Caroline Lucas has announced that she will not seek re-election as Green Party leader later this year, in a move aimed at increasing the exposure of other leading Greens. It’s a wise move; Caroline’s achievement has been enormous, raising the profile of the Party by gaining our first Westminster seat and providing what has at times looked like a lone Westminster voice against the politics of neoliberalism and austerity. We have our first Green council, working to confront the huge issues of making a Green case in against parameters dictated by central Government.
The risks have always been that as a Party we could come to look like a one-woman band, and that Caroline could be stretched too thin. Her decision is as good a way as any to minimise those risks.
A leadership election provides an opportunity to reflect on what sort of a party we want to be. Greens have always been rightly sceptical about cults of party leaders – it was a tough (but with hindsight surely right) decision for this party to adopt a single leader at all. But this election does give an opportunity to think and debate about what we want the party to be.
These, then, are the personal thoughts of just one not very active Green Party member about what he sees as the priorities of a new leadership. I’m not talking about policy details here, and I’m certainly not criticising Caroline’s leadership which I believe has addressed these issues in a way that no other UK politician has come close to managing. But these are themes that I believe an effective Green movement must address. Those thoughts fall naturally into three (inevitably linked) categories: dealing with the crisis in democracy, reshaping our economic agenda, and creating a sustainable, fair and cohesive society. All of these lead naturally into a fourth – the need for a return to evidenced discourse and a challenge to the prevailing ideological narratives.
Dealing with a crisis of democratic legitimacy
If there is one theme that has run through everything I have written on this blog it is the depth of the democratic crisis we face, here in Britain and more generally in the developed world. The situation in Britain is desperate: three main Westminster parties all pushing a neoliberal agenda and arguing over nuance and who is better qualified to implement it, with an electorate that is increasingly unwilling to vote at all, and a feral media united in an apparent determination to avoid intelligent debate that goes beyond the Westminster consensus. Even in those parts of the UK where government is devolved, there is no real debate. In the meantime, the failure of that Westminster neoliberal consensus is becoming clearer by the day. And there is a quiet consensus to limit the scope of active democracy – for example a localism agenda that seeks to turn effective local government into commissioning bodies doling out contracts to companies providing services for profit.
It is a simple and overpowering fact that many of the measures that characterise this Government were things that neither Coalition party dared put explicitly to the electorate at the last election – the effective destruction of state-provided healthcare, savage public expenditure cuts, cuts in benefit for the disabled, £9000 tuition fees. But all of them were there in the public domain if you looked below the surface – by reading the Orange Book for example – and every single one of them is effectively a continuation of what Labour did in office. But nobody, explicitly, voted for these things.
It is almost as if the main parties are fomenting an active suspicion of democratic institutions and practices. Britain must be the only country in the world in which politicians and the media actively campaign against existing human rights legislation, which does no more than enshrine basic convention rights. Political dissent is being marginalised and in some cases criminalised; the pre-emptive arrest of a republican street theatre group before last year’s Royal Wedding is just one particularly telling example. But the use of aggressive police tactics against dissent, like the collective punishment of kettling, and the growing privatisation of public space, are all examples of a society which increasingly seems afraid of those who challenge the consensus. All these are symptoms of a polity racked by fear, acknowledging tacitly its lack of legitimacy. Liberal Democrats used to claim to be upholders of civil liberties – on this issue, as in so many others, they have been shown up in Government as a party of time-serving liars.
The new Green Party leader must be an unequivocal defender of democracy – as, indeed, Caroline Lucas has been. Most importantly the Green Party must reach out to those who have been left behind by Britain’s failing democracy, and must seek to re-engage them in a democratic process. It’s a challenge about how we as a party conduct ourselves – not just through our own democratic processes, but by reaching out to people who are, frankly, not well-represented in our Party structures; the poorest and most vulnerable. I believe we are a society that is ripe for a growth in fascism, and in which the democratic model that both the mainstream politicians and the media present is a sort of eviscerated consumerism, in which a concept of “choice” that has little to offer beyond decisions about whether to buy Jaffa Cakes or Hobnobs in the Co-Op has been elevated into a central mantra of Government. As Greens we have to reject X-Factor democracy and engage with people and ideas that are routinely dismissed or even demonised by the Westminster consensus; it means arguing that democracy is not about choices between market options but about mature collective decision-making, based on trust.
