Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Scotland, Brighton and the role of Green Left by Sean Thompson

The election results last month were remarkable and instructive. At opposite ends of Britain there were victories that indicated the potential hollowness of the parties of the status quo, particularly Labour. In Scotland, a social democratic party committed to the break up of the British state won an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament, while in Brighton an environmentalist party with a radical leftwing agenda became the dominant political force in the city. There are some similarities in the development of the Scottish National Party and the Green Party in recent years which, I believe, have been significant and are worth examining.

Though it was established in 1934, the Scottish National Party languished on the margins of Scottish politics until Winnie Ewing won a by-election in 1967. This followed a gradual move towards more cautiously left wing policies and a realisation among key sections of the party’s leading activists that it had to aim to replace Labour in Scotland. Such developments were not universally popular in the party and following its crushing defeat in 1979 a civil war broke out between the ‘neither right nor left but Scotland’ elements of the party, who blamed the defeat on the party’s left of centre policies and the socialist 79 Group, who argued that the party should move further to the left and emphasise its social policies rather than its long term separatist

Interestingly, among this group - who were all expelled at one point - was Alex Salmond and several other members of the current leadership of the party. Since then the party has become clearly social democratic, has been (fairly) consistently to the left of Labour for years and has become increasingly identified with its shrewd and politically popular leader. Without trying to push the parallels too far, this has clear similarities to the development of the Green Party over the past few years.

Since the election of the Blair government in 1997 the vacuum on the left created by New Labour has tended to drag the Green Party to the left. I think that this has been due to three main factors. First, the New Labour’s lurch to the authoritarian free market right has forced some (but by no means all) of the party’s longer term members to move towards a more generalised critique of capitalism. Second, the failure of the various attempts at a regroupment of the non Labour Left and the utter inability of the traditional far left sects to get their act together has to some degree forced the Party to take a more active role on some issues - most
importantly, opposition to the cuts and proposals for an alternative economic strategy. Thirdly, there has been a steady trickle of refugees from the Labour Party and/or the far left into the Party, bringing with them elements of a far more focussed political/economic analysis of society and a more disciplined approach to political activity.

What the SNP appears to have learnt - and what it seems that a number of the Green Party’s leadership and ‘activists’ may be learning - is that banging on about one’s pet obsession or patent remedies is not likely to build your credibility among the mass of ordinary people but rather the   to be involved in the issues that concern them rather than the issues which which we think they aught to be concerned. And more than that;
we have to play an active part in helping embattled communities defend themselves rather than
being content to simply comment and propagandise.

So it is significant that last year’s election campaign stressed the Party’s commitment to economic and social equality and its proposals for an alternative to the three neoliberal parties’policies of cuts to prop up a shaky financial system, rather than some of the more arcane enthusiasms of our various lifestyle lobbyists. But there is still a great deal to do in focussing the Party’s campaigning on the key issues and achieving a balance between electoral work and grass roots organising and agitating - and that’s where Green Left comes in.

A role for Green Left in the coming period

Ian Angus hit the nail on the head when he said that the key task of ecosocialists is to ‘make Greens redder and Reds greener’. The point, however, is how to turn this excellent phrase into concrete activity in the coming period, particularly in relation to the role of socialists in the Green Party.

It seems to me that the interlinked crises facing capitalism - and in particular, the British ruling  class - have become chronic in nature. They are not going away, they are going to gradually intensify and there is the possibility of a flair up at any time - for example another major nuclear incident, an intensification and extension of the Greek crisis or any one of the several possible options for another Middle East oil crisis. At the moment though, popular consciousness in Britain has not developed far beyond an unfocussed, though visceral, loathing for ‘the bankers’ and a widespread distrust of politicians and there is no organisation on the left in a position to give voice even to the current grumbling in the ranks - certainly not to give it organised form.

While I don’t think that the Green Party is that organisation, even in nascent form, I do think that the Party could and should play a vital role in moving towards it. The main political weakness of the Green party - its apparent ideological rootlessness, its lack of an easily identifiable historical tradition - is also a potential source of strength. Greens like Caroline are able to argue for some extremely radical policies - and get listened to in a way that the much reduced ranks of the traditional left are not. She is also able to face down red baiting critics by happily saying that she is proud of the Green Party’s ‘socialist principles’ without leading to any outbreaks of panic in the streets - although there were probably some fits of the vapours in some parts of the Party when she said it. However, the dearth of political structured discussion and almost complete lack of any form of political education within the Party is a major weakness which is likely to lead to major tactical and strategic problems for us as the political situation sharpens.

