Across Europe, support for the traditional parties of bourgeois democracy has collapsed. There is a ferment in society, with swings both to the left and to the right taking place as people look for an alternative to the various shades of austerity promised by these parties of the so-called "centre-ground". The crisis of capitalism has exposed the rottenness of the mainstream parties, as governments of both the social democrats and the right-wing – sometimes even in coalition together! – have carried out the cuts on behalf of the bosses and bankers.
In Spain and Greece we see the rise of the radical left on the basis of mass movements of workers and youth, in the form of PODEMOS and SYRIZA respectively. In Italy, it is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement – the populist party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo – that has shot up in the polls. Meanwhile, in France, it is the Front National, the far-right, anti-Europe party, that has benefitted from disillusionment with the so-called “Socialist” government of François Hollande.
In Britain, the popularity of both the Tories and Liberal Democrats has suffered as a result of being part of a coalition committed to austerity – the Lib Dems particularly so for betraying their “principles” in the eyes of many (now former) supporters. Labour, meanwhile, have barely benefitted from the hatred towards the parties in government; unsurprisingly so, given that the Labour leaders promise very little different to the Con-Dem Coalition if elected, other than cuts that are ever-so-slightly “lower-and-slower”.
From the support for privatisations and the Iraq war during the Blair years, to the more recent alliance with the Tories and Liberals in the NO camp of the Scottish independence referendum, Labour are more and more being seen as yet another party of the Establishment, standing for maintenance of the bankrupt status-quo. The result is that the biggest group to grow out of the disgust with the coalition parties is the “stay-at-home” party, with many choosing to abstain rather than endorse one of the mainstream parties that have barely a hair’s breadth between them.
The main focus in the media has been on UKIP and the SNP, which together threaten to draw away votes from the Tories and Labour respectively. But quietly, in the background, there is another growing force on the electoral plane: the Green Party.
Surge from where?
Having achieved a vote of less than 1% nationally in the 2010 general election, a recent “Green surge” has resulted in recent polls showing support for the party at around 6-7% - neck-and-neck with the Liberal Democrats. Other opinion polls, meanwhile, indicate that the Greens may even be ahead of the Lib Dems. One Ipsos Mori survey indicated that 43% of people would consider voting Green, whilst a recent YouGov poll showed that the potential support for the Green Party actually outstrips that for UKIP. Indeed, an online poll by Voteforpolicies.org.uk revealed that if people solely voted on the basis of parties’ policies, the Greens would come top with 26% of the vote.
With an existing base of support in Brighton, where they hold both the parliamentary seat for Brighton Pavilion and the council for Brighton & Hove, the Greens are planning on standing MP candidates in over 500 constituencies for the 2015 election, with their eye on a dozen priorities that are considered winnable.
In Scotland, the Greens have been rewarded for their support of the Radical Independence Campaign, with membership of the Green Party rising to over 5,000 north of the border. Indeed, with the Scottish Nationalists gaining even more significantly, the electoral mathematics is such that the Green Party could end up supporting a Labour-SNP alliance in Parliament.
This rising support for the Greens has sparked controversy, due to the exclusion of the Greens by broadcasters from the party leaders’ televised election debates. To date, over 270,000 people have signed a petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the Green Party leader, to be included in the pre-election televised debates.
Green Party membership, meanwhile, has increased by 45% since January to a current figure of over 25,000. In particular, there has been an influx of youth, with youth membership increasing by 70% over the same period. Indeed, the composition of Green voters is considerably younger than average, with 55% of Green supporters under the age of 40, compared to only 37% for the electorate as a whole. A quick look at the key target seats for the Green Party gives a further indication of this: Brighton Pavilion, Bristol West, Norwich South, and London Holborn & St Pancras – all student-dominated constituencies.
To best understand where potential Green voters are coming from, one only has to look at who has been most vocal about the Green surge: the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The disaffection and disenchantment towards the Labour Party has played an obvious role in driving people towards the Greens as a potential left alternative, with 60% of those considering the Greens self-defining as being politically left-of-centre. Public statements by leading Green figures and the party’s explicitly left-wing programme – which promises to “fight austerity and welfare cuts at home and in Europe” and to “oppose privatisation and fight for public services to be in public hands” – provide further clear evidence of whose votes the Greens are aiming to win.
A headache for Miliband
The rise of the Greens has clearly given the Labour Party cause for concern, with leading Labour figures stating that they could lose up to 17 seats as a result of the Green surge – enough to seriously threaten their chances of forming a government. It is not so much that the Greens stand to win in 17 places themselves, but more that – like UKIP with the Tories – they could take enough votes off Labour to deny them victory in marginal seats.
