For someone of my generation – I voted for the first time in 1979, having turned eighteen a few weeks before the election – there is no more potent sign of political failure than rubbish piling in the streets. Not just because of the immediate issue – a political structure failing to deliver the essentials – but because of the symbolism; the last gasp of a well-meaning, minority administration failing on its own terms before foundering in a harder and ultimately more destructive political storm.
It was a symbol that was never far from my mind as I came to my decision to resign from the Green Party – because in Brighton too, as piles of rubbish mounted in the streets in June during the Cityclean dispute, it was obvious that, once again, it was a symptom of deep, endemic political failure: a failure that was about far more than some bad decisions taken in isolation. The more I reflected on the two-year history of the Green administration, the more the problems seemed to arise from the way in which Greens conducted politics, and that Brighton was simply a microcosm of what appeared to be fundamental problems in the way the party conducted itself.
Just to be clear, my own politics have not fundamentally changed. My approach to politics – and in particular economics – is not exactly mainstream within the Green Party (in particular my short-run Keynsianism), but the fundamentals of my politics remain that sustainability is about social and economic justice, and the economics of austerity are unsustainable. To be red you have to be Green – and to be Green you have to be red. And I continue to believe that in austerity Britain – in the world of austerity generally – there is a huge crisis of democratic legitimacy; in Britain one sees this above all in the dismemberment of the NHS by a Government that does not have an iota of democratic mandate. None of that has changed, and in recent years the Green Party has moved closer to a more explicitly socialist political position . In policy terms, the Green Party remains the political space in which a radical progressive is required to make the least compromise.
Greens talk a lot about doing politics differently. It is here that the problems start to arise; and the issues in Brighton – where a minority administration elected on an explicit platform of minimising the effects of austerity on the city – demonstrate that whatever the policy situation, the Party has yet to formulate a political methodology, a sense of how it wants to wield and use power. I have blogged before about this – about how, faced with its first challenge in real political office, the Green Party has proved to be fissiparous and without a clear sense of whether it wants to manage existing political structures or to challenge them. There has been much talk of reformists versus radicals, Watermelons versus Mangoes, but I think that masks the fact that neither faction really has a coherent theory of power, or appears to be concerned about this; the calls from the Green Left for the Brighton administration to set an illegal budget are every bit as unfounded, and probably more frivolous, than the Brighton administration’s apparent managerialism.
And it’s made worse by the way in which Green Party rules and systems effectively hamper the conduct of office. Greens pride themselves on being a democratic party in which there is no coercion and in which members are free to dissent from majority decisions (although the departure of Cllr Christina Summers from the Green Group, following her vote on equal marriage, exposes the sort of issues that can be left unresolved by such an approach). But the politics of austerity are being championed in a tightly-organised and networked way, and is able to project a powerful (if usually dishonest) narrative through its tame media. Democracy is certainly about taking decisions based on consensus, in which issues are debated freely and passionately; but if your party structure lacks any real discipline, it simply cannot function as an expression of those decisions – and certainly cannot challenge a well-entrenched establishment whose consensus is often formed through instinctive, informal networks.
Moreover, weak structures – and an absence of accepted frameworks – mean that you end up simply facilitating the sort of behaviours that you seek to avoid. In Brighton, this was shown most forcefully not in dissent on key Budget votes in the council chamber, but in the local Party’s total inability to challenge the behaviour of one prominent member who, in the recent Hanover and Elm Grove by-election chose to indulge in a personal campaign of misogynistic bullying against the Labour candidate. No officer or councillor of the Brighton and Hove Green party chose to take a stand, and to my knowledge only two local party members – of whom I was one – were prepared to go public and condemn behaviour that flew in the face of every Green principle. That’s not democracy, that’s a shambles.
It is shown further by persistent rumours that the Green Group on Brighton Council has largely ceased to function as a political entity, with some councillors kept at arm’s length from key decisions. Process is – or should be – about ensuring that all voices can be heard, and decisions do not lie with those who shout longest or loudest. The apparent fragmentation of the Green Group is an expression of a political malaise that seems to me anyway to be rooted in assumptions about structures that simply do not recognise the importance of collective responsibility and the personal responsibilities and compromises that go along with that. At heart it’s a curiously neoliberal concept of freedom – the inalienable right to dissent without sanction looks awfully like market models of choice and consumerism, and a rejection of the collective. I am not arguing for the sort of organisational Stalinism for which Brighton Labour was once legendary; I am arguing that a functioning democracy requires much tighter, more defined and more disciplined structures than Greens appear to be comfortable with, especially in the face of as entrenched an ideology as neoliberalism. If you are in politics to make radical change, structures and discipline – and the acceptance of democratic decisions – matter. At the same time, the decisions must be made in as open and democratic a way as possible, in which participation is a fundamental right; policies must be reviewed and open debate is essential. Structures, managed properly, empower the unconfident and marginal – they give them organisational purchase. It’s something a party largely composed of confident middle-class professional people can forget.
The paradox for the Green Party is that it has increasingly developed a powerful and radical agenda for fundamental change, but has at the same time adopted a way of doing politics that effectively ensures that it will never be able to deliver that change. And, as the Cityclean dispute in Brighton showed, it leads to an abdication of the political process. It is this fundamental dilemma – rather than any policy disagreement – that has led me to leave the Green Party; because, while I believe that new, more democratic and inclusive ways of doing politics are absolutely essential to achieving real change in the face of a political class that becomes more ideologically and socially homogenous by the day, the Green Party is simply denying itself the tools to provide a serious alternative. In Brighton and Hove, it sometimes looks as if the administration has given up on politics altogether.
In the simplest terms: my view remains that a socialist and green approach to politics is essential; neoliberal politics is like a car hurtling down a blind alley towards a brick wall, and the time we have to stop it is rapidly running out. Respect for citizens as empowered individuals rather than just hands or factors of production is at the heart of that. But the way in which the Green Party does politics – as demonstrated by its failures in Brighton – is fatally undermining the ability to promote socialist and green alternatives, even though it argues that its methodology is an expression of its political beliefs. Ultimately it’s an indulgent form of politics (and in Brighton we’ve seen some astonishingly self-indulgent politics from Green councillors) at a time when something much harder, much more rigorous is called for. The Green project will never succeed until it is prepared to sully its hands with the realities of power in the age of late capitalism; and if that means more collective thinking and more discipline, so be it. The people who are suffering under austerity deserve nothing less.