In a recent discussion on the party’s members’ site about whether the party should explicitly describe itself as socialist, our own Roy Sandison suggested that ‘the Green Party can only be described as a left party (this is a positive) in the scale of things and in this context is also an anti capitalist party - especially given our core values and the changes needed to safe guard the planet and to promote real social justice and democracy.’ It seems to me that Roy gets to the nub of things when he argues that the Party’s ethos and policies make us all - no matter from which direction we have come - anti-capitalists. Our central role should be to make that message concrete at every opportunity and spread it throughout the membership.

Gramsci argued that there is a vital strategic distinction between a war of position and a war of manoeuvre. The war of position is intellectual, a war of ideas in which socialists must seek to create a counter-hegemonic block against the bourgeoisie encompassing all popular cultural and political structures - what Rudi Dutschke called ‘the long march through the institutions’. It is that long march we have to undertake in the Green Party.

In 1962, Milton Friedman unwittingly gave what I believe to be the clearest of descriptions of what the role of socialists needs to be in the Green Party (and elsewhere) when he wrote ‘only a crisis - real or perceived - produces real change.When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

What does this mean for what Green Left does and how we organise ourselves? At the moment, Green Left as an organised grouping within the Party scarcely exists between conferences. We are too easily obsessed with the success or defeat of this or that resolution, too concerned with (often obscure) constitutional issues and too interested in the real or imagined manoeuvrings of various would be political leaders who are in reality of little or no interest to anyone but themselves. We are too easily diverted into fruitless arguments - about
the errors of this or that councillor or committee member or the latest heinousness of the Party’s tiny and insignificant rump of zionists for example - that tend to demonstrate to many members outside GL that we are as bitter and obsessive as most of the traditional far left sects.

Of course, that is not to say that organising to put our views across at conference is not important, or that conference decisions are irrelevant or that reactionary ideas should not be challenged as and when they arise. But those things are not our raison d’etre and as often as not are a distraction from what really matters.

If the major weaknesses within the Party are the low level of political awareness and consequent low level of political activity of much of the membership, the lack of understanding of the anti capitalist logic of green politics and the lack of political space for debate and education, then we should be organising primarily to address those weaknesses rather than trying to act a politically homogenous faction, which we aren’t and which we don’t need to be - for now. We should be providing the forum for ideas and discussion and political education that the Party corporately fails to do. Concretely, I think that we should set about doing the following things over the next year:

Establish local/regional discussion groups

We should set up regular discussion meetings on a city wide (say, Manchester or Bristol or Birmingham) or regional (London, West Midlands) basis. These should be as open as possible rather than closed Green Party only meetings and wherever possible should seek the involvement of other socialist individuals or groups in the area. The meeting that Pip and other comrades in Brighton organised is a good example of what we should be doing all over the place. While we should endeavour to get as many non GL members from both inside and outside the Party to speak at these events we should also assemble our own panel of speakers.

Establish an on-line discussion magazine

At the moment we have, for reasons I can’t quite remember, two websites. One of those - The Watermelon, I assume - should be transformed into an online magazine with articles of sufficient length to give issues proper consideration. Contributions should be downloadable in PDF. We should have a small editorial group and should produce three or four issues a year, perhaps with each issue having a different theme, as well should be sought beyond the membership of GL (and from both within and outside the Party) and article as a news commentary  and reviews. I think we should be regularly publishing policy papers on areas such as workplace democracy, education, transport, housing and so on and so on. In the absence of much planned policy development within the Party, such policy papers could serve to focus discussion within the Party and at Conference on areas we consider important rather than the current rag bag of reactions to current events and random individual obsessions that make up Conference agendas.

We should seek to get articles republished elsewhere and should republish articles from elsewhere that we think worthwhile.

Produce regular bulletins and policy papers

We currently produce a short bulletin for each conference and we have produced one pamphlet. I believe that we should produce an additional two bulletins a year and republish major policy papers from the online magazine from time to time enlarged to become pamphlets.

Raise funds consistently

At the moment, we ask our supporters for at least five pounds a year to cover our running costs. However, that income only barely covers the costs of our two small conference bulletins and room hire for our quarterly meetings. In our recent collaboration with Socialist Resistance on the very successful Hugo Blanco tour we were in the embarrassing position of having to rely on them - with fewer members than us - carrying virtually all the costs of what was supposed to be a joint venture. If we are to undertake any serious political activity, no matter how modest, we must have a significantly higher regular income. If even just 20 comrades contributed just £5 a month - surely hardly any sacrifice for all but our most hard up supporters - we would have enough income to begin to do some of the work outlined above. I suggest that we have set a target of £150 a month by the autumn rising to £250 a month by next spring.

Sean Thompson
June 2011

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