Importantly, figures show that it is not so much a case of voters switching from red to green, as of Labour failing to capitalise on the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, who, following their entrance into coalition with the Tories and their reversal on the question of tuition fees, have seen supporters abandon the party in droves. Whereas only 3% of 2010 Labour voters would now consider voting Green, this same figure stands at 12% for former supporters of Nick Clegg’s party.
This haemorrhage of support from the Lib Dems was particularly bad in the case of students and the left-leaning middle-classes, who once saw the Liberal Democrats as an untainted alternative to Labour, opposing the war and fees. Indeed, surveys show that Green supporters are precisely the demographic that once looked towards the Lib Dems: young, educated, and middle-class. In short, thanks to their extremely mild and meek programme, the Labour leaders have been completely unable to capitalise on the hatred towards the coalition parties, and instead find themselves lumped in alongside them as yet another party that supports this broken capitalist system.
The worries of Miliband and co. regarding the rising green tide are such that they have even gone so far as to appoint Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, as the party’s “Anti-Green tsar”, tasked with combatting the bleed of voters from Labour towards their newly-emerged rivals. But with the Labour leaders committed to cuts, Khan is fighting a losing battle, as his party finds itself outflanked on the left.
As a result, the Shadow Justice Minister’s fightback against the Greens has mainly been reduced to a pathetic display of negative campaigning. Just as David Cameron has warned disillusioned former Tory supporters that if they vote UKIP they will get Miliband as Prime Minister, Khan has tried to emphasise that a vote for Green will only help secure a Conservative-led government.
Meanwhile, Khan tries to warn potential voters that the Green Party’s promises are no more than an idealistic utopia. “What the Green party do very successfully round the country,” Khan asserts, “is give the impression to potential voters that utopia lies the other side of voting for Green. I’m keen for people thinking about voting Green to see in reality what happens when a Green administration is running things.”
Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader who has similarly tied himself to a programme of seemingly endless austerity, has echoed these sentiments, stating that, “One of the very worst things that could happen to the SNP north of the border or Nigel Farage, south of the border or even the Greens is if they actually had to take all the big decisions that we, as the United Kingdom as a whole, face.”
The Labour and Lib Dem leaders, therefore, so we are told, are the “pragmatic” and “respectable” statesmen, willing to take the “difficult decisions” that the “economy demands”. Stripped of its Orwellian doublespeak, this simply translates as: we are carrying out measures on behalf of the capitalists, taking the actions demanded by the laws and logic of capitalism, the system that we defend; austerity and cuts are the only option under capitalism, and anyone who promises an alternative to this is either lying or utopian.
With what programme?
What exactly are these supposedly utopian promises of the Greens? A quick glance at their official manifesto, not to mention the fiery statements by their leader Natalie Bennett, provide a good overview of the Green Party programme:
- Oppose austerity – tax the rich to reduce the deficit by clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance, and by introducing a wealth tax of 2% on the richest 1%.
- For a living wage, with a target minimum wage of £10 by 2020.
- Reduce inequality by introducing a cap on corporate pay.
- Protect the NHS and put an end to “stealth privatisation”.
- Bring academies and free schools back into local authority control.
- Abolish tuition fees.
- Constitutional change to introduce an elected Upper House, with proportional representation in both houses.
- Oppose TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
- Build social housing.
- Bring local buses back under public control and renationalise the railways.
- Green investment to create jobs, build and insulate homes, and generate renewable energy.
All noble causes and good intentions it seems. Indeed, the Greens have clearly become more than just a single-issue party that can only talk about the environment. But such a programme, however, contains nothing that goes beyond the confines of the capitalist system – a system which today, in an epoch of crisis, stagnation, and decline, allows no room for reforms, and instead demands austerity, cuts, and attacks on living standards. Far from providing the conditions for genuine, progressive reforms, capitalism now is taking away the reforms won in the past – hence the privatisation of the NHS, the assault against pensions and the welfare state, and the fall in real wages.
In this respect, Miliband, Clegg, Cameron, and co. are correct: the demands of the Greens – and of other left-reformists like them – are utopian. As ever, the question must be asked: are the cuts really just ideological? If this were the case, then how does one explain the inability of all governments across Europe – both of the “left” and of the right – to provide any alternative to austerity? We must tell the truth: within the straightjacket imposed by capitalism – a system of private ownership and production for profit – there is no alternative.
It is not just a case of the “nasty” Tories implementing austerity and cuts. In France, it is the so-called “Socialist” government of François Hollande that is now carrying out cuts, having reneged – under the pressure of big business – on their pre-election promise to provide jobs and growth by taxing the rich.
It is capitalism, ultimately, and the competition upon which it thrives, that demands attacks on working conditions and wages. Each capitalist strives to increase their profits by driving down their costs and pushing their rivals out of the market. Internationally, the nation state acts to protect the interests of its own national bourgeoisie against those in other countries. This means slashing wages and corporation taxes, as well as any legislation and so-called “red tape” – including health, safety, and environmental regulations – that add to the cost of production. Hence the inability of political leaders across the world to resolve global questions, including the environmental concerns such as climate change that the Greens are so concerned about.
