There was a moment, early in 2010, when it seemed as if the sclerotic structure of British politics with its regular metronomic shifts between Labour and Conservative was, finally, going to be broken. With an election inevitable by May and with the smell of the Parliamentary expenses scandal still rising there was much rhetoric about new dawns and a new politics. In April in this blog, I myself asked Is a Revolution on the Way? The answer was a resounding No as, again, I noted in June. In particular, the May 2010 election was a disaster for the left, in particular for the Green Party. This had placed great hopes on it, standing a record number of candidates, over 200 in England and Wales. In the outcome, it only saved its deposit in three constituencies and, overall, showed a drop in votes over 2005, often more than 40% with the voting in London being particularly dismal. In Hampstead, for example, the vote dropped by 62% to only 759.
However, this overall failure was balanced by the one great success, the election of Caroline Lucas as the first Green Party M.P. in the House of Commons. In one way, this success outbalanced all the failures as it provided British politics with a recognisable star, a politician untainted by scandal with intelligence, flair and wit and with an outstanding ability to communicate. This was quickly recognised by Compass, the Labour Party pressure group, whose chair, Neal Lawson, suggested that she was the best leader Labour didn’t have and adopted her as Compass’ non-Labour icon. Perhaps the high point of this recognition was her speech at a rally following a large student protest march which showed that she was one of the few, perhaps only, politicians in Britain, who can move a mass audience with a clear and principled political speech. At the end of 2010, it seemed that the possibility existed for a mass mobilisation around Coalition cuts which could form outside the stifling hand of the Labour Party and which could form the basis for some kind of new left formation. In the chattering class in London there was much talk of ‘pluralism’, something emphasised at the Compass fringe meeting at the Labour conference in Manchester that year at which Lucas made a fleeting trip north of Watford, though when pressed no one seemed inclined to define the idea too precisely.
Unfortunately these hopes have now dissipated. The various anti-cuts groups have drifted off into the usual sectarian squabbling, the union backlash promised by Len McCluskey ― the Arthur Scargill of our days ― has failed to materialise and there is no sign whatever of any left formation, coalition, grouping, what-you-will, to challenge the dispirited political hegemony of the Labour Party over English left politics. In particular, Lucas has drifted off into a kind of serial Guardian letter-signing and the Green Party has failed to use her electoral success to improve its marginal position in public perception. It achieved a bounce in membership following the general election (but then so did all political parties even including the BNP) but this did not translate into political action. Indeed, writing as a Green Party member, the sudden prominence of having its first M.P. seemed to throw the party into a kind of genteel panic as to just how it should conduct itself on a national stage. Of course this is understandable given the limited size of the party. Even so, there are some structural problems which have served to constrain it.
The first of these is that the Green Party of England and Wales, to give its full title, is not really a national political party at all in the conventional sense. Indeed, historically, it has always been structured in organisational opposition to how other parties function. Essentially, the Green Party is a set of local groups working largely in isolation from each other, each with its own constitution, internal procedures and local membership. There is a small London-based secretariat, regional associations and a national executive but these have little or no contact with the largely autonomous local groups. The branch-secretary of my own party in Manchester, which covers five constituencies and is one of the larger local parties, tells me that he has never had any communication from the national headquarters other than the quarterly review sent to all members. This structure is deliberate and in full agreement with the GP Constitution which asserts that “The general practice of the Party shall be to encourage the greatest possible autonomy of each Local Party in its pursuit of the Object of the Party.” This local autonomy is coupled with a national constitution which for byzantine complexity (it runs to 25 pages) is more like the rulebook for a trade-union resulting from a dozen amalgamations than any constitutional basis for a national political party.
The result of this combination of absolute local autonomy and bureaucratic complexity at the national level is predictable; a central secretariat which operates on managerial lines (it is run, astonishingly, by a Chief Executive Officer rather like a City bank) and which absorbs most of the revenue but without any significant contact with or control over local parties, a national executive which has no clear role and which cannot fill its constitutionally defined membership, (this year the two posts of Campaigns and Policy Coordinators went unfilled by any nomination whilst most other jobs had but one nomination), and local groups which vary widely in the emphasis of their activities. In practice, the Green Party operates as a series of informal networks without any clear coordination and with rivalries and political conflicts muffled though still present. An example of the muddle which pervades the party is the ‘job-share’ which invariably crops up whenever two people aspire to the same role. Rather than have the horror of a contested election, the two are asked to work in tandem, an arrangement which, to be euphemistic, always results in much less than the sum of its parts. One of Caroline Lucas’ more alarming ideas was to allow M.Ps to be elected on a similar job-share basis.
It is both inevitable that this curious combination of extreme local autonomy and great constitutional complexity that the Green Party finds it very difficult to mount any kind of national campaign particularly anything that requires leading a coalition of political agents. It encourages members to participate in campaigns organised by others; Caroline Lucas and other luminaries lend their names to honorary positions in these and speak on their platforms often very effectively. But national leadership is sadly missing. Instead local elections are pursued with fervour as though the success of the LibDems since the 1980s in building up prominence in local government can be copied, losing sight of the fact that they started with an existing bunch of parliamentary seats and several nationally known leaders.
A further problem for the Greens is that on most policy areas, in particular those associated with environmental and economic issues they are out-gunned by much better resourced NGOs whose policy nostrums are difficult to contest. It is not so much that these policies are mistaken but that they are pursued in ways appropriate to a lobby group rather than a political party with little concern for priorities or compromises or, perhaps most important, with the aim of projecting a complete policy package. There have been times in the last few months when the Green Party has seemed to be much more concerned with badger culling than with the economic crisis in Europe. Of course, it can be argued that with its limited resources it is possible to have some impact on the former whilst being essentially irrelevant to the latter. But this misses the point. To be seen as a credible national party, we have to be seen as a political force able, potentially, to provide answers to the global economic crisis as well as the future well-being (or otherwise) of badgers.
It is not that the Green Party lacks policy. It has pages and pages of it, all laboriously worked out through the complex mechanisms of its policy formation and which cover all possible policy areas. The problem is that it does not seem to cohere in any way into a complete political programme. To some degree this results from the decidedly wacky nature of some of the central policies, in particular the economic. However, the main problem is political; a kind of nervousness about pushing for a programme which could unite others in the green/red coalition which has been talked about for a couple of decades but which never quite materialises.
This is a real tragedy for left politics. Labour manifestly flails around trying but failing to find any replacement for the neo-liberal policies of Blair and Brown and being reduced to Balls’ bombast and Milliband’s soporific clichés. There is on offer a clear political alternative based upon sustainability and equality which breaks with the fetishism of economic growth. A recent exposition of this is Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, but there are numerous other sources. Presented boldly as a way out of the current asphyxiating political climate where all three main parties sound much the same and none are believed, there could be the basis for a major political breakthrough. Unfortunately, the Green Party has failed to take advantage of the post-election window and it may not come again.