One of the most powerful facts about mainstream British politics is the way in which the Labour Party, which claims to speak for the poor and vulnerable, has long since ceased to do so in any meaningful way. Labour luminaries from Ed Miliband to Liam Byrne are quite happy to speak the language of benefit scroungers, of feral underclasses and of forced workfare while still arrogantly assuming that they have a God-given right to the votes of the people from whom they have walked away and whom they casually demonise. Understandably, those people have walked away from Labour in their millions since the high-water of 1997. The new Green Party leader must understand – and act on the understanding – that Labour is a disgrace, and must understand that it is their duty, and the duty of the Party, to speak for and engage with those people – to give them a voice, and hope, and a stake in the democratic process.
Empowerment must be at the top of the Green Party’s agenda. There is no other party that is seriously placed to act as an advocate of democratic renewal.
Reshaping the economic agenda
Austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. That simple fact must be at the heart of the Green Party agenda. Neoliberalism, for all its language about freedom, is a deeply anti-democratic creed; where the enrichment of the few clashes with democratic choice, neoliberals will always choose the former, as a growing track-record shows. And we as a party need to see that the real fault-line in economic policy is not between Westminster parties but between those who believe in the neoliberal doctrine of austerity – the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party leadership, the SNP, big business (obviously),the media, the academic economic establishment – and those who argue for another way – the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, many Labour people, quite a lot of people who have been Liberal Democrats (I’m assuming those with a sense of decency will have torn up their membership cards a long time ago), a growing number of economic commentators, and people of no party who consistently reject neoliberalism at the ballot box and who are the victims of what looks increasingly like the biggest Establishment wealth grab since the Enclosure Acts.
A Green Party leader must explicitly and resonantly reject the politics and assumptions of austerity – once again, Caroline Lucas has led the way, often appearing (along with a handful of Labour and Plaid backbenchers) to be the only voice raised at Westminster against the neoliberal consensus. And we as a party must be absolutely unequivocal – austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. It is without empirical foundation and is manifestly failing. And that leader must have the understanding and willingness to engage with the alternatives – whether those alternatives come from think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation, or from Elinor Ostrom’s pioneering work on the commons, or from Richard Murphy’s Courageous State. There is a ferment in economic thinking and it is a populist movement – consider the way in which UK Uncut has ensured that corporate tax evasion is at the top of the political agenda.
Above all, Greens must be in the vanguard of arguing that market economics is based on illusion and unsustainable. There is a debate about the axioms and purpose of economics that the academy is largely ignoring, focussing instead on the refinement of mathematical models that embody assumptions that are really no more than unsupported ideological statements. Economics must be at the heart of our agenda – we need to understand the narratives and fears that lead to the paradox that, at the very times that market economics is palpably failing, voters embrace the architects of that failure – the National Government in the 1930s, Thatcher in the 1980s. Ed Balls has thrown in the towel; alternatives, promoting equity and hope, must come from outside the Westminster consensus – it is for us to create and lead the political opposition to austerity economics. The evidence is ample and growing; and there is plenty of creative thinking about alternatives. And we must reiterate – as Keynes did in the wilderness in the 1930s – that economics is a matter for democratic control, and is a matter that should not be the preserve of experts but should be opened up to the full glare of political debate.
And we need to be champions of the public sector. We need to state clearly and firmly – as the three Westminster parties cannot – that privatisation is, in principle, wasteful and is about consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of the few; we must learn to argue for a strong, enabling, democratically-accountable and, in Richard Murphy’s admirable phrase, courageous state. Once again, Greens must stake their claim in the territory from which Labour has walked away. Murphy’s cappucino cup analogy – the state as the strong black coffee on which the frothy milk of private accumulation sits – is simple, powerful and one that I argue must be at the forefront of Green thinking.
One of the most insidious political propagandas of our time is the belief – underpinning almost every piece of economic reportage – is that the advocates of the market, and of austerity, are economic “realists” – while those who challenge it are well-meaning, ungrounded idealists. I’d suggest that a key task for the new Green leader is to attack that explicitly. The Left has to learn to get to grips with economics again, and to press the case that economic policy is about political choices, and connect with the people the political classes have left behind to lead them out of economic fatalism. It’s a huge task – but a necessary one.