As long as any society basis itself on capitalist relations, each government will be forced to participate in this worldwide race to the bottom in order to “encourage investment” and provide the best conditions for Capital. Again, this means providing the lowest wages, the fewest labour laws, the lowest taxes on business, and the least regulation. Tax avoidance and evasion – reliant upon various tax-free havens and obscurely named methods such as the “Double Irish” and “Dutch Sandwich” – is, therefore, not an anomaly under capitalism, but an intrinsic part of the system.
To actually make the rich pay their “fair share” (whatever this might be), a government would have to have a monopoly on trade, with control over the banks through which money passes, alongside a policy for big business to “open up the books” to representatives from the labour movement – the only people who could independently provide judgement on such an issue. But such measures, in turn, would be introducing elements of public ownership and workers control into the economy, threatening the very basis of capitalism itself. Again, we see that to actually achieve reforms, it is necessary to take revolutionary measures.
You can’t control what you don’t own
The question of energy and the environment in fact best demonstrates the limitations of the Greens own programme. They call for more renewable energy, reduced emissions, and investment in energy efficiency – all at the same time as demanding lower energy bills, stating that they “will not force vulnerable people to choose between eating and heating”.
Again, these are all admirable and worthy demands, which any socialist would of course support. But the question must be asked: how are such demands to be achieved in practice? Who is to make the investments required? And how are these to be afforded?
In essence, the Green Party programme is Keynesian, calling for the equivalent of a “Green New Deal”, with government investment and regulation to create jobs and provide public services, etc. But who is to pay for this? At a time of sky-high national debts, and when financial markets are forcing governments of all colours to cut public spending, how can anyone expect the government to suddenly find a few extra billion down the back of the sofa to afford the sort of measures that are necessary to seriously combat climate change?
The Green answer – as with all left-reformists – is to increase taxes. But again, who pays? The government has no money of its own, and can spend only by raising taxes – either from the capitalists or from ordinary households. But a tax on the capitalists means biting into their profits, which will be resisted tooth-and-nail by the bosses and the bankers through strikes of investment, bringing the country to its knees. A tax on households, meanwhile, means placing the burden onto the shoulders of workers and the poorest in society, precisely at a time when many already – as the Greens themselves admit – are being forced to “choose between eating and heating”.
Furthermore, even if the mass of ordinary people vote for the Greens and decide to make environmental questions a priority, as long as all the main levers of industry and production remain in the private hands, the real decision-makers in society will be the bosses. It is these ladies and gentlemen who, behind closed doors, make all the most important decisions under capitalism: what is produced; where to invest; which jobs to create; etc. etc.
The fundamental point is this: you cannot control what you don’t own. For all the good intentions regarding investment and jobs, as long as the banks and the major monopolies – including the construction firms, transport industry, and energy companies – remain under private ownership, we as a society can have no real democratic say over how society operates and runs. Instead, the management of society is left to the anarchy of the market and the chaos of the invisible hand.
Nationalise the commanding heights!
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, discovered this himself when trying to win approval through a promise to freeze energy prices. With the country facing a potential future of blackouts, due to a lack of investment in electricity supplies by private utility firms, alongside rising energy bills that lead to millions of households officially classed as being in “fuel poverty”, it is clear that something needs to be done. But by only seeking to tinker around the edges, Miliband simply ended up angering the big business energy beasts, who promptly threatened to withdraw future investment in new supplies and raise prices in advance of the election unless the Labour leader could promise to protect their profits.
Again, we see how capitalism is inherently anarchic: all attempts to regulate it merely lead to the opposite result of what is intended. In trying to avoid energy blackouts, Miliband only increased their future likelihood; in attempting to decrease energy bills, the actions of so-called “Red Ed” only served to make them even higher. And yet, despite this behaviour by the fat-cat energy firms, who clearly cannot be expected to solve the energy crises facing this country, one can find no mention in the Green Party programme of any demand for nationalisation of the utility companies – a measure that is supported by 68% of the public according to surveys.
The question, therefore, is neither scientific nor financial. The money needed to solve environmental problems exists, as do the technologies; the problem is that both the wealth and ideas in society are held in the hands of tiny few, and will only be utilised for the sake of profit. It is, above all, a political question – a class question about who owns, and thus controls, the wealth, industry, and ideas in society.
