Leaving the Green Party

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.

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13 thoughts on “Leaving the Green Party

  1. So what approach should Brighton Council have adopted when faced with implementing government cuts of tens of millions of pounds ?

    • Sorry not to get back sooner, but I don’t think the Budget issues are the bigger ones here. I think in its first two Budgets, the Council carried out its mandate of protecting the city as far as it could from the effects of cuts – and I was very critical of Labour at the time for backing Eric Pickles’ council tax freeze (not least because it actually led to a shortfall in funds for the year ahead). There comes a point at which that manifesto pledge is no longer deliverable; it is rumoured that the council is examining alternative models for delivery for the years ahead: I think that is incompatible with the manifesto pledge, but I can understand that views may differ.

  2. Brighton and Hove Greens should have taken the lead to organise Local Authorities’ resistance to the Government cuts which the Green Party has demonstrated are ” unnecessary “, explain to local residents why a needs budget was/remains inevitable to keep to promises made at the elections and, in the last resort, resign.

    This being said, I am sorry to see this blogger leave the Green Party and hope he will join the Eco-socialist Conference 2013 in Manchester on Saturday 5th October.

  3. I think that was a very good analysis of the Green Party’s current malaise.
    It always distresses me to see a member with such insight and wisdom walk away from the Party. I’ve seen so many good people leave our ranks over the years for similar reasons. It leaves us impoverished and even more at the mercy of disruptive elements.

    I remember back in 1992, when Sara Parkin and a whole host of long term Party activists resigned following another huge internal conflict, Jenny Jones said to me she thought it was better to stay on and fight for the Party’s integrity and wellbeing from within. She went on to Chair the Executive, get on the London Assembly and now to the House of Lords.

    The Party is amazingly resilient and always seems to bounce back whatever is thrown at it, mainly because of people like Jenny. There are still lots of good people like her in the Party. I would urge you to stick with us and fight for those things you say are needed, like frameworks, collective responsibility, etc.

    Even though it hasn’t transpired yet, I’m hoping we will learn from the Brighton experience, it was after a unique situation – we’ve never had to wield such power before. Hang in there Neil – at least see how the Party handles itself at Conference next month. Get elected to an influential committee and help us emerge from the crisis.

    Where else can you go?

  4. It has been said in the wake of the last election or two that the Green Group is composed of individuals, each with his/her own silo-esque agenda (or in flight from Labour or the Socialist Workers Party or other), and merely flying the Green Flag of convenience in order to be elected at all. So not fissiparous, as nothing to shatter in the first place – instead, highly mobile individuals, moving on election from silo to faction-forming and manoeuvrings – competing for control of the B&H official Green/Red/sludgy brown Agenda. And that of course is traditional political practice. Jostling for emphasis. But to be doing it simultaneous with Administration just messages chaos to the public.

    The Green Party identity now bewilders the public at a time when most of what it is presiding over and getting hated for is part of a zeitgeist trajectory being adopted throughout the western world. Nothing specially Green at all.

    They aren’t red enough for you, so have disappointed…I feel. They aren’t green enough, so disappoint me. That is really the crux of the problem. What are they any more? Neither. Just a ragbag of radicals each promoting their own thing. Tinged red or green or frilled with both. And as the red bit you whip them to pursue in your piece here is more and more what they commonly want, so they look less and less green and barely notice when obviously Green tactics could be but are not deployed.

    Some very simple moves of a highly PRACTICAL kind would have played well with the public. The radical green thing to do would be to instal trees in HUGE numbers along streets and where there is any kind of space in deprived neighbourhoods (and not just cycle lanes and cycle racks in the city centre) would have messaged Serious Green in a pleasing way. Loads and LOADS of seating points of all kinds (including around newly planted trees and on huge paved new build-out corner areas) catering to weary would-be pedestrians and worker bees with a wish to eat packed lunches en plein air and meet a friend or have a fag out of the office (without having to go to a pub, bar or café). And not just in the city centre. Simple and obvious things. Public toilets. A serious zero-tolerance blitz tackling and preventing beach littering and green spaces fouling by visitors (and not just a volunteers litter-pick moment to be proud of). Simple, simple, basic stuff that is about humanity and sustainability and being GREEN.

    The role of Green in Red social justice matters needs unpacking.

    Who complains about putting in trees and seating point provision, public toilets? Nobody. And by the way just putting seating points around the city promotes social cohesion and community development. A red objective. A conspicuous increase in them would message as a positive Green achievement that is in no way controversial (unlike the imperfect implementation of cycle lanes) whilst achieving certain red objectives almost casually. I’m seeing a conspicuous increase in cycle racks. By the hundred. But not benches or trees.

    Making the city conspicuously comfy at the physical common parts level promotes sustainable stability and this too is social justice in action. Actually, management of the city is what the public wants. Not a lot of ‘politics’. A well-run council is invisible (old saying). Ours has all eyes angrily glaring at it. Many trumpet the trolls belief the Greens are destroying the city. How? They are swamped by the imperatives coming from central government actually! And the imperatives they are inept at interrogating at the officer level locally just as much.

    As for the rogue Green you don’t name, the individual is not pulled up short or stopped because bolshy is seen as cool and anyway there is no line in the sand so he hasn’t crossed it. Innit.

    Does the thought that the whole political parties schtick is past its sell by date have any purchase with you? How do you feel about the parish councils movement (one within London itself)?

    • What is the Party about? The short answer is: ecologist.
      That philosophical ideology should be what we measure ourselves against.

      • Hi Rupert,

        While ecologism is indeed a simple answer, the point is is ecologism itself an adequate political philosophy without attaching itself to other theories, like say Marxism, anarchism or a variant of social democracy. Which being a philosophy lecturer I’m sure you know 😉

        But it’s a crucial point that Neil makes in the post. Does ecologism have a theory of power? Where it is, how to wield it or what it’s limits are? And if it doesn’t does that fact mean that Green members, in adhering to other philosophies to explain politics beyond the scope of ‘ecologism’ end up with fundamentally opposed conceptions of what to do when in government and so are stymied in their progress?

        The further point he makes, do current methods and cultures within the Greens achieve their end goals or not is related but are the practical implications of failing a cohesive theory. This is more fundamental than say divisions between aspects of the Labour Party because whatever group you are within that party, the basic premise of class politics is no doubt agreed.

        However, I do not have the pessimism of Neil, but I agree that the Greens need to grow up fast, the constant falling out has been worn like a badge of honour within the party and there has been a catastrophic failure of communication that has only amplified that.

        Neil, I’m hugely sorry to see you go, I’ve read your blog for a long time and wished you had a far greater influence within the party.

      • Ah, but how wide and how inclusive is the term in your mind? Environmental ecology, social ecology, etc? Or all? And is ecology about ‘this leads to that’ consequences and options? Running the city is about resource allocation and management.

        The Greens in Brighton & Hove seem wildly diverted by causes.

  5. this analysis is interesting but i do feel that unfortunatley any new party could have made the mistakes you say and i look fwd to there one day being a green council led council that is a lot more effective than the first one simply by learning from the balance sheet of success and failure in brighton. thoughth greens could in theory have learnt from local adminsttrations in other states.
    peter allens question at the top is one you should answer as if you reject green lefts refusal to set a budget then you have to say how could brighton greens have managed the cuts better and i suspect the answer is that with out a majority they probably could nt have and even then not much better. finally greens thinking about the no whip rule and collective responsibility should be considered ukip also have an no whip rule so lets study how that effects them they may have different agendas but they look like they may exercise power in a similar way to the way you represent the greens.

  6. Pingback: Does the Green Party need whipping? | Green Politics: Sustainable Futures

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