Not long ago, six children were brutally murdered in Derby by an arsonist. Because the parents were recipients of benefits, a good number of media commentators apparently believe they were asking for it. The callousness and cruelty of those commentators is something that has come to characterise Con Dem Britain (as Owen Jones argues powerfully here); it is a political position, sanctioned by Ministers for whom off-the-record briefing against the vulnerable has become a legitimate political tool. As a society we have to ask ourselves how such hatred and loathing has become absorbed into the political mainstream – and I want to see a Green Party leader who will take an unequivocal stand against such hatreds, whether they manifest themselves through racism, through the blaming of women who are victims of rape, to the demonising of those receiving benefits and unable to work. I want a Green Party leader who is angry – angry, for example, at the spectacle of a private sector company certifying for profit the terminally ill as fit for work, or at politicians who seek to encourage the belief that those on receiving benefits to provide them with mobility are somehow scroungers, and who tacitly encourage abuse and violence against the most vulnerable in society. If I wanted crocodile tears I’d join the Labour Party; I want real, visceral anger from someone who is willing to speak truth to power. I want a leader who will stand up to the casual bullying that, more than anything, characterises the temper of Coalition Britain. I want to be part of a party whose leader will call out the most privileged Government in recent years when they make ideological statements about people of whose lives, struggles and problems they are wholly ignorant, making decisions from which they have been shielded by wealth and privilege.
A Green society is an empathetic society. The British political and (especially) media establishments seem to regard empathy as something that is weak and soft. Greens need to show that it is the only possible basis of a good society; we need to demonstrate that it is the casual cruelty of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships that is every bit as damaging as their economic dogma. And we have to have the moral courage – as Labour clearly does not – to resist the easy temptation of easy populism. Leadership is about reminding people that the world is a more complex place than many people are comfortable believing.
A return to evidenced discourse
I have focussed on three main areas of debate – but underlying all of these is a bigger issue about political discourse, and what seems to me to be an abandonment of evidence in favour of ideological narrative. We see it in almost every aspect of political life – the use of prejudice and unsupported assertion to rationalise the wealth and power grab of the 1%. Political debate becomes not an attempt to understand and interpret reality, but a competition between unsupported narratives; the winner is the party that can make the most outrageous lie stick.
The most obvious example – and one which is close to the heart of all Greens – is climate change; an overwhelming scientific consensus challenged by a toxic combination of big oil and tin tabernacle religion. In this, as in so much else, Greens are on the side of empirical knowledge against the narratives of the powerful. We’re dismissed by the mainstream politicians as woolly and idealistic – the same politicians who accept all the axioms of market economics in the face of their disastrous consequences, who await the intervention of the confidence fairy, who haven’t got a clue about peak oil. Sustainability is about the long-term – planning for the next seven generations rather than the next seven months – and that requires rigour and an engagement with the realities of the world around us. In one sense we’re talking about the revival of the best of the liberal tradition – the adducing of evidence to mould society in the service of ideas, themselves grounded in reason and evidence. In the face of neoliberalism, there is no more subversive doctrine than to bear witness and to speak truth to power.
It means self-discipline. It means that we need as a party to shed our New Age image – a willingness (figuratively speaking, of course) to ban homeopaths from our Republic. In challenging market economics and responding to climate change, or in arguing that equality leads to better physical and mental health, Greens must be the party of good hard evidence. We have to resist the siren call of woo, whether economic, social or scientific (one of the best things that has happened to the Green Party in recent years has been the adoption of a science policy that points us back towards rigour). And we need to demonstrate that in a political culture of parliamentary parties fighting illusory battles, while engaged in an ideological enterprise aimed at disguising a power and wealth grab in favour of the rich and powerful, we are the party whose ideals of sustainablility, equality and justice are grounded and realistic. It’s a huge task – one that in my view Caroline Lucas has risen to magnificently – but we need more of it, and I believe that the new leader has to use his, her or their position to focus Party strategy on that task.
In a political system based on unsupported ideology, the Green moment may be when reality bites back – as inevitably it must. In a sense that it what sustainability means.