself, “This is a new kind of politics, the end of politics as usual, the business-as-usual politics that accepts politics and society being run for the benefit of the few, not the many.”
It is for these reasons that thousands have flocked into Green Party, seeking an alternative to the parties of the political establishment. This surge of membership has been particularly fuelled by a rapid growth of the Young Greens, which now stands at 17,700 members, making it the largest youth section of any political party in the UK. And, despite the traditional image of the Greens as a single-issue ecology party, new members are increasingly been drawn towards the party on the basis of wider social issues relating to austerity and inequality - subjects that Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ sole MP currently, both emphasise in their speeches. As Clifford Fleming, the Young Greens Co-Chair, comments in a recent Green Party press statement:
“This [growth in youth membership] is a testament to the growing feeling among young people that it's time for something new in politics. We're sick of mainstream Westminster politics, sick of being told that we must suffer for the mistakes of the bankers, and sick of being made to feel like we don't have a voice.
“Young people are drawn to the Green Party because we put young people at the heart of our policies - offering free university education, a living wage, and decent affordable housing. We offer real, radical solutions to the problems the UK is facing - and our solutions have struck a real chord with young people all over the country.”
In short, the Greens are no longer a party of sandal-wearing, tree-hugger stereotypes (if indeed they ever were), but are growing rapidly on the basis of an explicitly left-wing programme that appeals to radicalised, disenfranchised, disaffected youth and others. Indeed, the Greens are even gaining a basis within the trade unions, with Peter Pinkney, the President of the RMT union, standing as a Green candidate in the traditional Labour stronghold of Redcar in the North East of England.
Greens under fire
When the capitalist establishment is threatened by a force that acts in opposition to its interests, it will attempt to close down said voice. As such, the Greens have come under fire from much of the mainstream media for being unable to provide full costings for their proposals – seemingly acting with a complete disregard for “economic feasibility” and just writing up a list of nice things they want.
Such accusations have been particularly forthcoming from the Labour leaders, who are most at threat by the “Green surge”. As the Guardian (14th April 2015) comments:
“Labour, to whom the Greens pose a serious threat by diverting anti-Tory voters in key seats, will say Bennett’s programme is wildly unrealistic. She prefers to call it idealistic. The Green pie is pitched way up in the left corner of the electoral sky in the hope of rallying voters who find Miliband’s compromises with governing pragmatism uninspiring.
“Liberated from any possible obligation to implement their plans and uninterested in swing votes from the right, the Greens have set up a beacon of high-tax, high-spend eco-socialism to rally voters that don’t like capitalism, haven’t forgiven Labour for making peace with it and either don’t believe Miliband when he says he wants to reform it or have stopped listening to “mainstream parties” altogether.”
Such criticism of “wildly unrealistic” policies from the Labour leaders itself reflects the pandering of Miliband and co. to the pressure of the Tories and the right-wing press. Keen to stress the “economic credibility” of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, at the recent launch of the Labour manifesto, highlighted Labour’s pledge of “fiscal responsibility”, with guarantees that the deficit would be cut every year, that all policies would be “paid for without a single penny of extra borrowing”, and that all tax and spend promises would be submitted to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
This pressure has changed the face of the Green Party over the past few months. As an article by Adam Johannes on the Planet Magazine website points out, following Natalie Bennett’s supposedly “car-crash” interview with LBC, the problem is not Bennett’s performance, but her approach in answering the loaded questions of the bourgeois media. As Johannes notes, “there is no reason a small party nowhere near becoming the next government needs a […] detailed plan of what they would do”. Rather than trying to debate on the narrow terms about the minutiae of the economics, as posed by such journalists and interviewers, Bennett should have responded politically and highlighted the elephant in the room: “we have the wealth to deliver a high quality of life to everyone if we radically redistribute power and wealth from the 1% to the 99%.”
“The gambit of demanding facts and figures,” Johannes correctly explains, “is one that establishment journalists have often used against the centre-left and radical-left, to shift the debate back to 'realistic' common sense policies within the neoliberal consensus. Unfortunately, the Greens’ desire to appear a 'credible' party in an establishment sense means they allow this shift of the debate onto the terrain of the political class and away from the lives of ordinary people.”
The crisis of reformism
Bowing under this pressure to prove their “credibility” - that is, to prove that they will not fundamentally challenge the capitalists and their profits - the Greens have tried to show how their reforms can work within capitalism, providing a costed programme with their manifesto, detailing whose pockets each bit of money will come from. Despite correctly accusing the other main parties of “singing the same tune” and being in “political harmony” in their recent - extremely popular - wry election broadcast, we see that the Green leaders have allowed themselves to be trapped in the same narrow debate as all these other parties. In desperately trying to differentiate themselves from the establishment parties, therefore, the Greens have done precisely the opposite.
All of the proposals put forward by the Green Party are certainly to be applauded, and are reforms that will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by the vast majority of workers and youth, who have experienced nothing but austerity for the past five years. However, Miliband and others are right to call the Greens’ manifesto promises “unrealistic”; for as long as the main levers of the economy remain in private hands, with an economic system based on competition and profit, such reforms will remain out of reach. As President Hollande in France or, more recently, Tsipras and the SYRIZA leaders in Greece have found, if you try to tax the rich without fundamentally taking economic power out of their hands, the result will be a flight of capital and a crippling of the economy.
In other words, austerity is not “ideological”, but flows from the laws and logic of capitalism. If one accepts capitalism, one must accept the consequences. This is the reason behind the Labour leaders’ desperate attempt to prove that they, like the Tories can be “trusted” with the economy - that is, trusted to defend capitalism and the profits of the rich. Their rhetoric about “fiscal responsibility” is merely the result of their lack of belief in the idea of any genuine change; a lack of faith in the ability for the masses to overthrow capitalism and transform society.
If we don’t act towards a radical change in the way society is run, to ensure that ordinary working people have complete control over the economy that ultimately they have created, then the only other alternative is the austerity we currently see everywhere across the world. Speaking at the This Changes Everything conference about radical solutions to combat climate change, Natalie Bennett herself correctly stated that “real political change happens in big jumps.” The task now is for the leaders of the Left and the labour movement to put these words into practice, by fighting for a clear, bold, socialist programme. There must be a tidal change in the way society is run – a revolutionary undercurrent is creating an immense feeling of disillusionment in society with the whole capitalist system, and this must be acted upon.