In turn, it is private ownership that prevents the planning and co-ordination that is needed to resolve environmental problems. There is no “silver bullet” in terms of technology that can solve the issue of climate change; yet solutions do exist involving the integration of renewable energy, electric transport, and domestic energy demand management. But how can such integration and co-ordination happen when all these different sectors are run by private firms whose nature is to compete instead of co-operate? Rather than implementing a democratic and rational plan of production – utilising the vast wealth and technological resources at our disposal – therefore, we are left in a state of societal paralysis in terms of solving fundamentally ecological questions regarding the future of our planet.
Ideological heterogeneity and confusion
Formed out of the PEOPLE Party in 1972, which later became the Ecology Party before finally settling on their current label in 1985, the Green Party have always contained a certain ideological confusion and amorphousness within their ranks.
On the one hand, we see prominent figures such as (now Sir) Jonathan Porritt, the Eton-educated son of Lord Porritt, who chaired the Ecology Party between 1978 and 1984. Sir Porritt, who is now an environmental advisor to big business (and even Prince Charles!), is famous for advocating market-based mechanisms and Malthusian “solutions” (i.e. population controls) – that is, reactionary demands – as the way to combat ecological issues.
On the other hand, we see equally prominent individuals within the Greens, such as Derek Wall, the co-Principal Speaker of the Green Party until 2008 and self-confessed eco-socialist and anti-capitalist, who has explicitly stated on many occasions the link between the capitalist mode of production and environmental destruction. Wall has been an outspoken figure within the Green Party, criticising self-declared “pragmatists” such as Porritt for attempting to ditch the radicalism of the Greens and dilute down the politics of the party.
The Green Party, then, is a broad-church, accommodation a variety of disparate views, including contradictory positions on how to solve the environmental issues that lie at the heart of the party’s founding programme.
At heart, this ideological heterogeneity of the party reflects the heterogeneity of their primarily middle-class base – a middle-class that is itself polarising at this time of deep capitalist crisis, between those who are just about able to escape from the gravitational pull of the crisis, and those that are sucked into this economic Black Hole and destroyed by it.
At the same time, the Greens have very little in terms of roots amongst the working class, with few ties to the organised labour movement. In other words, in the Greens we see a party composed primarily of individuals. Whilst the Green Party leaders may currently be expressing the radicalisation in society to a certain degree, therefore, in the long run there is no mechanism by which the mass of workers and youth can voice their demands in an organised and collective manner.
Such ideological variety and confusion was demonstrated in Brighton, where the Greens simultaneously hold the parliamentary seat and control the local council. Faced with the pressure to carry out the same Tory cuts as every other council, the Brighton & Hove City Council – including its Green councillors – voted in 2013 to slash the pay of its employees, including workers hired for cleaning, refuse collection, and recycling. Some workers saw their wages cut by as much as £4,000 per year. These cleaning staff, organised in the GMB union, immediately refused to work and later successfully balloted for strike action, with the latest strike taking place on 3rd October this year.
These events caused an open split in the Greens, with local MP Caroline Lucas coming out openly in support of the striking GMB members and against the Brighton Green councillors, thus demonstrating the Green’s lack of a genuine clear alternative when put into a position of power. The same story can be seen in other countries, where Green parties with a larger share of the vote compared to their British counterparts have acted as political chameleons, changing their colours to help support right-wing administrations. Examples include the German state of Hesse, where the Greens are in coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), and the Swedish province of Scandia, where the Green Party has helped support privatisations and cuts to healthcare.
Fight for a socialist programme!
What we see, therefore, in this epoch of worldwide economic crisis is that there is no room for ideological confusion on how to oppose austerity and fight for genuine reforms. Within the confines of capitalism, there is no alternative but to cut. If any party or leader accepts capitalism, then it must accept the logic of capitalism – a logic which demands that ordinary people pay for the crisis through attacks on living standards; on pay, jobs, welfare, and public services.
The growing discontent with the status quo means that the Greens may end up with a few MPs after the 2015 General Election, who in turn could end up supporting a Labour-led government. But if the Green leaders do not challenge capitalism, they will end up submitting to the same austerity programme that the current Labour leaders have resigned themselves to also. The result will be a complete discrediting of the Greens, in the same way that their Liberal Democrat predecessors have been discredited by supporting the current Tory-led Coalition.
Millions of people, in Britain and internationally, are looking for a way out of this crisis; looking for an alternative to the decades of stagnation and austerity that lie ahead under capitalism. This is reflected by the rising attention on popular figures such as Russell Brand, who is looked up to by thousands of radicalised youth – and vilified in the bourgeois press – for his open attacks against the Establishment and calls for Revolution.
If the Greens wish to genuinely capitalise on the desire for change in society, then they must be willing to stand for a real change. This means putting forward a clear, bold, socialist programme – to take the wealth and industry in society out of the hands of the 1% and place it under the control of ordinary people; to nationalise the banks and the major monopolies under workers’ control as part of a democratic and rational plan of production; to fight for the socialist transformation of society in Britain and internationally. This is the only alternative.